The Drifters

Of wind, helium, and hope — plus the occasional disaster.

Unlike the flash-in-the-pan types, John Ninomiya have put years into the pursuit. (Ed Stockard)
Air & Space Magazine

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The Maestro

John Ninomiya has made more cluster balloon flights than anyone living or dead—to date, over 60. An actuary with a Ph.D. in epidemiology, he was a licensed hot-air balloonist with hundreds of hours of flight experience when he made his first cluster flight, taking off from north of Los Angeles in 1997 with seven Mylar cells supplied by Don Piccard, who drove them from Minnesota to advise and assist.

Ninomiya says that he was drawn to cluster ballooning’s simplicity and purity. “It’s taking ballooning down to its simplest form,” he says. He also wanted to construct his own aircraft, one that could be flown safely and under reasonable control.

He typically uses between 50 and 150 balloons, along with a harness like those favored by paragliders, allowing him to “walk around up there” and to land on his feet. For a balloon and wine festival, Ninomiya has flown under purple and green balloons rigged into the shape of a grape cluster, an arrangement he dubs The Concord.

To burst balloons, Ninomiya carries knives on a lanyard around his neck, “because you don’t want to drop your knife.” Although he has flown as high as 21,400 feet, recreational flights are usually under 5,000 feet.

The Priest

Father Adelir Antonio de Carli, a Catholic priest in Brazil, decided to take off under 1,000 balloons in order to raise funds for a religious charity. De Carli registered at a flight school but refused to attend theory courses, including those on weather, and dismissed his instructors’ warnings about prevailing winds. One teacher characterized him as “undisciplined…not humble at all…the know-it-all guy.” Video clips of his April 2008 takeoff from the port city of Parangue reveal crowds standing under a gray sky in a steady rain. When asked about the ominous weather, de Carli responded, “There will only be good weather during my flight.”

Intending to fly 450 miles inland, he was instead immediately blown out over the Atlantic Ocean. Eight hours later, he was losing altitude and asking how to use his GPS unit—one of many preflight safety procedures he had ignored. He soon lost radio contact. Search parties found his balloons and, two months later, his body. “The Brazilian priest was a complete idiot,” says Don Piccard. “To take off with an offshore breeze and go at altitude with no control and no way to deflate…”

The History-Maker

Before his first cluster balloon flight, Jonathan Trappe spent one year preparing. A technical projects manager from Raleigh, North Carolina, Trappe trained with hot-air as well as single-cell gas balloons. He performed multiple unmanned tests to ascertain the altitudes at which balloons with various amounts of gas would burst, and whether one burst would lead to a chain of others. He wanted to know how many balloons to sacrifice in order to reverse a climb without precipitating a dangerous descent. He researched all Federal Aviation Administration and local air regulations. On June 7, 2008, he took off from Franklin County, North Carolina, and flew for four hours, reaching 15,000 feet and traveling about 50 miles.

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