Balloonists, Colleagues, Friends:
My gas cluster flight was such a tremendous success, accomplishing everything I had hoped for, and achieving the altitudes and distances I dreamed.
I have a full debrief below, with all the details—but first let me say that I am so eager to plan another safe, beautiful, legal, and community involved cluster event! If you run an event or balloon festival, and you would be excited about having a cluster launch as part of the festivities, it would be my pleasure to show up, ready to fly.
Some of the highlights of the flight include:
- Flight to over 13,000 feet-- *Twice* ;
- A one-hour continuous, graceful ascent from the surface, all the way to 14,783 feet [4.5km high!];
- Flying the beautiful Frankensponder – Mark CaviezelÕs mad scientist transponder rigged to run on AA lithium batteries;
- Traveling 32mph at 1,100 feet (low level jet stream!);
- Traveling 0.7mph at 6,300 feet;
- Silent flight. No props, no jets. No rotors, no whisper of wind. Not even the blast of a burner. Completely Silent, soft flight;
- Watching the pre-dawn morning transform from a deserted airfield, to a bustle of early-morning interest and excitement as the balloons inflated and the cluster came together!
- The tremendous exhilaration of popping the balloons that were keeping me in the heavens– while hanging in space over 2-miles off the ground;
- Launching with the two commercial balloons in from my local community, with our veteran commercial guy radioing back wind speeds and direction every 500 feet;
- Talking through the landing options with my crew, as I hovered at 10,000 feet and considered the 95-degree day that was in front of me—and the Atlantic ocean that was also in front of me;
- Landing the cluster in 12mph winds, backwards;
- Mud. 150 yards of glorious, soft, rock-free mud;
- Automatic deflation system successfully rupturing 35 cells at landing;
- My loved one running up to me at landing, approaching the now-tipped gondola, with my gas pilot friend close behind;
- Free coffee at Starbucks as I went by to pick up extra copies of the Sunday paper!
For my friends, you are welcome to stay with me through the debrief—or skip to the photos!
Thank you to everyone who got this system flying! A year of planning and dreams came to fruition as I lifted off from that airfield. It took our whole community. Together, high in the in the skies over North Carolina, we had such a success.
A week before the flight, I talked to RDU tower, informing them that a gas balloon equipped with transponder and aircraft radio would be launching the following weekend. I indicated that I intended to stay clear of their Charlie airspace. But, seeing as how I am a balloon, with a fixed launch site (the airport where the helium was delivered), I might move under their shelf, or fly above the top. I spoke with a supervisor, and was told that this was acceptable. (It was actually kind of like asking a police officer if it is ok to drive your own car. ÔDo you have a license? Insurance? Are you legal to drive? Um, then yeah—of course it is ok.Õ You know what I mean? )
The day before the flight, I called RDU again to remind them of the flight. They asked only that I call shortly before the flight to let them know I was about to become airborne.
For my first gas flight back on May 14th (in a standard gas balloon), I had approached the owners of the North Raleigh private airport for permission to launch from their site. They had given me permission, and after that flight I took them a framed thank-you letter with photos from the flight. At that time, I asked if I could again have helium delivered to their site, and launch in the early morning hours. They graciously gave me permission—thank you so much Paul and Nancy!
It was extremely difficult to find a company that could actually fill an order for 55 tanks of helium. One or two tanks—no problem. Go to the local party store. But, 55 cylinders was more difficult. After dozens of phone calls, I connected with Praxair. They sent several pallets full of tanks from Columbia, South Carolina up to their facility in Sanford. I had chosen ÔKÕ size cylinders, at 219 cu/feet each. (To yield 219 cu/ft, that size tank should be filled to 2,200 psi. My tanks actually varied from about 2,150 to 2,300.) On Friday, the gas was delivered to the field and my amazing, volunteer crew assembled the tanks into 8 inflation stations.
Gondola to the field: (assembling the Chair-craft):
We took the gondola to the field on Friday evening, and rigged it with the straps, carabineers, and oxygen. We also tested the rigging of the Frankensponder, though we didnÕt leave that overnight. The launch site was partially chosen because there are people who love aviation out there, people who might be interested in crewing for something like this. As we set up, we confirmed the participation of a couple crew members who came out to greet us, and picked up a couple of new crew people (one of whom was quoted in the newspaper on Sunday.)
Briefing and Meet:
We had scrubbed the weather extensively the days before the flight. Before leaving for the airfield just before 2:00am, we ran and printed Hysplit trajectories for every thousand feet, from 1,000 to 9,000 feet. On the way to the field, we called for a standard briefing, checking on NOTAMS, Sigmets, Airmets, and TFRs. The only one of note was a temporary flight restriction from the surface to 5,000 feet over a forest fire, in the coastal region of the state.
