Over the Ocean

May 23, 1999

A New Venture -- the Mysterious Aircraft -- the Rapture of Flight with Helium Balloons -- a Flirtation with the Infinite Sea -- Rescue and Celebration

We started inflating the balloons before dawn, at the Torrey Pines Gliderport in La Jolla, California.  It was overcast, with the usual light morning breeze blowing out to sea. 

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Out beyond the cliffs where the hang-gliders and paragliders fly during the day, the Pacific was a steely blue-grey.  It looked somehow bigger than usual, but that was probably just me.

My wonderful ground crew were there to inflate Celebration IV, and watch me embark on what Ernie was calling my "three hour tour". ("Little buddy, those balloons could carry one of us back to the mainland!"  "Help! Skipper!!!!")

It's such an incredible feeling, getting ready for the launch: being tied to these big,colorful balloons, like some character from a children's book, feeling them lifting and tugging at you, with only a strap and some sandbags holding you down to the earth. 

And then the moment when you release the strap and the ground falls away beneath your feet, and you're flying....

Up I went into the grey sky. I could see my crew on the cliff-top below, San Diego to the southeast, the ocean to my west.

As I rose higher, the wind took me south along the cliffs.  Based on the pibals (small helium balloons) we had launched before I took off, I had been afraid of this -- the winds above were headed south, rather than toward the ocean.  I would have to drop back down to get back in the westbound winds if I wanted to fly out to sea.   

I burst a few balloons and descended over the cliff-top back yards of the houses south of the Gliderport.

Finally, near the surface, I found a wind heading out over the ocean.  I dropped some ballast to level out, and the wind carried me over the edge of the cliff.

I could hear the wash of the waves below.  Two surfers were paddling out on their boards, staring up at me.  I let the balloons ascend slowly, testing the wind that now seemed to be carrying me steadily out to sea.

The coastline receded behind me. I floated farther and farther out over the ocean, out to the infinite grey horizon...

Or not.  I should mention at this point that I had a boat coming to pick me up.  Kyle and Jenny had left the inflation early to get to the boat, which was down in Mission Bay. Unbeknownst to us, a marathon was taking place there that day, and they were delayed in traffic. I wasn't totally sure they would be there when I took off, but to my relief, they pulled up just in time. No Hawaii trip for me.

I descended to a hundred feet, then dropped a line down.  Near the water, a breeze pushed me along briskly.  After a few passes, the boat matched my speed.  Kyle grabbed my line and pulled me down into the boat.

We burst the balloons, then drove the boat around to pick all the balloon pieces out of the water with a net. It started to rain. 

Back at the dock, we met the rest of the crew and went out to breakfast.  It was nice to be with them, remembering my blue and yellow balloons and my time aloft in the grey skies over the ocean.

Celebration IV
Crew Chief: Ernie Hartt
Chase Boat Crew: Kyle Childers, Jenny Wolf
Inflation and Shore Chase: Kym Childers, Scott Doctor, Adam Glover, Lanny & Louise Hendrickson, Erik & Lisa Klipfel, Kristine Simon, Sam Slaughter, Brenda Theim.
Special thanks to David Jebb and the Torrey Pines Gliderport.

Technical notes: This flight was conducted in compliance with FAR Part 103.  The flight took place in Class G airspace, in an area marked on aeronautical charts for Part 103 activity.  Miramar MCAS was consulted in advance regarding the flight; at their suggestion, the flight was completed before 8:00 AM when the Miramar tower opens. San Diego Lifeguard was also consulted in advance regarding the flight; at their suggestion, the chase boat notified them via radio at the time of launch and landing.

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