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'Up,' up and away go cluster balloonists

Like the adventurers in the new animated movie hit, these inflate-and-elevate hobbyists take real-life flights of fancy.

June 01, 2009|Zachary Pincus-Roth

When audiences for the new animated Pixar movie "Up" watch a 78-year-old man tie helium balloons to his house to fly away to South America, many might assume the tale is a whimsical bit of fantasy, like a rat who cooks gourmet meals or a trash compactor who falls in love. What moviegoers might not know is that some people have actually tried such a stunt. Sort of.

Cluster ballooning, as it's called, is one of the world's loneliest adventure sports, and isn't for the faint of heart. These brave souls take flight by inflating a large number of helium balloons and tying them not to a house, of course, but to a chair (or sometimes to just a harness).

"People don't believe you when they say you're going to fly your chair," says Jonathan Trappe, 36, a cluster balloonist in Raleigh, N.C. "They don't understand what you're saying."

One day Trappe was sitting in his Steelcase Uno office chair at Accenture, where he works as a technical project manager, and decided to make it fly. After a year of planning, he sneaked the chair out of the office, attached it to 54 large balloons and ascended to an altitude of 14,783 feet before landing in a field 50 miles away.

Trappe still sits in the same chair, and its wheels remain caked in mud from the landing. "It's not my chair," he says, explaining why he returned it to the office.

John Ninomiya, a 48-year-old health care consultant in Solana Beach, is probably the most prolific cluster balloonist, racking up 65 flights as part of his quest to do it in all 50 states (he's at 41) and as many countries as possible.

"It's really wonderful," Ninomiya says of the experience. " You're completely still and the whole world is moving beneath you. Unlike a hot-air balloon, there's no burner sound. It's completely silent. You can hear dogs barking and talk to people below."

What goes up obviously must come down, and cluster balloonists often control their descents by releasing a few balloons at a time.

While Ninomiya and Trappe use their hot-air balloon training, Kent Couch, a 49-year-old cluster balloonist in Bend, Ore., is self-taught.

"I take more of a redneck approach," he says. "Everything I have is things I have around my yard." His first flight required a sky dive out of his seat, but his third flight went 242 miles.

The cluster culture

Cluster balloonists date the sport to 1937, when an engineer named Jean Piccard took off from Rochester, Minn., let some balloons go, shot others with a pistol and finally landed in a tree in Lansing, Iowa. Others have not been so lucky. In 2008, a priest in Brazil named Adelir Antonio de Carli took off from the coastal city of Paranagua and was never heard from again.

The most famous cluster balloonist is Larry Walters, the Studio City native who in 1982 tied 42 weather balloons to a Sears lawn chair and flew from San Pedro to Long Beach, startling airplane pilots and causing a blackout when he hit a power line. Though the stunt led to motivational speeches and an appearance on "The Tonight Show," Walters died in 1993 from suicide.

"He put a smile on the face of America," says Hazel Dunham, Walters' mother, who now lives in Simi Valley. "He was proud of it, and I was proud of that too. "

A floating fixation

So why the heck would someone do this?

In "Up," Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) has a few reasons: to fulfill a dream to travel to an exotic place, to defy the real-estate developers forcing him to give up his house, and to escape from other people, since the recent death of his wife has made him something of a misanthrope.

"It's every childhood dream -- 'How many would it take?' " Trappe says. "Part of it is fun to hear people say, 'You can't do that, it's not going to work.' "

Cluster ballooning inspired fictions before "Up," including the film "Danny Deckchair" and the one-act musical "Flight of the Lawnchair Man," which ran at the Ahmanson Theatre in 2001 as part of the show "3hree." Ninomiya was inspired by "The Red Balloon," the 1956 French film in which balloons lift a little boy into the sky.

Many cluster balloonists are excited about "Up," and Trappe has even helped Disney market the film. He created balloon clusters to attach to two replicas of Fredricksen's easy chair, which have been touring the country for media VIPs to ride.

Will "Up" lead to a rash of tykes tying balloons to their car seats? Perhaps, but taking flight is another story, as it takes a unique individual to actually go through with it.

"I've asked myself if I was missing something that makes me want to do something like this is -- is it a deficiency of self-worth, or a need for gratification?" says Couch, who owns several small businesses and lives with his wife and five kids. "I think about it a lot, because I don't want to be doing it for the wrong reasons."

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