The late Larry Walters took to the skies in 1982 by piloting a lawn chair tied to 45 helium-filled weather balloons to an altitude of 15,000 feet. He’d never flown a plane or a balloon before. A reporter asked him why he’d done it. He explained: “A man can’t just sit around.”
Looking down now from his big lawn chair in the sky, Walters must be proud that a few good men still have the right stuff.
This year has seen a number firsts in the pantheon of “cluster ballooning” – the official name for the practice of drifting into the heavens on buoyant patio furniture.
In May, American Jonathan Trappe, crossed the English Channel by cluster balloon in four hours, taking off in Challock, England, and landing in a cabbage patch in France.
In July, Kent Couch and John Freis, took off together in separate cluster balloons from Couche’s gas station in Bend, Oregon gas station owner. They raced about 70-miles over the plains of Oregon, from Bend to Poulina.
Couch told reporters that he believed they were the first two people to ever launch two cluster balloons at the same time and to compete in a cluster balloon race. The races seems to have ended in a draw. Kent also thought he might have broken the world altitude record of 18,235 feet set in 2001 by Englishman Mike Howard. That remains unconfirmed.
Before Couch and Freis flew together, Couch helped Freis prepare for his inaugural flight in October 2009. The flight was documented by Tar Productions in this video:
Before you start assessing the aeronautical capabilities of your office chair, remember that, despite the cheery primary colors and that sweet cluster balloon house landing from the animated movie,Up, it doesn’t always go smoothly.
Yoshikazu Suzuki, a Japanese piano tuner, took off in a cluster balloon on November 23, 1992, hoping to reach Sand Mountain, Nevada. Yes, he planned to float across the Pacific Ocean and the Sierra Nevada. The last time he was seen, the crew of a Japanese coast guard plane estimated Suzuki’s altitude at between 8,000 feet to 13,000 feet. He was about 500 miles out to sea.
Another unfortunate attempt came in April 2008, when Brazilian priest Adelir Antonio de Carli set out to break the 19 hour flight record for cluster balloons and raise money to fund a spiritual rest area for truck drivers. He attached 1000 balloons to a chair and reached an altitude of more than 19,600 feet before loosing contact. His remains were later found 60 miles out to sea.
For more on the history of cluster ballooning, check out this article, The Drifters, from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, written by Mark Karpel, who drove the chase van for Jonathan Trappe’s English Channel flight.