The crew came together at the airfield starting at 3:00am. Sunrise this day was 5:59am. So, we had 3 hours together to inflate the balloons, assemble the cluster, talk to RDU ATC, and launch.
The hot-air teams arrived early, to help with inflation and assembly of the gas system, before switching to their hot-air balloons close to dawn. One of the members who was there in the dead of night was Robin Person, contributing at 100%. Robin is a 13-year old young woman who attended the BFA Balloon camp last year; itÕs neat to see the camp is developing new pilots and crew!
We demonstrated inflation of the first cell, emptying an entire helium tank into one balloon. The balloon stretched out 8 feet above us, and we tied it off with zip-ties. The lines were clipped to the heavy helium tanks, and each balloon was left floating above the drained tank as we moved to the next cells.
Of the 55 balloons, one balloon had a hole in it and failed during inflation. Poom! It popped. (The balloon maker refunded that one cell.) By the time it popped, the cell was mostly full, so the gas was forever lost to space. This means the system came together with 54 balloons.
The micro vent cells had special inflation. I had intended to inflate these myself, but by the time we got to these I was parked in the gondola, not to leave that seat for more than a moment for the next several hours. It seems inflation started on one micro-vent cell while the valve to the cell was in the closed position. This caused the quick-fill hose to pop off its fitting, banging a crew member in the knee. I spoke with him afterwards, and it seems he did get a bang on the knee, but was ok
I estimate that inflation took 1.5 hours.
We began assembly while some cells were still being inflated. We walked up the balloons that were on the 50-foot lines, allowing them to tower far above the gondola.
The tops of these balloons were about 60 feet off the ground: 50-ft line, 8 foot balloons, attached to the gondola maybe 2 feet off the ground. We then assembled the next tiers, all the way down to the bottom.
As dawn was approaching, the hot-air balloons started cold inflation. I phoned RDU and got a discrete code for the transponder – 0433. I still remember it. It is still programmed into the Frankensponder right now, in fact.
Flight plan, weight, and ballast:
I had prepared for a flight of between 2 and 14.5 hours. Part 103 requires that you fly only between sunrise and sunset (unless you have lights, which gives an extra 30 minutes on each side of the day.)
I wanted to fly as long as was prudent and safe. The temperature the day of flight was projected to be over 95 degrees. I expected significant thermals mid-day, and had no intention of trying to land amidst that activity. To avoid being twisted around by the thermals, I would have to fly up at an altitude where they were no longer a factor—somewhere between 4,000 and 7,000 feet, depending.
Because I knew I couldnÕt safely land mid-day, through the thermals, my thoughts were to either land before thermals really kicked up, or to fly above them and wait for sunset at 8:30pm – 14.5 hours after launch.
An important factor I considered were the winds aloft, and the distance to the coast. I knew that, with any significant wind aloft, I could approach the Atlantic Ocean and be forced to land mid-day, or be swept out to sea. My launch site was 92 miles from coastal waters. With winds aloft of 10 miles an hour, and a 6:00am launch, I could be at the coast at 3:00pm—a very dangerous time to try and land in 95-degree heat. It likely would have had me spinning through thermals, with little vertical control. That would be bad.
However, the flight was planned months in advance, and in terms of ballast I was prepared for long flight. After an earlier flight on only a couple bags of ballast, I was a determined to have extra.
As we prepared for flight, we removed the bags of sand that were in place for assembly. I was neutrally buoyant with 16 water bladders, at approx 22lbs each. So, that is 352lbs ballast. This is a tremendous amount of extra ballast for my system—approximately equal to the total sum of the rest of the system, pilot included.
More ballast = more options. DonÕt like this field? No problem. Ballast and fly on. Out of ballast and you donÕt like the field? Well—you can throw over your camera, gps, parachuteÉ.shoesÉÉ.t-shirtÉÉand land in the next field naked. (Like the first guys to cross the English Channel!) While perhaps empowering in some ways, it wasnÕt what I was looking for on this flight.
Weigh off and launch:
In the early dawn, the first hot-air balloon launched and started radioing down reports. Using that aircraft as a piball, my crew pushed the gas cluster to a very open section of the airfield so I would be clear downwind. We essentially moved right to where the skydivers land.
I practiced shifting around in the chair a little, working to understand what it would take to tip it either forward or backwards. While it wasnÕt a basket, it wasnÕt overly prone to tipping either. (ŌThe most comfortable chair IÕve ever flown.Ķ)
After talking to each balloon on our radios, the hot air balloon Big Red launched. I kissed my girlfriend, and ballast was released—about half of a bag. Reporters snapped photos, and asked for a last quote. (IsnÕt that an ominous way to phrase it?)
