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Miscellaneous Ramblings

by Larry Moss

A twisted hot-air balloon by Jim and Cindy Pelc.
We usually use this space to talk about major debates that have occurred on the BHQ mailing lists, convention reports, or new stuff on BHQ. This month, I wanted to do something slightly different. Someone reported a rather unusual balloon sighting and I couldn't resist the opportunity to explore this one a bit.

It seems that a balloon enthusiast out of Southern California, John Ninomiya, would rather fly his balloon sculptures than simply place them on display. That is, he doesn't just launch his sculptures into the air alone, he flies with them. This may not appear odd at first. People have been flying balloons for more than a couple centuries. The first recorded manned balloon flight was in 1783 when a French team, the Montgolfier brothers, flew in a balloon made of paper and silk.
The Concord
John Ninomiya strapped into a balloon sculpture he calls The Concord
Photo by Robert Dunnington.

Today, hot-air balloons are so common that virtually anyone can pay for a ride in one. Hot-air balloon festivals appear all over the world. In fact, if you search for balloon on any of the big Internet search engines, you're going to find thousands of sites, not about decorative balloons, but about the passenger variety.

Ninomiya is a hot-air balloon pilot that decided to look for a different kind of ride. He's experimented in a young sport known as cluster ballooning. This involves flying a group of helium-filled latex balloons. Compared to the number of people that have flown hot-air balloons, only a few have dared to take part in this particular extreme sport. The dangers involved in this are great, and great care is needed in planning each ride. Doubters can look into another famous cluster balloonist by the name of Larry Walters. (Walters would have received the famed Darwin Award if not for the fact that he survived his stunt. He still walked away with an honorable mention.)

For years, balloon artists have tried to bridge the gap between hot-air and toy balloons. Sculptures of passenger balloons have been made with everything from 260s to jumbo round balloons. It's taken an imaginative balloon pilot to go that extra step and actually make a balloon sculpture capable of carrying a person.

Sammy's hot air balloon
This sculpture, by Sammy J, can be created much more quickly than the plaited one above.

A Grape Adventure

On June 9, 2001 John Ninomiya took to the air strapped to a 60 foot sculpture of a bunch of grapes. This craft, made from 150 four and five foot latex balloons, was known as The Concord. Individual purple and lavender grapes were positioned in the sculpture via a series of straps of varying lengths that connected to the pilot's harnass. Groups of three balloons were tied together and all straps were left in a tangle-free configuration in order to allow the release of some balloons, as needed, to control the flight.

The sculpture had to be designed to hold the weight of a man and several hundred pounds of ballast. For those too lazy to do the arithmetic, this means roughly 7,000 to 9,000 cubic feet of helium.

This project was sponsored by Callaway Winery, as part of the Temecula Valley Balloon and Wine Festival.

Related links

Troy's balloon
Troy Apprill's hot-air balloon using a 30" balloon
The Concord
The Concord may be the first documented balloon sculpture aircraft.
Photo by Louise Hendrickson

The final word

Very little sounds easier than filling a bunch of balloons with helium and flying away. To a professional balloon artist, there isn't even anything difficult about acquiring the materials. However, piloting cluster balloons is not trivial. A balloon cluster falls under the category of ultralight aircraft, and like any vehicle, this should be treated with great care. No one should attempt something like this without learning to fly from an experienced instructor and learning about local ordinances for this type of vehicle.

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