Last year, my friend Brian Johnson came with us to his first and my third Burning Man. While it was an enjoyable experience, it felt kinda wrong not having a big project to do. We had some cool costumes and gadgets, but we felt like spectators instead of participants, and decided to return if & only if we could fix that. As usual, I had zillions of ideas afterwards, and this summer we settled on the one which seemed like the most fun with the least effort: lifting ourselves into the air with giant helium balloons. While I'd never paid much attention the Burning Man's previous themes, 2002 was going to be "The Floating World", which fit perfectly.
Now, we are by no means the first people to think of this. Many people have seen the french film Le Ballon Rouge (The Red Balloon). Lawn Chair Larry is a (true) urban legend, and experienced balloonist John Ninomiya has performed many "cluster balloon" flights. In fact, another team even tried to do the same thing at Burning Man this year, although they met with much less success than we did. But it sure sounded like fun.
We spent about two weeks busily preparing. Our background is in rock climbing, not ballooning, and our rig reflected that. We used climbing ropes, carabiners, and knots, and decided that the ascender would be on belay for smooth raising and lowering. Most parts of the system were redundant, except for the balloons (of which there were to be 30, so a failure was OK) and the climbing harness (which, when properly fastened, will essentially never fail). We were hoping to achieve an elevation of 100 feet, so safety was an important concern. We even contacted the Burning Man management to get permission, and they gave us a set of extremely reasonable rules to follow, such as only operating in low-wind conditions and monitoring the airport frequency.
I'll skip over the details of finding balloons that big, helium suppliers, and so forth, as logistical details are not very interesting. We'll get to the pretty pictures real soon, I promise. An important question was how we were going to attach balloons to the rig. I had originally envisioned some sort of net, but because of the size of our balloons it would have to have been huge. We also considered using rope to make simple "cages". However, when we received the balloons, the necks seemed quite strong, and able to resist a great deal of pull. Also, all the pictures on John Ninomiya's page show him suspended directly from the necks. Thus we decided to use this simple method, which proved problematic. Our main worry, besides general safety issues, was that the harsh desert environment would render the balloons ephemeral. The combination of sun, abrasive dust, and wind turned out to be even worse than we had feared.