The New "Piccard Pleiades"   Gas  Balloon For Casual Carefree Sport  and Serious Racing

The "Variable Volume " by Don Piccard.

The variable volume, "Multi-balloon" Pleiades ("Play-Ah-Dease"), named after the constellation Seven Sisters or Subaru,  is the solution to using one "Balloon" to satisfy the varying needs of balloonists: from a one day solo flight to a multi-day Gordon Bennett Race or trans oceanic type operation.  Perhaps the mission is a full competition flight with a 1.000 cubic meter limit.  Perhaps it is just one person with a goal of a short fun flight at low altitude.  With VIP you can launch only half full and then instead of finding your "Float" altitude at 18,000 feet you can manipulate our exclusive buoyancy  control snouts to create a synthetic ceiling of only a few hundred feet ASL!  Or you can rig to fly with a full system and manipulate your ceiling as meteorology and navigation dictate without wasting gas or ballast.  Take off, climb high, get out of town and then drop down floating on any ceiling altitude you desire.  

Think about the implications of that for competition.

For a short solo flight where minimum gas purchase is desired, we specify a minimum of four cells  to honor our redundant structure philosophy.  As load carrying capacity is to be increased, the individual cells are inflated to greater percentages of their potential until close to 100% may be reached.  Then, for greater loads, or a higher initial float altitude, more cells are inflated up to the FAA certified maximum gross lift for that particular system.

Now you only need one "Balloon" in your hangar!  One registration fits all variations.

 A single cell could be used for "Jump Balloon" novelty demonstrations with a mountain climbing harness.   The option of operating under FAR Part 103 is a non frills solution that might utilize just a few cells and a small home assembled version dumpster basket.  The Piccard Pleiades is designed for use with hydrogen, helium or methane ("Gaz Ordinare").

The system can be rigged to start with only four or five cells or as many as you like - either full or partially inflated.   There is no need to "Pack" a Piccard Pleiades system.  If you go to 12,000 ft, one third of your gas is lost on the way, for 18,000 ft one half is vented.  So there is no reason to buy it in the first place. 


Seventy-Five Years in the Making

The Past Is Prologue 

The 1937 flight of the "Pleiades" from Rochester, Minnesota.  Sponsored by the Kiwanis Club of Rochester.

The craft consisted of two  clusters of 48 latex sounding balloons inflated with hydrogen gas.   It carried an aluminum basket, flew with a midnight launch to just over 10,000 ft altitude and landed in the Mississippi River Valley just over the border in Iowa shortly after dawn. It  was the first Multi Balloon Flight.  Jean Piccard, inventor and pilot, with Jeannette, John, Paul and Don Piccard, plus many others, as launch crew.  (This is still be a good way to go and a safe way to fly - IT WORKS!)




1958 Twenty Balloon Solo Flight in Life Magazine

This was four mil polyethylene sealed by Chrystal X of Lenni, Pennsylvania inflated with Philadelphia city gas (methane) at Valley Forge Airport.   Photos by Ted Russell, Life Magazine.  This was the world's first multi balloon ("Pleiades") manned balloon flight using plastic material for the individual balloon cells. This design used 24 inch bicycle rims for individual cell load rings plus internal and external top lines for venting and deflation.  These were dubbed "Milk Bottle" balloons by the Encyclopedia Britannica.  One cell had a creep seam failure two hours into the flight.  The gas loss was compensated for by ballasting a little sand and a safe landing was made in time for an Amish lunch on a Pennsylvania Dutch farm.  Don Piccard, designer and test pilot, Joan Piccard and Harry Payne Whitney, chase crew.  Sponsored by Newark Trust Company of Newark, Delaware.

This would still be a good way to go and a safe way to economically fly - IT ALSO WORKS!


1962 World Class Record Flight of Midwest Shrine Ceremonial Session "Sioux City Sues"  One mil polyethylene with helium.  Eight cells to 17,000 ft.

