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Riding a flying armchair

Ahead of its new film, "Up," Pixar hosts a "cluster ballooning" event that involves a flying armchair and lots of carabiners.

CNET News reporter Daniel Terdiman takes a ride in a flying armchair. The chair is suspended underneath what is known as a balloon cluster, and the ride took place at the Emeryville, Calif., headquarters of Pixar Animation.
Raquel Baldwin

EMERYVILLE, Calif.--You might think sitting in a flying armchair would be a blood-pumping, adrenaline-rushing, and terrifying pastime. But I'm here to tell you that it's pretty darn smooth sailing.

I know because on Friday morning, I got a chance to take a ride on, yes, a flying armchair. And while I didn't crash it into power cables or cause a major blackout like Larry Walters, aka "Lawnchair Larry", I did take some serious air.

This was a rare opportunity to take part in what I suppose is the little-known sport of cluster ballooning. Ultimately, it was part of a high-flying promotion for the forthcoming Pixar animated film "Up."

"Up" hits theaters on May 29. As IMDB puts it, "By tying thousands of balloons to his home, 78-year-old Carl Fredricksen sets out to fulfill his lifelong dream to see the wilds of South America. Right after lifting off, however, he learns he isn't alone on his journey, since Russell, a wilderness explorer 70 years his junior, has inadvertently become a stowaway on the trip."

According to Disney spokesperson Raquel Baldwin, "Up," Pixar's tenth feature film, and the first done in Disney digital 3D, included 20,622 hand-animated balloons that Fredricksen uses to hoist his house aloft. Of course, Baldwin added, researchers at Pixar discovered it would actually take several million normal-size balloons to get much lift on a house.

Still, what better way to promote such a film than to hire two world-class cluster balloonists (Troy Bradley and Jonathan Trappe) to conduct simultaneous tours around the American West and East, respectively, giving local media rides in an armchair suspended from dozens of huge, brightly colored balloons.

I arrived at Pixar's campus here at about 5:15 a.m. Friday, just as a woman named Devony Corry, a longtime commercial hot-air balloon pilot, was holding onto one of the large, helium-filled balloons. It was clipped onto and tugging insistently at a belt loop on her pants. "This is what we need for guys who wear their pants too low," she joked, adding, "I'm just afraid it's going to rip the belt loop off my pants."

The armchair is seen in the early-morning light, before being rigged up to the balloon cluster. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Here in Emeryville, Bradley (who along with Richard Abruzzo, became the first two people to fly a balloon nonstop from North America to Africa) is in charge of a group of about 10 or so people who are rapidly filling the large balloons with helium and clipping them into a quickly-growing cluster.

"We're hoping we'll lose a few people for good footage," Bradley joked as I arrived.

At this point, with the sky still in its pre-dawn state, Bradley and his crew had gotten the cluster to just 13 balloons. But he said the ultimate goal was to reach between 64 and 70 balloons, which, combined, will contain about 8,000 cubic feet of helium and have about 500 pounds of lift.

For now, the 13 balloons (which quickly become 14, then 15, 16, and so on as team members clip new ones onto the cluster) are tethered to two giant helium tanks. A brown armchair rests on the ground next to the tanks, seemingly calling out to take someone skyward.

As the sky begins to take on a little color, it's clear we're going to be blessed with a spectacular day complete with what Bradley calls "absolutely awesome conditions." Read: no wind.

At the core of the cluster is a small set of 8-1/2-foot balloons, around which are being added a set of 7-footers. Later, the cluster will be filled out with a large number of 5-footers.

As she holds on to one of the 7-footers, I chat with Corry, who tells me she's been piloting hot air balloons for more than 25 years. She said she had learned about the cluster ballooning event here by reading an e-mail chain inviting qualified folks to "come out and crew."

After awhile, the cluster is getting too big to remain tethered to the helium tanks, and Bradley and a couple of helpers carefully clip it to the armchair. But because of the lift from the cluster, it's necessary to seat someone in the chair, and so a woman named Carol Bair takes the plunge. Still, the cluster of balloons is testing Bair's weight. "He (Bradley) said the chair tips forward and I don't have my seat belt on yet," Bair joked.

One by one, team members arrive from helium tanks arrayed around the amphitheater here where the event is being held, ready to help add to the girth and wild colors of the cluster. There's actually a queue, as it's faster to fill a balloon, it seems, than to clip one on to the cluster.

"I can't afford to lose any weight," Bair said. "I have to be ballast."

The balloon cluster begins to take air as it approaches completion. At its base is an armchair in which Carol Bair sits patiently. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Indeed, as a couple more balloons are clipped in, Bair gives a little shout and we can see the foot of the chair begin to move around on its own: Armchairs suspended from cluster balloons clearly have a need to take to the sky.

Carol's husband, Ray Bair, is another member of Bradley's traveling team. The three of them, plus two others, have come from Albuquerque, N.M., and have hit cities like Chicago, Cincinnati, Seattle, and St. Louis with the promotional balloon cluster on their way to Pixar. Bair tells me a cluster like this is intended to look like a lightbulb, though "it's a little different every time."

As the early morning sun crested the trees near the entrance to Pixar's campus, the balloons become brightly lit and, with the sky a brilliant blue and the balloons' various colors almost glowing, it looks absolutely glorious.

"It looks like a perfect morning," Carol Bair said.

"Oh yeah," Bradley answered, "You can't ask for better."

Taking air
The plan was that at 8 a.m., the balloon team would be done and could start giving journalists rides in the flying armchair. There were a lot of other reporters who had signed up for the privilege, but none of them had gotten to Pixar at 5:15. So I got to go first (see the video below).

I sat down in the chair and several people began strapping me in, even as two people sat on the arms to keep the cluster, the chair, and me from flying away. The wind began to pick up a little, and I could feel the chair sliding around a little bit underneath me. Just then, Baldwin handed me a waiver to sign. I joked I'd sign it when the ride was over.

Finally, we were ready, and the chair began to rise. It was smooth, almost surreally so. If I hadn't known what was going on, I wouldn't have known what was going on. They let me rise up to about 30 feet in the air, and then say a few words into a small microphone attached to my shirt, since they were filming the whole thing.

In fact, because there were already a bunch of other reporters lined up to take an armchair flight, the ride lasted just a few minutes. I would have liked to go up much higher--maybe not as high as 20,000 feet, what I understand is the rig's limit, but a little higher. But oh, well. Beggars can't be choosers.

I touched down, just as quietly and smoothly as I'd taken off, and then, just like that it was over.

You can call me "Flying Armchair Daniel." Or maybe something a little catchier than that.

On June 22, Geek Gestalt will kick off Road Trip 2009. After driving more than 12,000 miles in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last three years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more in Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and South and North Dakota. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. And in the meantime, join the Road Trip 2009 Facebook page and follow my Twitter feed.