What is Cluster Ballooning?

Cluster Ballooning

About Cluster Ballooning

  • Invented: 1937
  • Founded By: Jean Piccard
  • Highest Governing Body: Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)

Cluster ballooning is a balloon-flying sport where a single balloonist is attached via harness to a large group (or “cluster”) of helium-filled balloons. Cluster ballooning differs from standard balloon flying in two important ways. Firstly, there is no basket or gondola beneath the balloons, as with hot air balloons, but rather only a seat or harness. Secondly, rather than having vents in the balloons to control altitude, ascent, and descent, the cluster can only be controlled by releasing or deflating balloons or by the use of ballast to weigh down the cluster.

Cluster ballooning was first invented in 1937 by Jean Piccard, a professor of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Minnesota, who used a cluster of 98 latex weather balloons attached to a hot air balloon basket to rise to a height of three kilometers. Over the following years, many other balloonists followed Piccard’s example, using various types of balloon clusters to reach greater heights. A notable example was Larry Walters, who in 1982 used 42 weather balloons attached to a lawn chair to rise what he thought would only be a few meters. Instead, he was lifted over 5,000 meters into the air, and though he managed to land safely, he was fined several thousand dollars by the FAA for not having a license to fly. In June 2008, FAA-licensed pilot Jonathan Trappe performed a similar feat, using cluster balloons attached to an office chair to ascend to a height of 4,500 meters before landing. Trappe also crossed the English Channel with cluster balloons on May 28, 2010.

Cluster ballooning is typically performed in the early morning, as calm morning winds provide the ideal conditions for the sport. A crew of 15 to 20 people is needed to rapidly inflate the balloons, which are sealed with tape and cable ties before being attached to long nylon straps called “risers,” which are then hooked to the balloonist’s harness. The harness, designed for paragliding, has a rear-mounted parachute in case of emergencies.     


What is cluster ballooning?

Cluster ballooning is an aerial sport where balloonists attach themselves to clusters of helium-filled balloons in order to rise into the air. Cluster ballooning is often a challenge-based sport, performed with the goal of setting records such as height and length of flight. Various balloonists, such as Jean Piccard and Jonathan Trappe, have achieved records in cluster ballooning over the years. Cluster ballooning is traditionally practiced early in the morning due to favorable wind conditions.  

Who is Jonathan Trappe?

Jonathan Trappe is an FAA-licensed pilot who has achieved a number of notable cluster ballooning feats. In June 2008, Trappe used cluster balloons attached to an office chair to rise 15,000 feet into the sky above North Carolina, covering a distance of approximately 50 miles. A few months later, in August 2008, Trappe went on a 10-hour flight over Indiana that reached a height of 17,930 feet. In April 2010, Trappe set the Guinness World Record for the longest cluster balloon flight of 109 miles, which lasted overnight. In May 2010, Trappe flew cluster balloons over the English Channel. He has completed many flights since then.

What equipment do I need to safely go cluster ballooning?

Balloonists who want to go cluster ballooning require a variety of equipment to safely participate in the sport. Firstly, cluster balloonists require a set of balloons to provide lift. The number of balloons varies based on the height of the flight. Cluster balloonists also require a crew of 15 to 20 people to inflate their balloons with helium. In order to secure the filled balloons, balloonists need tape, cable ties, and nylon twine, which is used to attach the balloons in groups to nylon straps called risers. Cluster balloonists then require a paragliding harness, often with a rear parachute, to attach the risers to, though other devices, such as a seat or a balloon basket, may be used. In terms of other safety equipment, cluster balloonists may also wish to wear helmets or use instruments such as an altimeter to measure altitude.