January 27, 2013

Q&A with balloon adventurer Jonathan Trappe

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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TO CONTACT Jonathan Trappe, visit his website, www.clusterballons.com

WATCH A VIDEO of Trappe's test of the Portland Pudgy in Casco Bay: youtu.be/e6ZRX7pLUC0

BELL:. I heard you tested the boat in Casco Bay and rode it for a couple of days. Could you tell me about that, when and where, and what the experience was like?

TRAPPE: The video tells a little of that 53-hour assessment of the Pudgy out in Casco Bay:                 youtu.be/e6ZRX7pLUC0

BELL: What’s the biggest risk of the journey? Are you worried about landing the gondola in stormy seas?

TRAPPE: We can solve for a number of factors, but we can’t solve for weather. However, we can make some smart decisions. All pilots are trained in weather, but I don’t have a post-graduate degree in meteorology. So, we work with experts. I must be connected extremely closely with the team meteorologists that will help guide our tiny craft through the skies, across thousands of miles of open ocean, and to something dry on the far side of the deep. Crossing the Atlantic by balloon can be compared to taking a series of trains, as I connect with different weather systems during the flight. The meteorologists will help us identify a weather system that gives us a chance to make the crossing, and help with the transitions so I don’t 'miss my connection’ mid-Atlantic, as it were, and be left drifting languidly toward the Azores, or much, much worse.

The risks of the journey are many. Have you ever heard of a completely safe expedition? The words are incongruous together. We are casting ourselves into the sky under helium balloons and literally riding the winds to destinations unknown at launch. We are traversing some of the most serious challenges of this earth, the great North Atlantic – serious by any measure. We respect the serious nature of the expedition, allow for contingency, and prepare for eventualities. I work to methodically reduce the risks such that we can share this expedition, as a great success, with the world.

I’ve given substantial thought to ditching in rough seas. My shakeout flight included a landing onto water, but I don’t mistake the calm waters of that lake in Mexico for the conditions I could see in the North Atlantic. The gondola chosen, the Portland Pudgy, can handle rough seas. The exposure gear – like the Mustang Survival cold water immersion suit, can prolong life even in bitter cold waters. The satellite trackers provide real-time location information throughout the crossing, every couple of minutes. The emergency beacon immediately identifies my location and severity of distress, if it comes to that.

There are many conditions that could be life-threatening to me in my tiny boat, but trivial to an ocean-going vessel that might provide assistance. Then there are the conditions where no one can help. I could successfully ditch into the ocean – cutting away the quick release to free all the balloons so I don’t bash through the waves – and be in my cold-water survival suit, in the rugged lifeboat, with the sea-sickness medication already in my system, only to get literally battered to death while tethered via the restraint harness to the boat. It’s the goddamn North Atlantic. I’ve given it some thought.

Yet I maintain it can be done.

BELL: How high will you fly? I assume you will have to have oxygen. How will you keep warm? Do you think crossing the Atlantic with cluster balloons is more difficult or dangerous that using one big gas balloon? What’s the difference between your trip and past trips?

TRAPPE: Depending on wind trajectories and ambient temperatures, I am capable of flying with the balloons between 18,000 and 25,000 feet. This connects to your question on oxygen: I have two cylinders, each of which is rated for use up to 18,000 feet using nasal canulas and 25,000 using a mask. This is also the limit that I want to push my balloons to; as I climb, atmospheric pressure decreases and, as in the ideal gas law, the helium in the balloons expands. By 18,000 feet the volume has doubled, stretching the balloons, and by 18,000 feet I am starting to stress the envelopes. By 25,000 feet I’m pushing what the balloons can handle and will likely blow out some cells going above this altitude.

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