Cluster Ballooning: More Than Urban-Legend, Darwin-Award Fodder

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Cluster_ballooningCluster_ballooning
About a month and a half ago, a man from Oregon made the news for riding a chair across the state line into Idaho.  The catch was the chair was powered by the wind as he launched his chair attached to helium-filled balloons. I had heard of people trying this in the past, but it had been mostly funny e-mail chains and second-hand information.  Digging into the story a bit more, I found that this is not just the stuff of urban legends; instead, it’s a small group of enthusiasts devoted to cluster ballooning.

In early July, Kent Couch, a gas-station owner from Bend, Oregon made the news for going over 200 miles, floating across a state line, and eventually landing in Idaho.  He used 150 balloons for lift, cherry
Kool-Aid for ballast (and I’m guessing hydration), and a BB gun for shooting balloons as he lowered from his cruising altitude of 15,000
feet.  His trip took him nine hours.

While Kent made headlines, it reminded me of the Darwin Award email that went around in the late 90s regarding a guy in a lawn chair:

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One day,
Larry, had a bright idea. He decided to fly. He went to the local
Army-Navy surplus store and purchased 45 weather balloons and several tanks of helium. The weather balloons, when fully inflated, would measure more than four feet across. Back home, Larry securely strapped the balloons to his sturdy lawn chair. He anchored the chair to the bumper of his jeep and inflated the balloons with the helium.
He climbed on for a test while it was still only a few feet above the ground. Satisfied it would work, Larry packed several sandwiches and a six-pack of Miller Lite, loaded his pellet gun-figuring he could pop a few balloons when it was time to descend-and went back to the floating lawn chair. He tied himself in along with his pellet gun and provisions. Larry’s plan was to lazily float up to a height of about
30 feet above his back yard after severing the anchor and in a few hours come back down. Things didn’t quite work out that way. When he cut the cord anchoring the lawn chair to his jeep, he didn’t float lazily up to 30 or so feet. Instead he streaked into the LA sky as if shot from a cannon.

After a bit of googling and a bit of pecking around snopes.com,
Lawn Chair
Larry
” emerged as the one inspiring the urban-legend,
Darwin-Award email.  The main differences are that he did this in
1982 instead of the late 1990′s and was arrested by the Long Beach
Police Department for entering the Long Beach Airport airspace and getting tangled in some power lines causing a blackout in the Long
Beach area.

What
I found as I dug a bit deeper into the stories of Kent Couch and
“Lawn Chair Larry” was a website that chronicles the “ballooning into the sky” exploits of John Ninomiya.
He’s looking to do a cluster balloon ride in each of the 50 United
States. 
Cluster ballooning has also grabbed the attention of MythBusters – as seen in this slideshow as Adam and Jaime appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman in
2005.

In addition, I found that cluster ballooning doesn’t always end well – even when the motivation is a good one. The body of a 41-year-old priest from Brazil was found two months later in the Atlantic after attempting a 450-mile, 19-hour cluster balloon ride to raise money for a project.

So, while Icarus tried wings…perhaps he should have tried helium-filled balloons attached to an aluminum lawn-chair.

Photo: Ominibus via Jfurr1981

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