July 2, 1997

Less than a month after my Mixed Bouquet flight I was ready to fly again.

This time I decided I would fly with only the synthetic latex balloons. The Piccard mylar balloons had served me well, but based on my last flight, bursting latex balloons provided more quatifiable control than tipping mylar balloons to allow an unknown and variable amount of gas to escape. The latex balloons were also much smaller in volume so my helium would be split among more balloons, making the failure of one or two balloons a manageable problem rather than a catastrophic one.

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I loved the way the latex balloons looked, but I was worried about how a large number of balloons might tangle their strings, making them impossible to pull down to burst. Don Piccard had told me of a flight he'd attempted with helium weather balloons where such tangling had occurred during inflation, forcing him to abandon the attempt.

To prevent this, I devised a system of risers, webbing straps of varying lengths that would attach to my harness and hold groups of balloons at different heights above me to prevent tangles. Ernie and I built a one-fifth scale model of this system in my living room, based on 72 balloons held in three layers. The design seemed to work, as best I could tell. Brenda Theim, the seamstress from our local hot-air balloon repair station, sewed the actual straps for me.

I dubbed my new craft "Celebration" after my first hot-air balloon. I scheduled my flight for July 2 -- notably, the 15th anniversary of the flight of the infamous "lawn chair balloon" man, Larry Walters.

I planned to fly in Temecula, in the Southern California Wine Country, an area I was familiar with from hot-air ballooning. Dean Ekdahl, a photographer and hot-air balloonist, had offered his front yard for my launch. Balloonists and balloon crew from Temecula and San Diego showed up at 3:30 AM to help inflate balloons.

The inflation crew worked in pairs, inflating the balloons, tying them off and attaching them to the sandbags staged around Dean's front yard.

The sky began to lighten, revealing a field of huge, colorful balloons.

I got into my harness and conferred with Ernie. The next step was assembling the balloon cluster, hopefully in such a way that the balloons would not tangle and become impossible to burst or cut away individually.

We laid out all my rigging and ballast bags. The webbing risers I had designed ran from my harness to the bunches of balloons attached to sandbags around the yard.

Crew released the balloons attached to the four longest risers and slowly let them up to form the top layer of the cluster.

Then they repeated the process with the four mid-length risers to form the middle layer of the cluster.

Finally, the crew brought the lowest layer of balloons in and attached them to me.

The cluster balloon was now completely assembled. I ran through my equipment checklist with Ernie: radio, altimeter/variometer, helmet, knives (on lanyards around my neck, for cutting away or bursting balloons), BB-gun (!), compass and drop line. All of my water ballast bags were hooked on but the balloons still pulled me up firmly to the end of my tie-down, my feet dangling a foot or two in the air. Tugging on the tie-down strap, I seemed to have about thirty pounds of net lift, which is quite a bit -- more than I'd had for my last launch, which had been pretty fast. I considered removing some balloons, but it seemed wasteful, having paid for the helium, and the idea of shooting up into the sky was hard to resist.

With all my preparations made, I remembered the commemorative nature of the flight, and offered the following comments to my crew and a few puzzled onlookers:

"Fifteen years ago today on July 2, 1982, a man named Larry Walters, a thirty-three-year-old truck driver from Southern California, decided to go for a balloon flight. Knowing nothing about ballooning or aviation, Larry filled forty large weather balloons with helium , tied them to his lawn chair and with the help of friends, took off. He only intended to ascend to a few hundred feet, but due to some basic misunderstanding of ballooning physics, he ended up at 16,000 feet over the Los Angeles area. He flew for three hours and was seen by numerous jet airline pilots flying in and out of LAX. At the end of that time, he landed safely, and walked into the waiting arms of local police, and the FAA, who fined him several thousand dollars....

"T.S. Eliot wrote of ‘the awful daring of a moment’s surrender, which an age of prudence can never retract’. While Eliot was probably not thinking about people flying with clusters of helium balloons, his words seem very relevant to Larry Walters. It must have been a moment of awful daring when Larry, knowing nothing about aviation, decided that he wanted to fly so much that he would set himself free on the winds with his balloons. And while we may question his good sense, I think we should admire the spirit and exuberance of his flight, and try to keep those qualities in our own lives.

"So, with no further ado, thank you for coming today, and my balloons and I will see you later.”

Swiftly and silently the balloons pulled me up into the sky. I could see the upturned faces of crew, Dean’s front yard, the surrounding fields and orchards dropping swiftly away. I waved until I could no longer hear the shouts and laughter of the crew. We had planned for Jenny to follow me in her hot-air balloon, but I was long gone before she lifted off.

I was ascending at a bit over 400 feet per minute. It was a pretty day in the Temecula Wine country, with clear skies and a bit of light haze. After a few minutes I could see across the vineyards out to Lake Skinner.

