If WFMU reaches our Lift-Off campaign goal this Wednesday and sends Station Manager Ken into space with 25 tanks-worth of helium balloons affixed to his lawn chair, it will be a triumphant moment. Can you picture it? I'm not actually sure what it's going to look like (fortunately there'll be a live video feed) but I can already imagine the feeling of looking up at the sky to see Ken -- a tiny speck burried in a sea of multicolored balloons -- and all of us down in the parking lot here in Jersey City smiling with great pride, just knowing that the station will be able to stay afloat through the frigid dark winter months ahead. Why? Because everybody chipped in -- either by pledging to the station and/or by putting their lives at risk -- to keep freeform radio afloat!
But did you know that our visionary leader would not be the first person to take flight through the power of helium? In fact, there's an entire website devoted to "Cluster Ballooning," and I've been reading up on some of the most famous examples in an online science magazine called the Darwin Awards:
- Father Adelir Antonio de Carli (left) was a Brazilian priest who attempted to break the world record for helium-propelled flight back in April 2008. The stunt was meant as a fundraiser for his parish. He set flight from the port city of Paranagua on April 20th 2008, never to return.
- In 1982, "Lawn Chair Larry" (right) spent 16 hours on his favorite lawn chair eating sandwiches and drinking beer at 16,000 feet above Los Angeles. "The Federal Aviation Administration was not amused," but he did inspire a whole generation of cluster balloonists.
Both of these stories end in tragedy, but WFMU's story will be different because we are taking some precautions. For example, they didn't think to use a safety harness, or to hire a sniper to take out a few balloons in case the wind picks up and Ken floats into air traffic control space (good idea Rich Hazelton!). Many of us have even gotten a jump start on pledging, since pledge-fuel is the only variable that is not yet fully accounted for. And earlier today, Ken was hovering right outside my window testing the strength of his harness. Hey wait a minute -- he's still out there! And his harness seems to be holding strong despite today's snow flurries and 10-degree wind chill... that is a good omen.
As we prepare for Wednesday morning's launch and figure out a safe place to store these 25 extremely volatile helium tanks, I'd recommend reading more about the history of helium-balloon powered flight and watching a rare video of Father Adelir Antonio de Carli after the jump.
Also, be sure to tune in to this Tuesday's Thunk Tank (7-8p ET). Station Manager Ken joins WFMU's Chief Science Office Bronwyn C. to discuss the aeronautic research behind Wednesday's lawn-chair-and-balloon fundraising launch.