Last Saturday we went out to watch Jonathan Trappe launch his balloons. Now that I have my own computer back, I can post phone pictures.
Jon flies in self-designed rigs. This one involved a harness that carried his equipment and attached to the balloons. Launching these balloon configurations is a major undertaking, requiring time, money, and a sizeable ground crew. Each of those cannisters of helium costs something like $2,000 to fill, and it takes an entire cannister to fill one of the big balloons.
Several balloons were torn when they were filled too fast at the start. Strangely enough, all of them were green balloons.
Balloons were added one at a time, as Jon adjusted their position to maintain balance with his rig. He carries bags of water ballast, and controls his altitude by releasing ballast (to ascend) or casting off balloons (to descend). He has experimented with valves to deflate the balloons rather than cutting them loose, but any valve would have to be on the bottom of the balloon—and helium goes up.
If this scene reminds you of the movie “Up,” here’s some more background information: Disney/Pixar consulted Jon on the movie, and coordinated a flight to promote the film. They sent the details of Carl’s armchair from the movie, and the Cluster Balloon team made a real-life version of it attached to a five-story cluster of balloons. (Launch site gossip: at first Disney/Pixar asked about a flight using an actual house, as in the movie, until Jon and his crew calculated the number of balloons it would take. The cost would have been in millions.)
Although this flight was sponsored by the EAA, this rig is, in fact, an FAA-certified aircraft. Jon carries a radio and a transponder as part of his equipment, and his balloon rig has a private aircraft N number. He can fly into class C airspace.
He does an astounding job of researching weather patterns in preparation for a flight. He seems to have access to weather maps more detailed than those used by general aviation pilots; they have much more information about winds at various altitudes. He had some of his maps spread out inside the flying club, showing his planned flight path. He ultimately decided to stay aloft all night, and with help from the Raleigh/Durham airport’s tower he crossed through their space and headed east. (You can see his flight path on the Cluster Balloons site.)