Senseless Acts of Video

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This series, which debuted on January 27, 2000 on MTV, features re-enactments of stunts or special effect sequences from music videos -- preferably really dangerous ones involving the program's host, championship sky-surfer Troy Hartman.  In this case, the inspiration was  from video of the Tal Bachman song "She's So High", in which a little girl appears to float up into the sky with a bunch of toy balloons.  After failing to secure permission from the FAA to let me take Troy up in a tandem cluster to skydive, the producers wanted to have the two of us fly separate cluster balloons.  I would not normally recommend having any non-balloonist try this, but Troy's background in skydiving, aerobatic flying and other stunt work  made him at least a plausible candidate.  After urging them to consider several other alternatives, I finally agreed. 

 

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The program portrays Troy as rolling out of bed one morning and kind of spontaneously just coming out to do the flight, which of course is a dramatization.  We actually met well before the flight, and did some ground school together.  He was bright and very professional, which made me feel better about the whole thing.

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pe03217_.wmf (4040 bytes) During the time l was preparing for the flight, I heard bits and pieces from the production staff about other stuff they were doing to Troy -- like setting him on fire, which "wasn't completely successful" and necessitated moving back the date of our shoot a few days while he recovered.  Or the upcoming "flying an airplane through a tunnel" stunt.  Unlike Troy, the MTV people didn't really seem to "get" risk, on some level -- their reasoning seemed to be that if you wanted to do something, you went out and hired a qualified "stunt coordinator" (like me) and then it was just a matter of having enough lights and cameras and the caterer to bring doughnuts.  I was tempted to ask Troy whether he didn't think he was someday going to end up like Wiley Coyote in the Warner Brothers cartoons, only messier and more permanent.  Unfortunately, good manners won out, and now I suppose I'll never know.

We launched from a sheep farm in Winchester, California -- not far from some of my previous launches in Temecula, but farther out in the countryside, giving us fewer obstacle avoidance issues at landing.   MTV provided about twenty MTV-age people to help with the inflation; they were not so great at following directions, and although they were from the area, it had somehow failed to occur to some of them that it's COLD on a sheep farm at four in the morning.  Luckily, we also had some help from some local balloonists and balloon crew. 

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The crew spread out in a semi-circle to inflate the balloons.  By the glare of the lights, we might have been setting up a colorful new California Stonehenge.

Troy in harness.jpg (8539 bytes) Shortly before sunrise, we got Troy into his harness and attached the balloons to him, then tied him down to some sandbags while I got into my own rig.  I had asked my crew chief Ernie to chase Troy and make sure he didn't whack into anything at landing. Ernie.jpg (8627 bytes)

The MTV helicopter was buzzing around overhead.  We were supposed to wait until the sun cleared the hills to the east, then launch simultaneously.

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The balloons were straining at their lines in the light breeze.  A few feet away, Troy was talking for the cameras.  Finally, the sun was above the hills.  We pulled the pins on our quick-releases, and up we went!

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The ground dropping away silently below.  Our balloons were carrying us up at about 500 feet per minute, with our rates of climb about even.  I drifted closer to Troy and passed over the top of his cluster.  For a moment my feet were dangling just a few feet above the huge, colorful balloons, as if I were standing on a cloud, even as we continued to soar upward.

 

Two Flying.jpg (7853 bytes) The day was clear and beautiful.  Winds were variable the first few thousand feet, and southeastbound at fifteen or twenty knots above that.  I had been afraid that we might head west aloft in the Santa Ana flow, and have to land early before we reached the city of Temecula, but the direction we were moving took us farther out into the countryside. 

 

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We drifted high over Lake Skinner and on towards Vail Lake, still climbing. 

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At 10,000 feet, I got on the radio with Troy and advised him to start bursting balloons to level out.  I did so, and leveled out at about 11,500 MSL.

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I make a great speck.

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Troy took a few more minutes than I did to level out, and got to 13,700 feet.  The show portrays him as being in danger of hypoxia.   Well, he did exceed the FAA altitude recommendation (12,500) for having supplemental oxygen available -- although  these requirements apply while operating certificated aircraft under Part 91, not ultralights under Part 103, and the pilot is not required to actually use oxygen below 14,000 feet, just to have it available.   And the FAA requirements are, of course, very conservative. 

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pe06898_1.wmf (23940 bytes) So, yes, an asthmatic ten-year-old engaged in strenuous physical activity might well have been hypoxic at the altitude Troy was at -- but probably not a healthy young adult sitting in a paragliding harness.  Having been to 16,000 feet without supplemental oxygen myself, it seemed to me like we were kind of stretching a point there.

 

MTV21.jpg (9693 bytes) We both flew to safe, controlled landings.  Troy landed on a hillside and hopped his way down -- then was required to climb back up and hop down again when the camera crew arrived.  I landed in an RV resort park about half a mile away.  A woman and her daughter watched me come down -- "We thought it was somebody's bunch of balloons that got away, so we came over to see if we could get them --  and then we got closer and saw they were really big balloons -- and then we saw there was a person hanging from the balloons...."  I got directions from them, and bounced my way out to the entrance to the resort, where my chase crew picked me up. MTV20.jpg (8677 bytes)

So that was my experience with the dynamic world of TV entertainment.  For me, appearing on the show between Troy being set on fire and the human cannonball made it all worthwhile.  Anyway, we did it safely and I got to fly, so I suppose I can't complain. 

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The Celebration VI and VI.5 Crew:
Crew Chief: Ernie Hartt
Crew: Kyle Childers, Susan Dawson, Kim and Dave Lynch, Rusty Manning, Mike McWilliams, Michael McWilliams, Helen Quayle, Gerry Sebby, Jenny Wolff.
Photos courtesy of Kim Lynch and MTV.

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