Cluster Balloon Flight

I had heard of some crazy freak attempting this feat back when I was in high school. The story that I had heard was that he failed his mission and did not live to tell about it. Well, that was just another rumor I guess, because I ended up meeting that guy in pre-production for our show. His name is John Ninomiya and he is an expert on "cluster balloons."  I was fascinated to find out how this whole thing worked.  John told us that he would just gather up about 50 advertising balloons from car dealerships, fill them up with helium, then attach himself and shoot up into the atmosphere. I couldn't believe that this was actually possible. But if it was, I was sure willing to do it!

I went into this stunt sort of blind (that's nothing new really). John and I met the evening before so that he could give me some training on the equipment I would be using the next day. The problem was that we had this meeting in a bar. It was very loud and I had a few beers, so I was not really retaining much of the information that he was giving me. I acted as if I knew what he was talking about and figured I would just have to wing it. I had a few more beers and went to bed. 

At about 3:30 in the morning, the door to my hotel room slammed open and I was immediately blinded by huge lights. Marisa and the production crew had broken into my room to jump on my bed and scare the hell out of me. I must have looked like a deer in headlights. They got me up to start the day. Apparently they had started filling the balloons at 1:00 A.M. and would be done in about two hours. We drove about an hour from the hotel. It was pitch dark outside so I had no idea where we were. We ended up in a large field that was filled with these huge balloons. They were actually pretty intimidating. We had about an hour left until launch at this point, so I was immediately geared up in a full body harness. I couldn't believe how much stuff they strapped to me. Not only did I have fifty lines attached to me, but dangling from my harness were two knives, two very expensive video cameras and a recording monitor, a 50' drop line, a two-way radio, a flight computer, and 8 large bags filled with water. The water was used as ballast that I would get rid of during flight to fine tune my descent rate for landing. I wasn't going to even start thinking about that yet. 

At around 5:30 we were set to go. The sun wasn't up yet but the horizon was just starting to glow. I said goodbye to Marisa and they set me free. I shot straight up and watched as my dangling feet left the earth far behind. It was an amazing feeling. I was going up very fast. About a minute after the launch, I was at 1000' and suddenly felt the sun hit my face. I looked down and realized that Marisa and the crew were still in darkness. It started to warm up quickly and felt great. The camera helicopter was circling my balloons to get some shots. It got really close and made me uneasy. When your life is hanging from a bunch of balloons, a spinning blade is the last thing you want near you. Eventually they went away and I was happy. I couldn't believe how quiet it was once the chopper left. Not a sound anywhere. I started to relax. I munched on some cereal for a couple of minutes. Then I looked at my flight computer and realized I was climbing through 11,000 feet. I was not supposed to go above 12,000 feet, so I figured it was time to start popping balloons. I grabbed a knife and pulled a balloon down. This took quite a bit of strength. Once I had the balloon near the knife, I paused for a moment. I did not know what to expect when I popped this thing, so I was a little nervous. I was worried it might blast my face and hurt. I went ahead and sliced the balloon while closing my eyes. I was surprised to find that the balloon didn't really pop. It just sort of deflated and blew helium in my face. I took a quick hit of the helium and started talking funny. I wasn't so worried anymore. When I re-checked my flight computer, it showed that my climb rate had slowed down, but I was still going up and was now at 12,000 feet. I started to stress. I grabbed another balloon and popped it. This slowed my climb even more, but I was still going up. After popping two more balloons, I finally leveled off. But now I was at 13,500 feet. I knew I was way too high and there was very little oxygen at this altitude. I was feeling a little light-headed and out of breath. I took a break to catch my breath and then popped one more balloon. Now I was starting to come down. I was stoked.

I was able to enjoy the flight for about 30 minutes while in a slow descent. I started to look around at the terrain I was over. It had gone from fields to rugged hills. There were some mountains approaching in the direction I was headed. This bothered me and I decided that maybe it was time to think about landing. I got on my radio and told the ground crew I was going to start coming down. They were in cars and had been tracking me on the ground the whole time. I took a glance back at where we had launched and realized I had traveled a long way. I popped a couple of balloons and really started to drop out of the sky. I looked down and noticed I was over a lake. I figured that would be a very bad place to go, so I opened up one of my ballast bags and let the water drain out. I did not know how much water I needed to get rid of, so I just emptied the whole bag, since I had seven more. I checked my flight computer and realized that I was going back up. Crap. So I grabbed another two balloon and popped them. This whole scenario went on for another 20 minutes as I popped balloons and let out water to get the right descent rate for landing. I even dropped the cap on one of the water bags and started frantically popping balloons to stop my climb, not realizing all I had to do was grab a cap off of one of the empty bags. I was starting to act like an idiot and just wanted to get down. I was running out of water so I needed to land now.

I ended up landing on a hillside right next to a small cliff. The cliff worried me as I was coming in, but once I landed I realized it would not have been a big deal if I would have fallen down the cliff because my touchdown was so soft. Once I was down I was tempted to go jump off the cliff, but decided I had better just stop now while I was ahead. I knew there was no way that the ground crews would be able to get to me on this hill, so I tried to start walking down toward a field. But all of the popped balloons were tangled in the sage brush and I could not move. It was hot out and I was dripping sweat. I grabbed my knife and started cutting everything. I just wanted to be free of all this heavy gear. It took me about 30 minutes to get out of the mess. I walked down the hill and eventually was picked up by a truck. I found out that I had traveled 32 miles. I was tired and hungry and ready to go home and take a nap.

Ozone Firefly