Cluster Ballooning

A Dream of Flight

When I was a boy, my parents bought me a children's science book about the force of gravity.  One chapter in the book was about ways that people have attempted to overcome force of gravity, and included a photograph of a man floating into the sky in a harness tied to a cluster of large orange weather balloons.  "Ballooning into the Sky," read the caption.  "Balloons filled with helium can indeed carry a man aloft, but control is limited."    

To me at eight years old, the picture was mesmerizing.   I dreamed that I was the man in the harness, waving to the people below as the balloons carried me up over the clouds, higher and higher into the sky. 

Ballooning into the Sky.jpg (11455 bytes)

Red Balloon Small.jpg (13064 bytes) A year or two later, I saw the film "The Red Balloon", which ends with the little French boy, Pascal, floating over Paris with a huge bouquet of toy balloons.  It was, beyond a doubt, the most wonderful thing I could ever imagine doing.  I promised myself then that someday I would float off into the sky with helium balloons too. Pascal Small.jpg (11610 bytes)
I was hoping, of course, that it would happen sooner rather than later.  A practical-minded boy, I sent away for the Edmund Scientific catalog, from which you could order weather balloons and little aerosol cans of helium.  However, even some optimistic guesses at the size and number of balloons required convinced me that it would cost me more than my allowance and my lunch money for the next decade to buy what I needed.  So I was stuck on the ground.

But as the years passed, I never lost interest in the idea of flying with helium balloons.  As a teenager I didn't say anything about it, since it was unusual and not likely to make me look cool with other teenagers.  But it  was still something I dreamed of doing.  Ballooning into the sky -- what could be better than that? 

Practical-minded again, I looked for activities that might provide me with some part of my ballooning dream.  While I was in college, I learned to fly hot-air balloons, and some years later, I began flying Cloudhoppers, both of which have been a source of great fun and pleasure.  However, the dream of flying with a cluster of colorful helium-filled balloons stayed with me through the years.   Finally, in 1997, I set out to my make my dream come true.

The First Four Flights

My first four flights all took place in a nine month period in 1997. In these flights I taught myself the basics of how to rig and fly helium balloon clusters. I experimented with different equipment, transitioning from mylar to synthetic latex balloons, and learned to control my aircraft by extension of the techniques I used as a hot-air balloonist. It was an exhilarating and occasionally scary education: figuring out how to do something that I knew from science and experience should work, but that was somewhere in the realm of craziness or fantasy as far as most of the world was concerned. In the end, though, I had the experience I dreamed of as a boy, and it was as wonderful as I had ever imagined.

The list of flights below has links to pages describing each of my first four flights. These flights predated this website, and were documented in web format some years after the fact, based on photographs and written notes from the time.

Silver Pleiades:
April 15, 1997

For my first cluster balloon flight, I used seven, large slivery mylar balloons which were built by pioneer balloonist Don Piccard. The flight took place at El Mirage Dry Lake. I flew for ninety minutes and reached an altitude of 4,000 feet AGL. (see 'Silver Pleiades' webpage)

Mixed Bouquet:
June 10, 1997

I flew for a second time at El Mirage, this time supplementing my seven Mylar balloons with 16 six-foot latex balloons. I reached 9,000 feet AGL. (see 'Mixed Bouquet' webpage)

July 2, 1997

For this flight, I launched from Temecula, in the Southern California Wine Country with 72 latex balloons. After somewhat inadvertently ascending to over 16,000 feet, the wind took me twenty miles to the east, over a lake to a mountain valley, where I landed in a meadow in a pine forest. (see 'Celebration' webpage)

Celebration II:
December 30, 1997

My fourth flight took place in Temecula, California again. Flying with 44 colorful latex balloons, I began to get comfortable with my ability to control the helium balloon cluster as I would a hot-air balloon. (see 'Celebration II' webpage)


For a more detailed and slightly more technical description of these flights, please see the articles I wrote for the ballooning magazines:

• "Ballooning into the Sky", Balloon Life magazine, June 1997: a description of the Silver Pleiades flight.
• "A Condition of Complete Simplicity", Ballooning magazine, September 1997: an account of the Silver Pleiades, Mixed Bouquet and Celebration flights.

Detailed photos and narratives are also available for most of my later flights. Links to the webpage for each flight are found on the Logbook page; links to the flights from the States of Enlightenment project are also found on the States of Enlightenment page.