David Blaine is hoping to turn the fantasy of the 1956 classic French short film “The Red Balloon” (“Le Ballon Rouge”) into reality.
Blaine, a career magician, illusionist and endurance performer, is set to take flight over the desert in Page, Ariz., on Wednesday, Sept. 2 — piloting a cluster of 52 helium-filled balloons. The stunt will be exclusively livestreamed on YouTube, which is funding the project, and Blaine will narrate the entire experience for viewers from high above the Earth.
“I’m going to provide my point of view through the whole thing,” Blaine told Variety.
The event, weather permitting, is set to begin livestreaming at 5:55 a.m. PT on Sept. 2, on Blaine’s YouTube channel (at this link). Blaine said the setup for the stunt will take about an hour and a half, with the flight and landing expected to last about one hour.
Blaine originally wanted to stage “Ascension” in his hometown of New York City on Aug. 31. But the forecast for wind conditions in the Big Apple and overall safety concerns prompted him and his team of aviation experts to move it to Page, Ariz. (about 130 miles north of Flagstaff).
“Arizona is one of the best locations for ballooning,” Blaine said. “It allows for pretty optimal conditions.”
Wind is a critical factor in ballooning: A pilot can control the altitude of a balloon-based craft, but not the wind speed or direction. Blaine also said Arizona was a preferable location in terms of safety because, unlike New York City, there won’t be crowds of people to contend with.
“New York would be spectacle, which is not what we want right now,” Blaine said, whereas the attempt in Arizona “would be spectacular.” He added, though, that he still hopes to float over New York City on helium balloons one day.
How high will Blaine fly? “I have no idea,” he said.
The “Ascension” team expects he could go as high as 18,000 feet (about 3.4 miles), where oxygen levels are about half those at sea level, or even higher. Blaine said his crew will be monitoring his vitals, and if there are signs of hypoxia (life-threatening oxygen deprivation) or if his body temperature drops precipitously, they’ll pull the plug on the flight.
[UPDATE, 9/2, 9 a.m. PT: Blaine reached an altitude of 24,900 feet, about 4.7 miles, before parachuting safely to the ground, believed to be the highest anyone has flown with via cluster ballooning.]
Blaine’s attempt isn’t entirely unprecedented: People have managed to fly into the sky on nothing more than helium balloons (the infamous 2009 “Balloon Boy” hoax aside). But it’s the first such “cluster ballooning” stunt that will be broadcast live from the aeronaut’s perspective.
Blaine, 47, said the only anticipated difficulty in doing the balloon stunt in the Arizona desert is with the landing: “I don’t have experience with this terrain.”
The current flight plan is for Blaine to be harnessed to 42 eight-foot balloons and 10 smaller balloons (of 4-6 feet each). The balloon configuration is based on his weight (198 pounds), and may be adjusted based on his weigh-in Wednesday.
To control altitude, Blaine will be able to shed ballast (in the form of several small bags of sand) to go higher and will strategically release individual balloons to descend. “It’s almost like you can control a propane-gas balloon,” Blaine explained, noting that even a handful of sand is enough to affect the balloon cluster’s altitude.
Blaine, who was raised in Brooklyn by a single mom, said he’s dreamed of flying through the air on balloons ever since his mother took him to see Albert Lamorisse’s “The Red Balloon” when he was a kid. In the film’s climactic scene, the young boy at the center of the story is lifted high above Paris by a bunch of magical balloons. (Blaine only recently saw Pixar’s “Up,” in which, even more fancifully, Carl Fredricksen’s entire house is airborne by balloons.)
He’s spent the better part of the two years training for “Ascension,” which required him to obtain a pilot’s license (and a commercial balloon pilot’s license) as well as get certified as a skydiver. As far as safety precautions, Blaine will be outfitted with both a parachute and oxygen mask, which federal regulations require for any aircraft ascending to those altitudes.
The biggest danger, Blaine said, is that unlike his prior stunts — where he had a team nearby to pull him out if conditions became dire — “this one is just me all alone. That makes it different.” However, he said, he’ll be in constant communication with the team on the ground as he makes the ascent and landing.
With “Ascension,” Blaine said he wanted to undertake a more inspiring (and less death-defying) stunt because his 9-year-old daughter is going to be watching it. “I want this to be exciting and fun and colorful,” he said, adding that he added some pink balloons at her request.
Asked if he is nervous about the impending attempt, Blaine said, “I usually try to focus and think about the best possible outcome,” adding, “I will enjoy the view!”
Blaine’s “Ascension” stunt is being funded and produced by YouTube, which is hoping the thrill of the attempt draws a crowd of viewers from around the world.
“Throughout his 20-plus year career, David Blaine has consistently redefined magic and illusion by focusing on audiences’ experience first and foremost,” said Alex Piper, head of unscripted for YouTube Originals.
Blaine said he hooked up with YouTube for the stunt after being encouraged to reach out to the video platform by his friend and longtime YouTube creator Casey Neistat. “I’ve known Casey for years — he’s said that YouTube is the future of everything,” said Blaine. “I couldn’t be more grateful to be working with a partner like that.”
“Ascension” is Blaine’s first live stunt since 2012 — which also was livestreamed on YouTube — when he spent 72 hours standing on a pillar in New York City while being subjected to 1 million volts of electricity. Among other stunts, he’s been buried in a plastic box under a three-ton water-filled tank, spent seven days submerged in an 8-foot-diameter water-filled sphere in front of New York City’s Lincoln Center, and spent nearly 64 hours encased in a massive block of ice in Times Square.