for National Geographic News
John Ninomiya admits cluster ballooning is something of a fringe sport. "You could call it a personal eccentricity," the native Californian said. "I believe I'm the only person in America who does it."
Here's how it works: The pilot wears a harness to which a cluster of large, helium-filled balloons is attached. The giant bouquet of colorful balloons lifts the pilot into the sky, like a hot air balloon. Control is achieved by releasing ballast, such as containers of water, to ascend or bursting balloons to descend.
"It's a really wonderful experience," Ninomiya said. "It's completely silentno burner sound the way there is in a hot-air balloon. It's just you and the balloons."
Hardly for the faint of heart, cluster ballooning is likely to remain a novelty for some time. But its popularity could get a boost from a new movie, Danny Deckchair, which opened in limited release this month.
In this Australian comedy, a truck driver tries to escape city life (and his scheming girlfriend) by tying a bunch of helium-filled balloons to a lawn chair. The stunt works. The man sails away into the sky before a thunderstorm sweeps him off into the outback.
Up and Away
The movie plot is reminiscent of a 1982 incident in which Larry Walters, a 33-year-old Californian with no ballooning experience, attached 45 helium balloons to a lawn chair.
Intending to go up a few hundred feet, he instead soared to 16,000 feet (4,800 meters), into jet airliner space. Increasingly cold, Walters descended after shooting some of the balloons with a BB gun. He finally crashed into a power line but survived.
Ninomiya remembers hearing of Walters's adventure. "He did this in such a dangerous way that it discouraged me from pursuing cluster ballooning for many years," Ninomiya said.
For more than a decade, Ninomiya instead flew hot-air balloons and cloudhoppers (single-person hot-air balloons), logging more than 700 hours in the air.
Then, seven years ago, he heard that Don Piccard, who flew clusters of plastic balloons in 1957 and 1962including a flight to 17,747 feet (5,409 meters) that is still a world altitude record in one ballooning categorywas testing new cluster balloons.
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