Don Piccard design, cells designed and manufactured by Jim Winker, Raven Industries (with S-40 Vulcoon seating.)



2003, World's First Two Man Multi Balloon Flight (with 1/4 mil Mylar film,) Designed by Don Piccard. Built by Don Piccard and Ed Chapman.  Flown by Don Piccard with Anja Kuemmerlein, Co-pilot, using hydrogen at Chambley, France. Lower picture shows cells in mid launch, released simultaneously from circular inflation stations, at Boise, Idaho exhibition with helium.  Note that the suspension lines appear ;longer than necessary.  This is to permit flights with more cells without too great an angle between units.


The First Modern Gas Sport Balloon

Here is the world's first "Natural Shape", or "Quick Fill", gas sport balloons.  This balloon introduced Kevlar load tapes, single point suspension with parachute load back up, (compared to catenary curtain or net suspension) full ducted appendix for exclusion of entrained ambient air, top inflation tube, compression loaded aluminum maneuvering valve, urethane coated nylon, high frequency welded seams and a new invention, the reliable Piccard Velcro Cuff Deflation Port ("Rip Panel").

The suspension featured redundant loading.  The primary load was concentrated on the base fitting of the balloon.  This is similar to a routine plastic stratosphere balloon.  The flight load is carried from there by load tapes on each of the straight  seams of the envelope.   In addition we have a redundant suspension that consists of external nylon ropes from the load ring bypassing the base fitting of the balloon cell up to the horizontal tape a third of the way up the balloon.   In the case of an inadvertent deflation port opening, a lightning strike or other envelope damage the primary load line may be cut to release the bottom section to deploy up and form a parachute.  It would be a small parachute with a high but likely survivable rate of descent.  In regular service the external ropes are only lightly loaded to prevent rotation betrween the balloon and the car.

They carried Piccard Kydex   "Body Helmets"  (The third in the series, N38JT used a classical wicker basket with hand served black walnut toggles on a laminated mahogany load ring.)  An interesting feature - the duct  - reflects in the "Snout" venting system on the new Piccard Pleiades.  The FAA registration number (N1) on the balloon was not retained, but returned to Langhorne Bond, the FAA Administrator who loaned ownership of it to Don Piccard for the World Gas Championships in Brussels, Belgium.

We find it discouraging that now, over a quarter of a century later, the engineering advances in load distribution and safety features have not been adopted by the general gas balloon industry.  The above balloon, N1, is made obsolete by our new Pleiades multi or cluster balloon even before its technological advances have been generally recognized! (That is, with the exception of my Velcro cuff  "Belly Button" deflation system which is now almost universally adopted in netless balloons.)

Lots of Kisses

Here we have a cold air indoor test inspection of an oversize cell for methane.

Note that the load fitting is at lower left and the snout is at lower right in this picture.  In flight, the load fitting is at the bottom with the suspension cord going down to the car.  The snout leaves the balloon at an upper corner and is retained at the load fitting to be loosed for venting.  The flattened surface at two thirty O'clock position in the above picture is roughly the top dead center of the cell in flight. The material used in this cell is the new Piccard Pleiades' proprietary laminate. -

Here we see the base of the cell and the load fitting.  The brown cord is for ground handling.  The red cord is for the suspension and the white cord is for vent control.  The sleeve on the left is a bleed appendix for releasing entrained air on inflation.  It is closed for flight.  The suspension load distribution onto the surface of the cell skin is enhanced by the star burst fold back barely visible as brightly shining radial points from the suspension fitting.



 Methane gas inflation of a TETROON  .

