Mike Kuehlmuss of Massachusetts came to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2017 much like many others — with a love of aviation and an RV. But Mike also brought something not commonly seen at the annual convention: a hot air balloon attached to what looks like an inflated duffel bag for a seat.
“What we call it is a tank rider,” Mike said. “Basically you have the … envelope, and usually you need to have some kind of basket underneath, but my basket is just the propane tank that I sit on. … I built it myself. I mean, other people have done this before sort of in a similar fashion, and the simplicity of it appealed to me.”
Using the propane tank as landing gear was something of a concern, but Mike said there are protections within the fabric structure of the tank that prevent it from popping.
“Wherever you land, it’s not your choice and … you have to deal with whatever the ground is like,” he said. “So there’s plenty of padding and extra aluminum sheet metal underneath the tank — that you don’t see — that’s basically put into the fabric structure underneath so that I don’t puncture anything.”
Mike belongs to a small group of hot air balloon homebuilders from across the United States that builds experimental lighter-than-air aircraft. His hot air balloon was built by another member of the community — Curtis Pack, who hosted forums on this type of homebuilding at AirVenture many years ago. Mike recently restored it and just finished a second balloon.
“There’s about 400-500 yards of fabric in there. … You get a design first, so that it actually looks round in the end, which is kinda good,” Mike said, with a smile. He said sewing the fabric requires an industrial sewing machine and takes 150 hours or more.
Unlike large hot air balloons with baskets designed to hold several passengers, Mike said his balloon, Oshkosh Special, is so light it can carry only one or two people.
“The materials used for these are a lighter weight than your average balloon,” he said. “The standard balloons for four or five passengers, the envelope weighs 220-240 [pounds]. This envelope weighs 43 pounds.”
The lighter weight also allows a smaller chase vehicle to pick the balloon pilot up after landing. Mike said balloons usually rely on a pickup truck or similarly-sized vehicle, but he uses a 1978 Yamaha XS650 motorcycle, combining his love of cycling with his love of flying.