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Strung out

Cluster balloonist dangles from Home Depot's No. 36 twine.

August 10, 2004|Ashley Powers

Subject: John Ninomiya, 44, of Solana Beach, Calif.

Obsession: Soaring 3,000 feet or higher tethered to 72 balloons in a "sport" called cluster ballooning.

Experience: Ninomiya first took off from El Mirage Dry Lake in 1997. Since then he has logged 28 flights in nine states.

Tools: Balloons 5 and 7 feet in diameter are made of chloroprene, an artificial rubber, or latex. The strings -- No. 36 braided twine from Home Depot -- tie to a harness that crisscrosses his body. Two hours prior to liftoff, a crew of 15 or more inflates balloons with $1,000 worth of helium.

Technique: To float, Ninomiya empties water from two 2-gallon jugs. To descend, he severs a string or pops balloons with one of three knives. (If he brought only one and dropped it, he'd be stranded.) When nature calls? "I've exercised a good deal of self-control for the sake of the people on the ground."

Upside: Cluster ballooning may attract a bigger audience after Wednesday's L.A. release of "Danny Deckchair," a movie about a truck driver who floats out of suburbia on a lawn chair with helium balloons. (Ninomiya's take: "I only saw the trailer, but he was flying fewer balloons than you might need for a safe flight.")

Downside: Federal rules for ultralight aircraft (defined as any single-person sport craft that weighs less than 155 pounds) ban flying in controlled airspace, over populated areas or over groups of people, says a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman. Ninomiya says he flies at balloon festivals or in the middle of nowhere. (Flight logs are listed at

Local pioneer: In 1982, Larry Walters shot up 16,000 feet over Long Beach in an aluminum lawn chair hanging from 42 weather balloons. He popped the balloons with a pellet gun to descend.

Trend potential: "At this point in history, cluster balloons are a footnote," says Tom Hamilton, editor of Balloon Life magazine.

-- Ashley Powers

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