Cluster ballooning is an uncommon form of ballooning in which a single balloonist is attached by a harness to a cluster of relatively small helium-inflated rubber balloons.
The first cluster balloonists is Larry Walters, who, in 1982, without any prior ballooning experience, attached 42 helium filled weather balloons to a lawn chair and lifted off. He intended to rise just a few hundred feet (about 100 metres), but vastly underestimated helium’s lifting power and quickly rose nearly 3 miles (5 km) into the air (over 50 times his intended maximum altitude).
How to Fly
Preparation for Flight
After all the balloons are inflated and secured to sand bags, the cluster balloons is “assembled”. The balloon are attached in groups of four or more to the ends of long nylon straps called risers; the risers are then attached to the pilot’s harness, to reliably cut away balloons for maneuvering. Different length risers are used to hold the balloons at different heights, in layers. More balloons are attached directly to the pilot’s harness.
The pilot is in a harness designed for paragliding, which includes a rear-mounted emergency parachute. The pilot can stand up in the harness to take off or land; there’s also a little seat built into it, for greater comfort while flying. Bags of water ballast hang beside the pilot, and are used to maneuvering. The pilot also carries an altimeter/rate-of-climb instrument, a GPS and a two-way radio.
To control the altitude of the cluster balloon, the pilot takes off with more balloons than needed to lift his or her weight, and carries ballast (water or sand) to balance out most of this excess lift. To level out or descend, the pilot releases or bursts balloons. To slow the descent or ascend again, the pilot releases ballast. The number of times the cluster balloon can ascend or descend is limited by the amount of ballast and extra balloons carried. The balloon may also gain a certain amount of lift during the flight due to solar heating of the balloons.
On approach to landing, the pilot levels out at 100 feet or less, heading in the direction of an appropriate field or open area. Considerations in landing are similar to those in a hot-air balloon, except that it is more difficult to rapidly change rate of ascent or descent, and the number of landing attempts is limited by the available ballast. If crew are present at landing, they can easily stop the motion of the balloon by grabbing the pilot’s harness, or by use of a drop line. If crew are not present, the pilot can land and stabilize the balloon by himself in light winds. In windier conditions, the pilot may have to cut away or burst many balloons to stop from dragging.
After the flight, the balloons are deflated. Some types of latex balloons are safely reusable for several flights; others can only be used once. Balloons that are being discarded are burst rather than released, for environmental reasons and to avoid creating a hazard to aircraft.
With half a dozen pilots worldwide, cluster ballooning remains something between an extreme sport and a personal eccentricity.
John Ninomiya is one of the most prominent cluster balloonists whose flights have been featured on The Science Channel, The History Channel, TechTV, TLC, and MTV. He is also a FAA-licensed hot-air balloon pilot and had over four-hundred hours of pilot time in conventional hot-air balloons and Cloudhoppers.
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