I got on the radio with Ernie to confirm that the crew was getting ready to follow me in their vehicles. The wind seemed to be taking me east, which was generally a good thing -- away from the city of Temecula, where landing places would be smaller and harder to find.

I continued higher, holding my 400+ feet per minute rate of ascent. In a hot-air balloon, I would be on the burner to maintain this climb. In a conventional gas balloon, or with the Piccard mylar balloons, the helium would be expanding as I ascended due to dropping air pressure and would by design escape out an opening at the bottom of the balloon to prevent bursting -- so lift would be lost, and I would eventually level out. However, with the latex balloons, the balloons expanded at altitude to retain all of the helium, so I lost none of my helium and continued to ascend. I had allowed for this expansion in my design, filling the balloons to much less than their rated capacity, but I hadn't really thought through how this would affect flight characteristics. At the time, the constant effortless climb just seemed magical.

I continued to climb. I knew Temecula and the nearby countryside from hot-air ballooning, and Ernie and I had done some driving aroud prior to the flight, on the theory that I might stray outside the normal flying area. However, as I passed 10,000 feet, I was much higher and farther east than I had ever been. The view of the local mountains to the south was magnificent, although the prospect of landing there was concerning. Five minutes later I passed 12,000 feet.

I planned to level out at 14,000 feet above mean sea level (MSL), to avoid getting to altitudes where supplemental oxygen would be needed. I pulled down a balloon and burst it, but my rate of climb reading didn't change. I burst a few more. I was still showing over 400 fpm up, and I was at 15,000 MSL. The sixteen balloons in the lower cluster were all accessible, and but it still took a little time to pull them down for bursting. I burst three more, and slowed to 200 fpm. I was at 16,000 feet. I was starting to feel the altitude, or possibly just the combination of euphoria and a bit of worry. I was concerned because I was counting on the accessible lower tier of sixteen balloons for maneuvering at landing, and I had already expended seven. Hoping to conserve my lower tier balloons, I pulled out my pellet gun, and shot at balloons in the middle tier. I got one to burst, but a couple of other just acquired small BB holes, and began hissing slowly. I remembered Don Piccard’s warning me about this happening with his father’s weather balloon flights, but had assumed that my balloons, which were more rubbery and toy-balloon-like than real weather balloons, would pop -- bad assumption. I went back to pulling down and bursting balloons from the bottom tier. Finally, with a total of ten balloons burst, I leveled out a little below 16,500 ft MSL. Two more balloons got me into a nice 300 feet per minute descent.

I was still moving east, over a lightly-populated rural area well east of Temecula. On the radio, Ernie told me that they still had a visual on me. This far out the road grid petered out, and Ernie thought they would have to detour several miles through the town of Anza to get out to where I was heading.

I continued to descend. I could see a lake out ahead of me; Ernie consulted his map, and we agreed this must be Lake Hemet. Crew were still several miles back, heading in my direction. Past the lake I could see big meadows with small stands of pine in between, dotted here and there with ranch buildings. There were dirt roads, and a two-lane highway. I dropped ballast to slow my descent to 200 feet per minute down. I also pulled three balloons down and tied them closer to me for ready access.

I dropped behind a line of low hills and lost radio contact with Ernie. I released some more ballast and leveled out at a few hundred feet. My speed had slowed considerably from what it was when I was higher, now just five miles per hour or so. I flew for ten minutes over some pretty terrain – small pine trees alternating with scrub and meadows, and large jumbles of rock. I saw what looked like a camping area. Figuring that there must be some kind of access to this spot, I burst two balloons to drop in to about fifty feet above ground, then ballasted to level out again. I burst one final balloon, and floated down to land softly on my feet.

Shortly after I landed, crew came back into radio range. I described to Ernie where I was, including a brushfire burn area I'd seen shortly before I landed. Based on this description, they were able to get directions to my location from the local sheriffs. About ten minutes later, Ernie said they had me in sight.

In 90 minutes, I had flown a straight-line distance of about 25 miles, and reached a maximum altitude of just under 15,000 feet above launch (16,500 feet MSL). I was totally amazed by the whole experience.

People from the crew took turns getting into my harness and "balloon jumping", the more daring achieving their own brief mini-flights. Then, we loaded my gear into the vehicles and headed back to Dean's house.


Crew Chief: Ernie Hartt

In Photo: Adam Glover, Phil Brandt, John Ninomiya, Carson Hogan, Jenny Wolf, Christine Simon, Deak Ekdahl.
Other: Gary Eaton, Dave Lynch, Kim Lynch, Kym Childers, Brenda Theim
Photography: Gary Eaton, Jenny Wolf, John Ninomiya, Ernie Hartt