January 27, 2013

Q&A with balloon adventurer Jonathan Trappe

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Reporter Tom Bell interviewed Jonathan Trappe via email because Trappe is currently in the Philippines. Based on a compilation of several emails, here is a Q & A of the interview:

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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: Where are you now?

TRAPPE:  I am spending the off-months in the Philippines, in sunny Manila. My firm has a number of offices here, and I’m able to work with my colleagues on-site for a period before returning to Maine for the flight.

BELL: How old are you? Have you turned 39 yet? You mentioned your firm. How do I describe you professionally?

TRAPPE: I am 39 and I am a 'Technical Projects Manager’ at Accenture. For the most part, I deliver large-scale information systems for enterprise clients. I work with projects that have lots of moving parts, and it is actually the skills developed at the firm that have allowed me to tackle these personal projects – even though the topics are so different.

Lighter-than-air flight is rather different than moving an enterprise client from one data center to another, but I use the same project-tracking spreadsheet!

BELL: Is the flight scheduled for this summer? What months do the favorable meteorological conditions occur?

TRAPPE:  I want to be on site in New England by May, preparing the airfield and equipment through May and June.  The flight window opens July 1 and runs for three months: July, August, and September. During that time, I will work closely with the team meteorologists as we look for the right weather system: a beautiful high-pressure ridge. For those weeks or months when the weather window is open, I want to have everything set up on the airfield and ready to go such that I can stare at the sea, stare at the sky, and be prepared to go just when the right weather system arrives that can carry me across the big blue deep.

BELL: Have you thought about where in Maine you could launch from? I imagine you need a very large field. Are you looking at Washington County, the easternmost county?

TRAPPE: The farther north I go, the better chance I have of getting my entry point into a good weather system. To that end, ideal locations are in the vicinity of Presque Isle or Caribou. We also need a team of 50+ volunteers to inflate balloons and help stand the aircraft when the day of the flight comes, so I can’t be in too rural of an area; I need to be close enough to an interested and supportive community so we can draw on that group to develop the inflation team we need to launch the expedition and go into the sky.

There have been storied balloonists, truly great pilots, that have made trans-Atlantic balloon flights. In the history of manned ballooning, there have been exactly two gas balloon flights that made it from the USA across the Atlantic. One launched in 1978 from Presque Isle: Double Eagle II – the first successful trans-Atlantic balloon flight. The ballooning museum in Albuquerque is named after those pilots: Anderson & Abruzzo (with Newman.)

(Regarding Col. Joe Kittinger, who made the first solo flight across the Atlantic, launching from Caribou in 1984) You may know of the pilot; he’s been in the news a lot lately as part of the Red Bull Stratos space dive program: Col. Joe Kittinger. He held the skydive record for 50 years, and worked with Red Bull to help them get Felix Baumgartner up to the point where that record could be broken. Col. Kittinger is the last person to make this flight in a gas balloon, and the only person to do it solo.

So, launching from Caribou or Presque Isle would be following in great tradition. I would follow the rich history of trans-Atlantic flight, and perhaps be fortunate enough to float in the footsteps of the truly great pilots that have gone before me.

BELL: Do you need to raise a certain amount of money to make this happen? Are you confident you can raise the money? Would you call it off because of financial reasons?

TRAPPE: Every great expedition has to be funded. The greatest human expeditions of all time had to be funded. The total cost of this trans-Atlantic flight program is roughly $470,000, of which I have raised $173,000.  That is including the training, the equipment, the helium, the prep, and test flights – including the shakeout test flight of the boat to 20,053 feet we completed in Mexico. We need sponsorship for some key remaining components – the cold water survival suit, the helium, and the airfield, for example.

We would like to find someone in the Caribou or Presque Isle area that has a field that they might welcome us into.  We would take it over with helium bottles spread across the field for the summer!

I can fund a good portion of the remaining need, but I do need a couple of partners before launch.  There will be an hour-long television program, which helps when attracting sponsors. (UK Channel 5 + Discovery + National Geographic.)

BELL: When did you live in Maine and what town?

TRAPPE:  I arrived in Maine in July and spent the summer out on Casco Bay first learning to sail, then practicing with the Portland Pudgy that was the gondola for my flight in Mexico, and will carry me in my trans-Atlantic expedition. I wanted to be very comfortable in the water with that boat. If I am forced down, and I have to ditch at sea, I know that I’ve spent time in this rugged little boat before, and that it can sustain me on the open ocean in an emergency.

I stayed right there in Portland, on Hanover Street, though I also made some scouting trips farther north while looking for an airfield I could use. (I found a good one near Bangor, but I should really be farther north.) It was my first time in that part of our country, and it is really what this expedition is all about: exploring our world, and living an interesting life. When I crossed the Alps, I spent time in the south of France, and I landed in these deep olive green fields of Italy; when I crossed the English Channel I spent weeks in Kent and the southeast of the UK, exploring the countryside and seeing the White Cliffs of Dover. After that flight, I landed in a farmer’s field just short of Belgium; we literally had Belgian waffles on the town square in Waasmunster, Belgium. I flew to 20,053 feet in the blue skies of Mexico, and landed in a remote area of the high-mountain desert to be met by extremely curious locals who greeted us and our flying yellow boat, welcomed us, and helped us with the gear after landing. On this larger ballooning journey, I’m having the opportunity not only to see the skies, but experience our world.

Coming to Maine was as great as any of those experiences in the south of France, or Italy, England or Belgium or Mexico. The seafaring community of Portland, the blend of men and women that make their living from the ocean, the lobsters, the summer homes, the islands, the lighthouse at Spring Point, the locals who brave the winters when the lightweights run away south, and the ocean itself – all of those things made the journey to Maine an integral part of the memories formed on this expedition, and a reward and adventure in itself.

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.

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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