John Ninomiya has lived out a childhood fantasy more than 40 times and will do so again at this year’s Thurston Classic hot-air balloon event.

Ninomiya, of Solana Beach, Calif., has been a hot-air balloonist for 20 years, but he won’t be using a conventional balloon with basket at the Thurston. Instead, he will fly a helium cluster balloon.

Ninomiya wears a harness with dozens of large, helium-filled latex balloons attached and has an emergency parachute for safety, said Ted Watts, chairman of the Thurston Classic committee and a hot-air balloonist himself.

“It’s bizarre to see him going along,” Watts said.

There are only about a half-dozen such pilots in the world who use this unique form of ballooning, according to Ninomiya’s Internet site www.clusterballoon.org.

Ninomiya takes off with more balloons than needed to lift his weight, releasing water ballasts to ascend. To descend, he bursts or releases balloons. He’ll use about 80 balloons — each ranging in size from 4 to 6 feet — at the Thurston.

“They’re not a toy balloon, but similar to what they use for weather observation,” Watts said.

Watts befriended Ninomiya at a ballooning event in Ashland, Ohio, last July. Ninomiya is doing a project called “States of Enlightenment” in which he is trying to fly with helium balloons in all 50 states.

“I told him if he ever wanted to come to Pennsylvania, we’d be interested,” said Watts.

Ninomiya is expected to fly the evening of June 16.

His interest in ballooning was inspired as a child after seeing the French film, “The Red Balloon.” In it, a young boy is carried over Paris by a bouquet of helium-filled toy balloons.

He began teaching himself to fly with helium balloon clusters five years ago.

“It’s challenging because it’s harder to control than a hot-air balloon,” Ninomiya said in a statement. “But, there’s nothing else like it — it’s like a child’s dream of flight come true.”

His flight will be sponsored by Airgas Great Lakes, a local supplier of industrial gases, Watts said.

It will take more than 8,000 cubic feet of industrial helium to fill the balloons — about 35 large cylinders. It’s estimated it will take 15 volunteers about two hours to inflate all the balloons necessary.

“It’s not every day you’re asked to supply 8,000 cubic feet of helium,” said Kim Shorts, Meadville branch manager for Airgas. “I had a difficult time picturing John taking off harnessed to 80 helium balloons, but when Ted supplied us with pictures of John in flight, it made a little more sense.”

The company has sponsored two of Ninomiya’s previous flights at the NABA Hot Air Balloon National in Baton Rouge, La.



Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at kgushard@meadvilletribune.com

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