Aleksandra Mir

Plane Landing

Interview, BBC Radio Bristol, 8 July 2003
By Rachel Burden

RACHEL BURDEN: It's 90 minutes past 7:00 on Morning West, BBC Radio Bristol with Rob Salvidge and Rachel Burden. Bristol-based Cameron Balloons have developed a giant inflatable jet plane which, when filled with helium, will float as a sculpture in a permanent state of landing. The plane balloon was dreamt up by the American artist Aleksandra Mir, who was inspired on a visit to Bristol four years ago. The plane took months to build. It weighs as much as a large man. Flo Bailey visited the Cameron Balloons factory and spoke to some of the staff who work there.

MALE SPEAKER: This one is shaped like an aeroplane. It's a project for an artist, Aleksandra Mir, who has had the concept of making an aeroplane fly, but just hover as a helium-filled balloon. It has a body that is filled with helium and the wings will be air-pressurised. It's very unusual to see an aeroplane that is flying but not moving forward, and is static in the air. Very tricky to get the thin surfaces, the wings and the tail surfaces to hold their position just from air pressure alone.

FEMALE SPEAKER: It took us roughly about four weeks to actually make the jumbo jet. So... it took awhile for designers to design it, but just for the sewing part, I would have said about four weeks.

FLO BAILEY: Okay Liz, do you enjoy working on these strange balloons?

LIZ: Yeah, it's quite nice because everything's different... different jobs all the time. Yeah.

FB: And joining me now is Gavin Hales. He's just jumped out of his fork lift truck.

GAVIN Hales: Well my job primarily was to interface between the design and the production side and to deal with all the patterning of the material, and cutting it and ensuring that all the bits and pieces go together as they should do. And of course with these sorts of things, inevitably there are problems along the way. And it's sort of my job to try and iron them out as best as I can .

FB: Okay now, you are the man in the know. So you will be able to tell me how big the plane actually is.

GH: It's about approximately 60 feet long. And the whole thing weighs 91 kilos, and it's 106 cubic meters of helium. Well, it's a 737, and considering it is a fabric structure and it's helium filled, it looks very similar to the real thing. I think it's quite intricate but it's certainly quite challenging. And it's certainly the first plane that I've ever made. In total, with the design, the manufacturing, there were about eight people that worked on the plane at different stages. It's been very much a team effort.

RB: A little bit earlier I spoke to Aleksandra Mir from her home in Manhattan, in New York. She's the artist behind the project. And I asked her where the idea for the balloon had come from.

ALEKSANDRA MIR: I was actually in England on a train going on my way to Bristol when I saw in the sky a few planes in the process of landing. And they were back-lit and they looked like they were standing still. And I thought it was an amazing visual. And I was wondering if it would be possible to actually create that visual. From there it became a very pragmatic process of actually trying to find a balloon manufacturer who could take it on. And the idea of actually producing a helium inflatable jet plane that would be tethered to the ground and would be a kind of inverted sculpture.

RB: And how did you get in touch with Cameron Balloons then?

AM: Well it's funny because obviously I don't come from ballooning and I don't come from aviation. I'm a visual artist and I work in a wide variety of mediums. But every time I take on a new challenge in a new field that I have no clue about... so I do a lot of research. And I started actually sourcing the world for balloon manufacturers, and ironically, or maybe obviously, I ended up back in Bristol where Cameron Balloons is situated. They're a world-leading balloon manufacturer. We've been talking for two years and going back and forth, back and forth trying to figure this out. And now this object does exist. You know, we're hoping that it will work, but it's a huge experiment. But at least we have it, and we've done it and I'm very anxious to see it work myself.

RB: You came to the very best place of all, coming to Cameron Balloons.

AM: Yes, it was the absolutely obvious solution. I didn't have that information. I wasn't aware of that even when I started thinking about this.

RB: As we've just been hearing, the actual engineering involved in this is terribly complicated. How much of that have you been involved in?

AM: Nothing. I don't know anything about engineering. I've just been this sort of silly artist with a dumb idea, and that sort of brought the vision. Don Cameron's first question to me was, "What is the vision?" So, I don't feel I've been infantilised in that process, but it's been, you know, my whims and my kind of aesthetic kind of idea... it's something that they've had to translate and it's absolutely their knowledge and their insight.

RB: That's the American artist Aleksandra Mir. Now, she's responsible for the concept behind this helium-filled jet plane. It's kind of hard to explain Rob, but it's going to appear as a hovering jet in landing position. And it's first 'fake flight' if you like, will be in a couple weekends' time. It's an event in Warwickshire.

ROB SALVIDGE: You paint such a wonderful, vivid picture.

RB: (chuckling) Don't I just? I spent a long time on the phone to her and I still couldn't get quite around it.

RS: We look forward to seeing pictures of it. (laughter) It's 24 minutes past 7:00. Sport along very shortly.