A Grape Adventure

June 9, 2001

The Temecula Valley Balloon and Wine Festival is one of the largest balloon events in California.  I approached Rusty Manning, festival CEO and owner of A Grape Escape Balloon Adventure, with my idea: a cluster balloon in the form of a bunch of grapes.  It would be the world's first "special shape" cluster balloon, or the world's first person-carrying balloon sculpture, depending how you looked at it.   Rusty was very supportive, and  the Callaway Vineyard and Winery generously agreed to sponsor my flight.  And so I was off on my Grape Adventure.

Unfortunately, I learned that my regular balloon supplier does not make purple balloons in my regular seven-foot size.  After a lot of phone calls and e-mails, the best I was able to do was purple and lavender balloons in four- and five-foot sizes.  This would require roughly 150 balloons to fly, rather than my normal 50 -- my crew chief Ernie cringed when I told him this.  Luckily, fellow balloonist Jerry Sebby lent his expertise to the process, devising a system of manifolds and hoses that would make it possible to inflate the balloons much more rapidly and uniformly.  I worked out the arrangement of balloon sizes and colors, string lengths and risers (webbing straps to which the balloons attach) that would result in what I hoped would resemble a bunch of grapes.

As an aeronautical/viticultural joke, I named my craft the Concord.

The inflation started at 4 AM at Lake Skinner Recreation Area.  There were about twenty-five people there to help -- ballooning friends and festival volunteers.   The new inflation system worked well, and thanks to all our planning, things were no more chaotic than usual for a cluster balloon inflation.

We attached the balloons to the webbing risers that would give the balloon it's shape: green balloons on a central "stem";  four high risers with fifteen balloons each to form the top of the bunch of grapes; and four low risers with twelve smaller balloons each for the bottom. 

One-hundred-fifty balloons is a lot of balloons.

I got into my harness. The crew began pulling in the columns of balloons on their risers and clipping them to my harness, starting with the wider upper part of the cluster and working their way down. At the end, they were attaching the strings of individual balloons to my harness. Soon I was surrounded by giant purple and lavender grapes.

The hot-air balloons had started launching by that time. Jerry was inflating his balloon next to me, in order to fly along. I waited until he had just lifted off, then had the crew let me go.

Up went the giant bunch of grapes

There were some cheers from the crowd as I went up.  I waved to everyone on the ground.  Jerry followed along beside me in his balloon.

I drifted across the balloon festival grounds towards Lake Skinner.

This was my first time flying a cluster balloon close to so many hot-air balloons.  It was amazing being up in the sky with all of them, although it meant I had to be constantly watching for traffic and hope they were doing the same.

I drifted out over the lake.

My objective for this flight was just to have fun with the other balloons, and let the people attending the festival see the Concord -- although it's fun "speck out", I would save that for another flight.  So, after my initial ascent, I dropped down to drift low over Lake Skinner.As I relased some of the lower balloons to descend, the cluster began to taper more at the bottom, improving the "bunch of grapes" shape.

The winds were light.  I continued southeast across the brushy fields and hillsides of the park towards the vinyards and countryside beyond.

Finally, after a little over an hour in the air, I landed.

So that's the story of the Concord: the world's first "special shape" cluster balloon and/or the world's first man-carrying balloon sculpture, depending on how you look at it.  So if you're a bit into your cups at a wine festival and think you see someone being carried off into the sky by a giant bunch of grapes, don't worry too much -- it may just be me.

Cluster Balloon "Concord"

Crew Chief: Ernie Hartt
Chief Engineer and Chase Balloon Pilot: Jerry Sebby
Safety and Launch Officer: Dave Lynch
Tank Monitors: Lanny Hendrickson, Mark Franklin


Norm Best
Kyle Childers
Susan Dawson
Edie Dunnington
Robert Dunnington
Edward Distor
Gary Eaton
Holly Galbraith
Louise Hendrickson
Eric Klipfel
Kristina Lynch
Kim Lynch
Mike McWilliams
Robin McWilliams
Rob Ryerson
Cathy Sebby
Anne Tyszka
Bob Tyszka
Rosemary Tyszka
Diane Vandenberg
Larry Vandenberg
Judy Wagner

If I've left anyone out, please e-mail me!

Thanks to the Temecula Valley Balloon and Wine Festival (Rusty Manning, CEO; Donnica Jones, Balloon Coordinator) and Callaway Vineyard and Winery.   Thanks also to Pacific Southwest Aerostats, Cameron Welding Supply and Gary Hardison.

Photography: Robert Dunnington, Lanny Hendrickson, Louise Hendrickson, John Ninomiya and Judy Wagner.

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