Silver Pleiades

April 15, 1997

In 1997 I resolved that I would learn to fly with helium balloons.

At the time I was already an experienced hot-air balloon pilot and had also flown a few times in conventional gas balloons. For all of that, there was still a dream of balloon flight I longed to fulfill, something I'd first seen in a children's science book as a young boy: a man floating into the sky suspended beneath a cluster of huge helium balloons.

It was not a form of flight that had a great track record of success, with the best-known actual practitioner (Larry Walters, the lawn chair balloon man) having become a legendary example of whimsical dumbness gone dangerously wrong. But it was something that had always fascinated me, my original inspiration as a balloonist, and now I was determined to learn to fly with helium balloons myself.


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So, I began researching how I would make such a flight. There was not a lot of published information available, and no one really to talk to. Actually, it was not something I was very inclined to talk about, given how strange and potentially insane it sounded. However, I did the basic calculations regarding lift and system weight and began looking for sources for the things I would need -- all the while wondering if this really was crazy. Then, something on the ballooning e-mail reflector that caught my eye: a post by Don Piccard.

Don Piccard was one of the pioneers of modern hot-air ballooning, as a pilot, engineer, and early manufacturer. Don was also very experienced with gas balloons and had done some flights in the with clusters of helium-filled plastic balloons in the 1950’s. He was semi-retired, at that point, but still active and, by reputation, something of a character.

On the e-mail reflector, Don described some mylar balloons he had built which were intended to be flown in a cluster over a basket. He had inflated them once, for a gas balloon race in Germany, but the flight had been cancelled due to weather, so they remained untested for actual manned flight. I wrote to Don and asked if he’d be interested in selling some of his balloons, describing the kind of flight I was planning. He agreed enthusiastically and said he would come to California to assist with the flight.

So, suddenly, my dream was a looming reality.

The balloons Don had made were very simply constructed: mylar sheets taped together into a cylinder that was tied together at the top. When inflated, the balloons assumed a rounded natural balloon shape, with the excess material being absorbed into creases. At the bottom, the mylar was gathered and tied with a red webbing line, the end of which ran down to attach to the basket, or in my case, harness. Some openings were intentionally left where the mylar was gathered, to allow gas to escape when the helium expanded at higher altitudes – otherwise, since the mylar lacked any significant elasticity, the balloons would burst.

The metallized mylar was about the thickness of a mylar birthday balloon from the florist, and the tape appeared to be very wide gauge transparent tape. Don had packed each of the balloons in a black plastic garbage bag for transport.

I remembered uneasily that Don's balloons had never been tested by a human pilot. However it was probably safer than what I would come up with on my own. Worst case, I would be killed by the Father of Modern Hot-air Ballooning, which was a kind of honor.

I decided to fly at the El Mirage Dry Lake northeast of Los Angeles. The lakebed itself is huge and perfectly flat, which allayed my concerns about running into anything. We showed up in the early morning with a rented truck full of helium tanks and started inflating. The first large tank of helium created a ball of gas up at the top of the balloon.

It took four large tanks -- about 1000 cubic feet -- to get each balloon to fill out to its natural shape.

The plan was for me to use seven of Don's balloons for my flight. We dubbed my craft “Silver Pleiades”, after the seven-star constellation, and also after the scientific balloon Pleiades, a cluster of dozens of weather balloons attached to a gondola that Don’s father had flown to the stratosphere in 1937.

The balloons were like giant mirrors, reflecting the blue sky and the tan lakebed. They seemed huge.

While the inflation continued, I got into my harness, and crew attached some of the balloons to me.

With four of the balloons attached, I was nearly weightless. I made some huge 10-foot jumps, landing lightly on my feet.

I got out of the harness briefly to let Ernie try jumping.

The remaining balloons were now inflatted. The inflation had taken much longer than I had expected; it was getting towards 9 AM. I got back into my harness. The crew attached my water ballast bags and clipped on the remaining three balloons. It was time for me to fly.

We went through my launch checklist with our usual meticulous attention to safety. Ernie tied my loose shoestring before I took off.

Carefully I began to release the water in one of my ballast bags. The balloons began to lift me up onto my toes, lighter and lighter....

And I was flying....

I was rising slowly, at about 100 feet per minute, according to my instruments.

The balloons were designed to be controlled by lines that ran up to the tops of the balloons. Pulling one of these lines would cause the balloon to tip, which would cause helium to spill out of the openings at the bottom. I tried it now, uncomfortably aware that if this did not work I was in for a very long flight. But the balloon tipped, the little vent openings at the bottom of the balloon widened slightly, and my rate of climb dropped slowly from 100 feet per minute up to fifty feet per minute down.

Reassured that I could get back down, I released some water from my ballast bags until I was rising at 200 feet per minute.

The dry lake fell away as my balloons carried me higher.

I was moving slowly off the lakebed, towards the desert scrub-brush surrounding it.

It was totally silent. Sunlight glistened off my huge, silvery balloons. I could see everything for miles.

Finally I leveled out at about 4000 feet over my launch altitude. I had hoped to go to a mile over launch, but it was getting late and I had already used quite a bit of my ballast, which I would need to slow my descent at landing. I called Ernie and told him I was heading down.

I vented some helium and set up a 200 feet per minute descent. I was off the lakebed now, over an area populated mostly by creosote bushes, along with an occasional battered house. On the radio, Ernie told me that the earlier calm on the surface had given way to light winds.

As I dropped in, I saw a paved road along my current track, and directed crew over to it. They got out of the truck and walked out into the field where I seemed to be headed. But as I descended, the wind direction changed and also sped up, and they had to run back to the truck to follow me.

I flew into an adjacent field, now being carried along faster than I could run, still descending. I landed in some bushes and dragged for a short distance behind the balloons, which were leaned over hard now in the wind. I managed to cut away a couple of the balloons and slow myself so that the crew could run in and grab me.

And so on that day I fulfulled a dream, and also survived the experience, both of which were good things.

Silver Pleiades

Crew Chief: Ernie Hartt

Crew (left to right): Don Piccard, Phil Brandt, Ernie Hartt, Richard Douglass, John Ninomiya

Photography: Don Piccard, John Ninomiya, Life Magazine


In Memory of Don Piccard: 1926-2020