Crew releasedÉ. AND THAT WAS IT.
One moment, with a year and dozens of people in the works—and it all happed at sunrise that morning, June 7th 2008.
Initial ascent and climb:
The weigh-off was ideal. I waved to my friends and crew (ŌSee you on the other side!Ķ) and began to climb. I floated up over the hangars, with Big Red floating off to my left. Well, it started as my left.
The system rotated one 360-degree circle about every minute, for the entire flight. A nice, graceful, smooth turn.
Our airfield was clear at launch, but mist was settled in the nooks and crannies of the rolling country I was flying above. I could hear the familiar burner of the hot air balloon flying with me, but only as a distant, muffled, warm sound. Very early on, there were some animals that I could hear.
And then I was there. Silent flight.
No propeller, no jets. No burner. No body-thumping rotor of a helicopter. Not even the rush of wind that gliders have.
Quiet. Peaceful. Floating.
(Interrupted every once in a while by the aircraft radio.)
The climb rate at this point was about 200-300 feet per minute.
After my flight over the Raleigh Durham ÔClass CÕ a few weeks prior, I wanted a transponder so that I might better Ôsee and be seen.Õ While in no way a requirement for a Part 103 flight, I felt that it would add to the safety tremendously if I were to approach busy airspace.
A couple weeks before the flight, I didnÕt have a transponder--or an electrical system to run one.
My friend Mark Caviezel is mad scientist and an aerospace engineer, and is quite handy with such things. He had a transponder that would run off of big block lead batteries. Great for hot-air long-jumps, or hot-air operations near busy airspace. But, those batteries are heavy!
So, Mark worked some magic, and got the system operational using lithium AA batteries. There were two banks of 16, and I could switch to the second bank after the first was depleted. We were anticipating run-time of about 4 hours per bank.
As far as I can find, this is new in ballooning. The entire system was only a few pounds.
Mark configured the antenna so that it would be suspended in a block of RF transparent foam, and would hang below the aircraft, with the antenna pointing down. A nice bright red LED gave quick visual confirmation that I had power, and I could switch to the second bank of batteries by flipping a toggle switch.
The entire system was placed in a foam-enshrouded rip-stop nylon Ôsock.Õ Cool and modern looking on the outside.
On the inside, it was something only a mad scientist could love. (Ok, me and the mad scientists—I wish I could keep the thing.) The components were likely brand new in my fatherÕs day. There is in sticker on it from January 1979—and that wasnÕt a manufacture sticker, you know?.
The device worked perfectly, and ATC had me clear as day, at ranges *starting at* 25 miles from the airport.
Communications with ATC:
I talked to RDU ATC a couple of times.
They talked to me a couple of times.
But, we never really talked to each other, you know?
I had perfect communication with my ground crew and the other hot-air balloons. But, the aircraft radio wasnÕt so great. I called the tower after landing, and they confirmed they could see me via the Frankensponder, but we never talked in the air. They knew I was there, and I was always well clear of their airspace.
The high climb:
After launch, I climbed continuously for nearly an hour. The ascent started at about 200-300 feet per minute, and very gradually increased to about 450 feet per minute.
My lowest winds, as reported by the piloted piball hot-air balloon, were at 6,500 feet. I climbed up through that, and approached 8,000 feet without leveling out.
Around 9,000 feet I went to oxygen.
I started venting out from my Line 1 micro-vent. After several minutes, this had not arrested the ascent noticeably.
I opened the other micro-vents, and let them run.
I climbed up through 10,000 feet.
I talked with ground-crew (remember, I have a gas pilot with thousands of lighter-than-air hours down below.) I decided to shut the micro-vents, and jettison a balloon.
I took a deep breath, took the EMT scissors, and cut one of my top tier balloons.
ZZZCcchhwiiiip! The line went zipping up through the cluster! Wow, that was cool.
It did not arrest the ascent.
Still climbing. Time to cut another balloon, from the other side.
Zzzzwiiiip! Up it went, snaking its way out and free.
I would have loved to see these from the side view.
Snip. Schwip. Up and away from the system it went.
And, that did it! I leveled out at 13,500 feet. IÕm on oxygen, talking to crew, stable in the chair.
Wait, didnÕt I say I was flying level? Why are you here, up another 1,000 feet? Well, I was flying level—briefly. It is now 7:00 am, and the sun is shining on my cluster, warming and expanding the cells. (Superheating, like a greenhouse.)