  This balloon shape is called a Tetroon.   It is fabricated as an equilateral tetrahedron with four equilateral triangular sides using very thin high density anti-static polyethylene.  This one has a net lift of over 30 pounds.  Production gas cells are being made with a new high tensile fabric that has an aluminum inner surface for complete anti-static protection.  Each cell will lift approximately  150 pounds with hydrogen and half that with city gas.  A Gordon Bennett Race assembly will entail eighteen individually suspended cells.  A solo flight unit for operating under FAR Part 103 could have as few as three or four.  (Those cells will be interchangeable and still fully certified.)  However, if operating under Part 103 they do not need to be certified and, if flying in Minnesota, no state registration or insurance is required.  As such a system is not registered as an aircraft with the state or the federal government it is covered under many homeowners policy as a recreational vehicle at no extra premium!

Photos courtesy of the Mettleworks & Gene Olson.

City Park on New Year's Day. The balloon contraption supported the trapeze for the previous night's celebrations.

Bisbee, AZ by countertext.

This is a twenty foot tetroon at approximately 5,000 ft. ground level  altitude.  It remained tethered for over twenty four hours before being packed up to see another day.  The cell was taken from current sport balloon production for the public display.   You would want six or seven of this reusable model (without the disposable rubber balloons) for a  manned (Part 103) free flight.   Photo and top caption from Flicker.


After all the research, experience and new materials we are ready for the next phase.  We now present the new Piccard Pleiades, not with 1/2 mil polyethylene  or even polyester as the above, both of which  have been well proven, but with a nylon laminate over twice as thick and many times stronger.  We have increased the cross section at the load bearing point dramatically beyond our experimental cells.  That makes a massive increase in the already great safety factor.  We decrease the electrical resistance from the 1,000,000,000 Ohms of the electrostatic polyethylene pink film to the 4 Ohms of the aluminum metalized Mylar.  And that on the tougher nylon laminate!  The proofing tests on this design have been totally succesful.

The structural security of our snout equipped tetrahedron balloon cells is the triumph of research and development from our "Milk Bottle" balloons of 1950s through the  tailored "Natural Shape" of  the 60's and the  economical square cut "Onion" cylinder fabrications of the 90's.  Our venting system, which gives exquisite control of altitude stability through the use of our unique snout vent, has been proven a seminal improvement.

The overall multi-cell redundancy and structural  safety factors of the Piccard Pleiades, enhanced over the traditional 1783 "Close coupled" netted system of Prof. Charles, is readily apparent in the landing sequence.  The basket can be stopped and safe on the ground while the gas cells are still at greater than high line ("Hummers") height.  The gas cells drift downwind of the basket on landing so that no matter what gas is utilized, it is at a safe distance from the basket.  In addition, the gas cells are essentially empty by the time the discharge openings approach the ground and could be affected by exterior influences or, as in the case of ammonia, can cause other problems.

(The regular aluminum layered skin is not suitable for anhydrous ammonia.  Non-metalized laminate is available on special order.  We have flown NH3, but don't care for it and don't recommend it.  The ammonia enthusiast, however will appreciate the distance between crew and gas - in flight and in landing of the Piccard Pleiades.  In our routine deflation, practically all the gas is released while the cells are still high and well away from the crops.  For those who don't want the expense of hydrogen or helium as their lifting gas, we feel that natural gas - methane or "Gaz Ordinaire" -  is a better choice than ammonia.)

Cells for use with methane are larger but make ideal equipment for high altitude ascensions with hydrogen or helium.

Suspension cords for 2015 may become available in 2,000 pound test Dyneema brand braided cord to save weight at extra cost, but our standard 1,000 pound test tubular nylon webbing is the current preferred recommendation due to its elasticity and minimum weight penalty.  Earlier models have used 500 pound test parachute cord  with more than the required safety factor.  The Piccard Pleiades routinely entails ultra conservative safety factors in addition to the statistical redundancy inherent in multi balloon configuration.   We are ready.


