Explained: Illusionist David Blaine’s new stunt that saw him going up to 25,000 feet using helium balloons

Written by Mohamed Thaver
| Mumbai |

Updated: September 12, 2020 5:30:07 pm

Extreme performer David Blaine hangs with a parachute under a cluster of balloons during a stunt to fly thousands of feet into the air. (Photo: Reuters)

Last week, David Blaine floated up to nearly 25,000 feet using 52 helium balloons. He then detached himself from the balloons and skydived with the help of a parachute. YouTube, which livestreamed the event, has said that it was their most-viewed Originals live event.

Who is David Blaine?

David Blaine, 47, is an American illusionist, endurance artist and extreme performer who has several world records to his name in various feats of endurance. Speaking on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, he said as a kid he had read a book about magic in a library while waiting for his mother. He then started learning newer tricks and performed them to his mother. He then went from magic trick to endurance tricks and extreme performances. His latest act — Ascension — comes under extreme performances.

What are some of his well-known acts?

In 1999, in a stunt titled “Buried Alive” that he performed in New York, Blaine was entombed in an underground plastic box underneath a three-ton water-filled tank for seven days with his only communication to the outside world being a hand-buzzer. The next year, he attempted to stand on a large block of ice placed at Times Square for 72 hours, but had to be pulled out 63 hours 42 minutes owing to fear of him going into shock. The act was called “Frozen in time”,
In 2006, he went underwater in a water-filled sphere eight feet in diameter for seven days and seven nights. He named that act “Drowned Alive”.

What is his latest act about?

In collaboration with YouTube, in the event that was streamed live, the American was carried up by 52 helium balloons. Blaine eventually went up to 24,900 feet where he let go of the helium balloons attached to his body and skydived with the help of a parachute landing in Page, Arizona. During the course of the act that lasted over an hour, he was constantly communicating with a team of experts monitoring him and also his daughter Dessa to whom he dedicated the act. There was also a helicopter monitoring him till a certain altitude.

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What was the inspiration behind the act?

The reason he chose this particular act is two-fold, he said. The inspiration came from a childhood memory when his mother had taken him to see Albert Lamorisse’s movie The Red Balloon where the main character is carried away by a cluster of balloons. It was an image that always stayed with him, he said. Then, Blaine said he also saw the more recent 2009 animation movie ‘Up’, which is a story of a man who turns his house into an aircraft after tying it to hundreds of balloons.
The second motivation, he said, was his daughter, who got scared during his previous Act in 2012, “Electrified: One Million Volts always on”. During the act, he had stood on a 22-feet high pillar surrounded by seven Tesla coils producing an electrical discharge of one million volts or more. This time, he wanted to do something she would enjoy.

What were the concerns about Ascension?

Well-known skydiver Luke Aikins, who was present during the stunt, said there were four aspects about the stunt he was worried about. Firstly, it was the low oxygen levels at high altitude or hypoxia that could lead to skewed thinking and loss of judgement. For this, he carried oxygen in a small device that he could put in his mouth. The second fear was chilly temperatures at high altitude. The third fear, said Aikins, was affixing a parachute that was wound up to the balloons to himself mid-air. While the initial plan was to attach the parachute right from the beginning, Blaine, however, said that it did not match up with the image he had of a person just flying up with balloons. Hence, on his request, the parachute was attached to the balloons which he was to pull out during the course of the act. The fourth fear was the landing. He had to ensure while landing that he was away from power cables, people and came down on an empty patch. Hence, the Arizona desert was selected as a landing spot as against the earlier plan to perform it at his home-town New York in addition to the weather there.

What kind of training did Blaine undergo for the act?

Speaking on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Blaine said he had his friend sketch the act he had in mind nearly 15 years ago. Blaine said he prepared more for this stunt as compared to any other stunts he has performed till date. As per GQ Magazine (UK), Blaine has taken serious steps to prepare, including 500 skydives, earning a hot-air balloon pilot certificate, and a different, unspecified qualification for flying helium balloons. He has also learned to “read the wind”. Apart from this, Blaine also did some breathing exercises to be able to breathe at high altitudes.

Finally, how did the act go? How was it received?

There were no glitches during the act and right through he kept communicating with the team of experts on the ground and his daughter. As against the initial target of 18,000 feet, Blaine managed to reach over 24,800 feet before he let go of the balloons and sky-dived. As per YouTube, the stunt scored the most-viewed YouTube originals live event to date, with over 770,000 peak concurrent viewers which topped past events including “Dear Class of 2020” (665,000 peak concurrent viewers) and “The Creator Games Presented by Mr Beast” (662,000)

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