I watched the climb, and with no immediate end in site it was time to cut free the 4th individual-release cell.
And, that did it. My peak altitude was 14,783 feet at 7:08am.
I entered a descent that would gently carry me back towards earth for the next hour.
4,000 feet, 8:00 am.
I had a wonderful, soft ascent down, from 14,700 feet all the way through 3,700 feet. About 11,000 feet of gentle drifting. Unlike hot-air, I didnÕt have to worry about the envelope getting too cold after not burning for so long!
Weather was good, it was still early, I was balanced in the chair. I had the good weather, the extra ballast, and the desire to fly on. Even at this early hour, I had accomplished everything I had hoped for. But, with good flying conditions anticipated in front of me for at least 2 more hours, I chose to continue to fly.
I released ballast to arrest my descent, and a little more to start a climb.
The ballast release was the most tremendously beautiful part of the flight. There is normally no occasion to see rain from above, at least not without getting your head wet. I simply loved watching the water fall for the better part of a mile below me. The stream out from my water bottle was about the size of a dime, and it silently broke into thousands of droplets that spread over the green countryside below. I have this on video, and IÕll try to get a still capture. It was really wonderful.
I ballasted, and reached the lowest flight level at 7:59am: 3,648 feet.
The real-time satellite tracker needs to have a clear view of the sky. It doesnÕt work well directly under the envelopes. Last time I used the device, I had a cord and hung the tracker about 50-feet below the system in flight, so it could see the sky.
I didnÕt have the cord on this flight. So, the tracker couldnÕt see the sky, and couldnÕt update the people following at home very well. Next time, IÕll be sure to take the 50-foot line!
Up the mountain again 8:00am – 8:50am:
Before weigh-off and launch, I had 16 bags of ballast. At weigh off, I used half a bag—so I launched with about 15.5 bags.
To arrest my descent on my way down from 14,000 feet, I emptied the ½ filled bag, the one I had used at weigh-off, leaving me with 15 bags. To get another climb going, I used another ½ bag of water.
I again climbed, very gentle and very long-- for about an hour. Long, gradual climb.
I switched to oxygen around 9,000 feet, and rode the system up through 10,000 feet and beyond.
12,000 feet (again), at about 8:50am. And, climbing.
IÕm climbing at about 400 fpm.
It is time to arrest the ascent. I have two individual cut-away balloons, which I am saving for powerline landings, where I need to plunk the system down *now.*
So, I reel in one of the cluster cells.
Have you popped a balloon? Of course you have. So, imagine a really tightly filled toy balloon—full almost to bursting. You have to hold this next to your face, and pop it with a pin.
Ok, itÕs like that—but the balloons are 8-feet across, and you have to stab it with a knife, not a pin. And, youÕre doing this while balanced in a seat over 2-miles high. *And, youÕre about to pop the thing that is holding you 2 miles high!*
And, so I do. I pull in a balloon, and stab it. POOOM! Scraps of chloroprene balloon all over me, and big sheets of it drifting down, down, over two miles down.
Popping one cell didnÕt do it. So, IÕve got to do it again. In the camera footage, I am actually talking myself through this. ŌOk, Jonathan. You must pop another cell now.Ķ
And I do. I pull another cell in, slide the knife into it and --- PFOOM! It ruptures and snaps chloroprene about the gondola, which shakes with the release of the gas.
8:53am, 12,800 feet
At 8:53, IÕm still climbing. But, it levels out. I end up flying level at 12,500 feet.
Flight decision- land or fly on?
It is now approaching 9:00am, on a day forecast to reach over 95degrees. I speak with my crew, and from the surface they are starting to see soaring birds—a sign that thermals are present. I have traveled about 35 miles, IÕm at 12,500 feet.
With the forecasted heat, I canÕt plan on a safe landing mid-day. It would be too dangerous to try to land through the thermals. So, I must choose to land now, or plan on flying through to sunset—10.5 hours away.
I have flow 3 hours, and over 30 miles. I am now about 60 miles from the coast.
Some simple math shows me that, if I keep flying the same average speed of 10 miles per hour, I would be at the coast in about 6 hours-- around 3:00pm. That is, I would be forced to land right in the heat of the day because I was running out of land. I would be forced to land, or else be swept out to sea.
And that would be bad.
Either of those options (land in the middle of the day, approaching the coast, or be swept out to sea) would be bad.
I had accomplished everything I had hoped for: launching a wonderful cluster flight from my home community. I had gone to such heights (twice!), and had distance that dwarfed any of my previous hot-air flights.
I had fields below me, and many miles of land to choose from before the water
I chose to land!
