January 27, 2013

Q&A with balloon adventurer Jonathan Trappe

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 3)

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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

In addition, one of the meteorological phenomena that poses the greatest risk is icing. If I am in a layer where supercooled water exists in vapor form, it can quickly adhere to the surface area of the balloons (great condensation nucli) and then freeze. This accumulation of ice could rapidly become catastrophic, as weight is added, forcing me down into the water below. It would be much better to exit the strata where icing can occur – for example by descending to lower, and warmer, altitudes where – where ambient temperature is above freezing and ice will not form.

So, 18,000-25,000 is possible for the oxygen system, equipment, and balloons – if meteorological conditions allow.

Keeping warm is mostly a factor of gear.  It’s like preparing for an arctic expedition. Think of Canada Goose products, though some North Face gear is also selected. There are also solid fuel products that burn at that altitude; these can be used to heat water, e.g. for tea and heat-in-bag food products.  However, the boiling temperature is a bit of a problem at 25,000 feet!  However, some warm fluid can do wonders for core body temperature. Finally, the gondola (boat!) also has an exposure canopy.

This canopy can be raised in flight to create a cocoon – like a small tent in the sky; this will help with heat loss and retention. ... Except, I could be well above even the altitudes of the Everest base camps, there is nothing below me but miles of open air followed by ocean, and I’m arguably more remote and removed from other people. Aside from even the balloons, and the fantasy form of flight I am pursuing, this expedition is pretty extreme in nature.

As far as whether it is more difficult to cross using gas cluster vs. a single cell, we have to acknowledge the data set is pretty small. Only two flights have ever made it from the USA across the Atlantic using only a lighter-than-air gas, even with a single, rugged, professional balloon! The last flight was nearly three decades ago, completed by a pilot who is a now a legend, Col. Kittinger. Then, we move on and add the complexity of the highly experimental nature of the gas cluster. There are not a lot of people on earth who have ever flown in manned flight using only toy helium balloons, let alone on the type of flights we are working on – long distance, long duration, and at high altitudes.  So, there is just little data; we’re in uncharted territories – which is part of the point.

The inflation procedure is much more difficult with my hundreds of balloons. You can stand a single-cell gas balloon with a few people. I’m going to need 50 people to assemble my gas cluster!  Interested people can contact me through the website to get the invite to come help launch us.

One nice thing: If you develop a tear in a single gas balloon, or have another failure, it can be catastrophic. For me, losing one cell is trivial: I simply release an amount of ballast (sand, water) to offset the lost lift. I can actually lose 80 percent of my balloons and still be in flight, in my Portland Pudgy. If it comes to it, I could even step into a small harness, cut the Pudgy away, allow it to fall to the ocean below, and fly on – all the way to the point where I’ve lost 90 percent of my balloons. However, doing so would mean that ditching at sea would no longer be survivable.

The major difference between this flight and those that I have completed is the raw, epic scale. That brings tremendous complexity – staying aloft for days at a time, reading and forecasting weather that far in advance, preparing for the remote nature of a solo trans-Atlantic flight, and even building a cluster of balloons large enough! It takes a massive cluster to even get a person off the ground, let alone gear and ballast for a flight like this. It will be 10 times what I’ve done before; it will be the largest cluster of balloons ever built; and it will be unlike anything that has ever gone before.

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