Prior to starting production with a Type Certificated Gordon Bennett Balloon Race model system, the XAP Foundation, LTD is  producing a limited number of methane models.  These will operate under the FAA Ultra light (FAR Part 103) category.  This pre-production is proceeding under the personal guidance of Don Piccard.  These will have a maximum allowable total volume of just under 1,000 cubic meters (35,000 cu. ft.) made up by an ensemble of up to twelve individual tetroons.  They will come configured with a small molded polyethylene Body Helmet.  THIS IS NOT KYDEX and will therefore have limited service, particularly in regard to low temperature environment.  (One patron is using a conventional wicker basket from his hot air balloon.)

These balloons will NOT  use the Dyneema on the cell suspension cords.  (Dyneema, while the strongest fiber in the world, has not been proven in service in the Pleiades concept.  This series design entails only tried and proven features.)

As you can easily calculate, they will be able to operate with less than the full complement of cells.  Each system has been custom designed and tailored specifically for the intended pilot.  As such, the users have been selected more as partners than customers.  

If you are ready and are interested in joining the club, please give Don Piccard a personal call at 612 333 6912 and get the particulars now.  

This Part 103 pre-production order has been confirmed.  We are going ahead, but you may join the priority list for the next stage which may be LSA or full T.C., as yet undetermined.

FAR  LSA  & 103 units will be upgradable to the future FAA Standard Certificated models with Kydex open baskets.

  Specifications and offer are subject to change prior to confirmation of order.

See:  (The Piccard "Schjelmile" patent referred to was one of Don's contribution to that saga.)


(Sort of Blog)

I have had several people ask about the tear strength of the nylon laminate we use for the cell skin.  Any balloon fabric will tear under various conditions.  The only influences that may start a tear are on the ground.  In an orthodox single cell gas balloon, ANY tear up on the balloon surface is the end of the flight eventually.  In a cluster balloon, it is an inconsequential event as any one cell is insignificant for continued operation.  As our balloon cells are high in the air above the basket they don't generally suffer damage going through trees. 

Because of the nature of our laminate, tears from barbed wire or dead trees are clean cut straight tears that are easy to fix with tape.   With high tear resistant fabric, any tear has a complicated edge that is hard to repair.  Normal coated, woven, gas balloon fabric has a heavy coating for low permeability and consequentially low tear strength, but again, there is nothing to institute a tear in the air so that is not critical.

We just had a customer who tethered his balloon without a security guard and vandals hit the cell with projectiles which cut a hole that propagated extensively.  While the tears were not quite straight lines they were easily repaired with heavy duty pressure sensitive tape  on the inside.  A more conscientious repair would have included heat seal tape on the outside surface.

While hot air balloons normally operate with some existing holes and are therefore subject to in-flight tears from dynamic distortions ("Jonathan Livingstone Seagull" was an example).  Gas balloons should not even have a pin hole. 

Tear strength is the mouse in the room, it squeaks but is not an elephant.



This is an early Don Piccard Balloons Kydex Body Helmet now at the Abruzzo Anderson Museum in Albuquerque.

For extended flights, such as a Gordon Bennett type event, the PP-35 system with the 3 1/2 x 4 1/2 foot version open Kydex basket and an ensemble of eighteen cells, totaling 35,000 cubic foot displacement, is the top of the line.  An Ultra-Light "Shorty" one man cabin is available for operating solo under FAR Part 103 with only four or five cells - for training and exhibition ascensions.  More cells, only partially inflated at launch, can be used for high altitude service.

(Right foot in bottom hole, left foot in middle hole and then stand erect, turn and put right foot in top hole from inside and finally left foot in inside center hole.  It works!)

Note that the bottom pigeon hole is at floor level for drainage.  The standard basket suspension system consists of four double bands of  4,000 pound test Dyneema webbing secured inside the bottom skids for protection.  We especially like the facility of the Body Helmet for application of sponsor's advertising media.


The Hindenburg Syndrome 

 - For a monograph on the 1937 catastrophe where 13 passengers were killed,  Click here.

Contact Don Piccard by E-Mail at,  or telephone at 612 333 6912                        This page current as of 2/11/2015.