Mixed Bouquet

June 10, 1997


After the success of the Silver Pleiades, I was eager to get into the air again for my second helium cluster balloon flight. This time, I decided to try something a bit different. During my initial investigation into helium balloon flying, before I heard about Don Piccard and his mylar balloons, I had sourced some eight-foot synthetic latex balloons. These were not weather balloons but were normally used for advertising at car dealerships and other businesses. They came in a variety of colors and looked like nothing so much as huge toy balloons.

I had some reservations from my first flight about my ability to control the mylar balloons. Venting gas from them by tipping them worked well when the balloons were full but became progressively harder to do as more gas was vented. The synthetic latex balloons could be burst or released for control, which seemed more reliable. On the other hand, the mylar balloons were a known quantity, while the latex balloons were not. As a compromise, for my second flight I decided on a hybrid system, combining the seven mylar balloons with sixteen of the latex balloons. I dubbed my new craft “Mixed Bouquet”.

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We drove up to El Mirage Dry Lake again, as I was still not altogether confident of my ability to land without running into things. We arrived at the lake bed before dawn and started inflating balloons.

Along with my crew chief Ernie, we were joined by Jenny Wolf, Doug Spencer and Phil Brandt, all hot-air balloon pilots from San Diego.

Balloon pilots are notoriously not always the greatest balloon crew, but the inflation went smoothly.

The sun peeked over the horizon, shining off the silvery mylar ballloons...

...and the big, colorful latex balloons.

Phil tried some "balloon jumping" while we finished inflating the last of the balloons.

Then it was time to get into my harness while crew attached all the balloons to me.

I was ready to fly.

For my first launch I had metered out careful dribbles of my ballast water, getting lighter and lighter on my toes until I began very slow controlled ascent. This time, I'd had crew remove ballast bags until I was pulling up tautly to the end of my tie-down, my feet a few inches off the ground. Taking a deep breath, I pulled the pin on my quick-release, and with a slight jolt I was rising swiftly into the sky.

The balloons pulled me silently up into the sky.

The lakebed dropped away. Crew were laughing, shouting, telling me there were bird pecking my balloons -- ha ha. I rose higher. Checking my instruments, I dropped ballast to hold about a 300 feet per minute rate of climb.

It was a gorgeous clear day. The chase vehicles shrank to specks on the dry lake below me.

The off-white of the lakebed gave way to the mottled brown of the desert, with its light grid of dirt roads and the occasional green of irrigation. Winds were generally out of the southwest, and I was off the lakebed within a few minutes.

The simple colors of the chloroprene balloons were bright in the morning sun, the Mylar cells sparkling silver above them. I soon passed 4000 feet above launch, my maximum altitude from the last flight, and continued to climb.

After half an hour, I was at 9,000 feet above launch altitude (12,000 feet above sea level). I was down to 96 pounds of ballast out of my original 144, and crew told me the surface winds were picking up to about 6 knots. I had hope to reached 10,000 feet above launch, but decided to play safe and start down.

I pulled down a latex balloon on its string and opened the knife on the lanyard around my neck. Looking away, I stabbed. The balloon was inflated to only half its maximum volume, so it burst with a loud "fllmmphh" rather than a bang, releasing a bit of the white protective talc that the balloons were coated with for storage. I looked at the vario strapped to my hip. The needle bobbled, then showed me descending slowly.

My ascent had taken me northeast about ten miles of El Mirage, to Highway 395. I was afraid that in passing through the same winds on the way down, I would go another ten miles in the same direction, ending up near a restricted airspace. I started down at 300 feet per minute, but was ready to quicken my descent to shorten my ground track.

As I descended, I talked with Ernie on the radio. Chase was out on an east-west access road we had identified before the flight on the map. I directed him over to Highway 395, and then onto a east-west dirt road that looked like it followed my track. Luckily, I was no longer moving as quickly over the ground as I had during the ascent, so the vehicles were able to stay with me.

I was now at a few hundred feet, still descending. Ahead of me was open desert, dotted with small bushes. The chase vehicles were on a dirt road nearby. I told Ernie I was coming in for a landing. I threw my webbing drop-line and released some water from my ballast bags to slow my descent.

Unfortunately, I released too much water and began climbing again. I called Ernie and told him to regroup a few hundred feet downwind. I pulled down two latex balloons and burst them, releasing a cloud of white talc. I began to drop in again at a reasonable rate.

Crew ran out to meet me -- a welcome sight.

I came in for a soft landing. Phil grabbed me to stop me from dragging in the light wind.

I had flown slightly over fourteen miles in an hour and a half -- double the distance of my first flight, and at 9,000 feet above launch, well over double the maximum altitude.

The synthetic latex balloons had performed well, and I felt like I was starting to understand how to fly with helium balloons.

Mixed Bouquet



Crew Chief: Ernie Hartt

Crew: Phil Brandt, Jenny Wolf, Doug Spencer
Photography: Jenny Wolf, John Ninomiya