Descent, and shooting missile balloons:
Time to pop more balloons, arrest my climb, and get a descent going!
I pull in another balloon-- and slide the knife in around the neck. And, the neatest thing happened. Sliding the knife in very gently causes the neck of the balloon to sever, without popping the balloon.
Imagine filling a toy balloon very full, then letting go of it without tying the neck. It goes flying everywhere!
Well, so do 8-foot balloons!
It went shooting *horizontally* away from me! ROARING away from me! If there was another aircraft they would have thought I was launching balloons at them!
That balloon / projectile launch got a gentle descent going—but I was two miles high, and wanted to land before the heat and thermals really kicked up. I needed a slightly more aggressive descent.
I decapitated another balloon, and this one shot up into the cluster, and wedged itself there. After a couple minutes of it venting smoothly, I started descending about 400 feet per minute.
A couple minutes later, that balloon was no longer under pressure, but still had some helium in it. It floated down from the cluster, and started descending about 50 feet per minute faster than I was. So, it just kinda wafted and floated down with me! Very lazily, very floppy. Very cool! I loved that balloon.
Approach and landing:
I had a giant, long field underneath me. Unfortunately I was 1800 feet over it. But, it was rather long.
At 1000 feet above it, I could see that I would have to take it, or ballast—because there was a great stretch of trees after it, and my current descent was taking me straight into the center of them. (Later, from the satellite view, I learned that there was actually another field on the other side of the trees. But, I couldnÕt see that during flight, from my altitude.)
At 1,000 feet, I decided that this was it!
Earlier I had gotten the shears ready, and the Leatherman around my wrist.
I knew that I would have to increase my rate of descent to make this field. So—I had two individual release balloons left. I called my crew ŌLanding! Landing!Ķ
ŌLanding!Ķ They were about 1 mile away.
I cut the first individual release balloon. Then the next.
That got me coming into that field!!
About 12mph over the ground, I make the field. Whoom! Contact with the field!!
And IÕm still moving. Out of the chair, dragging. There ainÕt nothing my body on the ground is going to do to stop that system moving forward.
I make a lousy anchor.
And, IÕm out of the chair, so it is up 20 inches above me (at the end of the harness rope.)
I drag, I get a balloon down to pop it.
Poom! One balloon ruptured.
Crew on their way, but not to the system yet.
Safety scissors (no sharp point) in my hand. I find the redline for an entire cluster of 7 balloons.
And I cut it!
SZiiip! A whole cluster of 7 balloons go up!
Now IÕm dragging, but it is wonderful. IÕm not afraid, IÕm not getting injured. Nice soft field.
My crew saw the two individual release balloons go up. Then they saw the whole tier go up.
IÕm approaching the edge of the field.
I had a wonderful Ôautomatic deflation systemÕ rigged up. I kept it in the branches of the trees throughout North Carolina. I skillfully guided my aircraft to the edge of the field, dragging me behind it. There, I caused the balloons to interact with the automatic deflation system in the trees (branches—ancient by trusty technology.) Pop pop! POP!
Balloons popping, I am down, no more forward movement!!
My crew comes running, leathermen around their wrists, ready to help!
IÕm out of the chair, pointing the camera over at them, cheering!
A SUV rushes up, across the field—a farmer. I got ready for friendly landowner relations—turns out this wasnÕt his land, he just saw something coming and had to check it out!
SAFE! Muddy, happy, safe!
Packing it up, closing it down:
I pressed the ÔlandedÕ button on my tracker. I had cell service, and called RDU to let them know I was down. They confirmed that they had seen me in the sky, and appreciated that I phoned.
Troy called the people that were watching and standing by at home to run trajectories during flight, etc, to let them know we were down, safe and successful.
Press, and free coffee!
The News and Observer called me 5 times to get the details right. They were fantastic! They had been out on site for the launch, and the photographer got some wonderful shots. I hope to get the full set from her. The story they ran in the Sunday edition, front center of the section in glorious color, and was a wonderful treat.
The story was accurate, got the spirit of the adventure right, and made for a wonderful ballooning news! IÕve encountered so many people that read the story, and were just enchanted with it. It is a really fun story!
I went to pick up extra copies from Starbucks the next day, and had the slightly bizarre experience of being the biggest celebrity in the starbucks—an admittedly small pool. It seems people really loved the story! They wouldnÕt let me pay for my coffee, insisting it was on the house for the chair balloonist. If I do that a thousand more times, IÕll recover my costs!
Well team, that does it! This cluster list was started to plan my first cluster flight, and we achieved that goal! Time to say goodbye, and thank you for everything.
Write me with questions.
It has been a delight.