• Celebration VII

    March 17, 2001

    It had been over a year since I had flown with helium balloons -- not out of any conscious decision on my part, but due to the cancellation of one event I was to have flown in, and the heartbreaking cancellation of another planned flight due to a sudden gusty winds, after half the balloons had been inflated. 

    As one of the world's only regular practitioners of this sport, I felt bad about not flying.  Aside from being something I personally love to do, cluster ballooning is my unique contribution to the human experience -- flying with clusters of helium-filled balloons is a part of life on Planet Earth because I do it.  I suppose the man I saw on TV who can drink milk and shoot it quite accurately out of his nose may feel much the same way about what he does -- if so, we're both very sincere, although I'd vote for my activity on aesthetic grounds. 

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    With this in mind, I began planning a cluster flight for March 2001.   Unfortunately, March may not be the best month to schedule a cluster balloon flight, even in Southern California -- and the winter had been an unusually rainy one.   The flight was postponed on March 3 (due to predicted rain that never materialized) and again on March 10 (due to rain and mud).  Heading into the third attempt, I was getting pretty frazzled.  Over the course of the week before, March 17 was forecast to be sunny, rainy, cloudy, windy or foggy -- depending on when you looked at the forecast.  However, after much anxiety, I did not cancel -- my crew had been very understanding about all the rescheduling, but I didn't want to ask them to change all their weekend plans for yet another week.  So I hoped that the forecast Santa Ana winds from the east and the also-forecast marine layer fog and low clouds rolling in the from coast would cancel out in Temecula -- and, for a St. Patrick's Day miracle, they did.

     We met at 4 AM in Dean Ekdahl's front yard, and finished inflating balloons as a misty day was dawning.

    Celebration VII consisted of eighty red, white and blue balloons, in a mix of five- and seven-foot sizes. This time, the cluster was designed to be a taller, more columnar shape. It towered above me impressively as the crew began to pull the balloons into position and attach them to my harness.     

    When it was time to attach the final lowest layer of balloons, I did something that I had always wanted to try. I had my crew attach a dozen balloons to my legs at the feet and knees, and took the strings to a bunch of balloons in each hand. Tilted slightly forward with my legs behind me and my arms spread wide, I felt like a bird!     

      We waited for a few more minutes for the morning mist to clear. On the other side of Dean's front yard, Ernie inflated my hot-air balloon, Necessity. The plan was for us to launch at the same time.  

    I radioed to Ernie that I was ready.  I could heard the roar of the burners as he put heat in the hot-air balloon.  "I'm up," he said.  At that signal, the crew pulled the pin from my quick-release and I rose up into the morning sky.


    The sensation of the balloons lifting me by my outspread arms and legs was amazing.

    I floated out over the countryside near Dean's house, climbing slowly.


    Ernie paced me in the hot-air balloon.  We took turns passing each other as we made our way up into the sky over the hazy valley.

    I took a few pictures.


    Finally, at about 2,500 feet AGL, we rose up above the haze.  We could see the mountain-tops poked up through the white mist. It was a pretty sight.

    After a calm, beautiful float at several thousand feet over the Temecula valley, I descended and began looking for a place to land.

    A large field beside the highway to the south looked good, but then I saw my chase vehicles parked along a street I was rapidly approaching.  I made a hasty change of plans, and burst some balloons to descend into a field beside one of the houses.  I bumped up against a tree, and threw my dropline down to crew, who pulled me down to the ground.

    With permission of the owner of the house, we then spent some time letting my crew get in the harness to jump around with the balloons and fly up on a tether.  With the permission of the  adults, we let the kids from the house try it too, and gave them some of the balloons. 


    And so, after a year's hiatus, cluster ballooning was once again a part of life on Planet Earth.  It was wonderful, and my duty to broaden the range of the human experience was fulfilled.  I sure hope the milk- through-the-nose guy is practicing too.

    Celebration Seven

    Crew Chief and Chase Balloon Pilot: Ernie Hartt
    Inflation Systems Design: Jerry Sebby
    Chase Navigator: Dave Lynch
    Inflation and Chase Crew: Jenny Wolf, Susan Dawson, Mike McWilliams, Robin McWilliams, Shari Ray Davis, Helen Quayle, Holly Galbraith, Rita McRill, Dean Ekdahl, Donnica Jones
    Photography: Dean Ekdahl, Susan Dawson, Shari Ray Davis, Holly Galbraith and John Ninomiya.

    Special thanks to Dean Ekdahl for use of the DAE Balloonport, and to Cameron Welding Supply in Temecula, California. 

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