Jonathan Trappe takes off on a test flight in a Portland-made dinghy attached to balloons at the Leon International Balloon Festival in November in Leon, Mexico. He says he will need 365 balloons to keep him aloft for a trip across the Atlantic this summer.
By Tom Bell
It sounds like the stuff of fantasy tales – or an animated feature film.
A North Carolina man plans to fly from Maine to Europe this summer in a particularly whimsical way: in a Maine-made dinghy held aloft by hundreds of helium-filled balloons. The solo flight would be the first-ever crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by a balloonist using cluster balloons.
Jonathan Trappe, 39, has previously flown across the English Channel, the Alps and Lake Michigan using cluster balloons. He said he will start preparations in May in anticipation of a balloon launch between July 1 and Sept. 30.
If the story sounds a lot like the animated movie "Up," that's not by accident.
In November, Trappe attached hundreds of balloons to a house like the one from "Up" and soared above the crowds at a balloon festival in Leon, Mexico.
In Raleigh, N.C., in 2008, he attached 55 balloons to an office chair and ascended about 15,000 feet.
For his trans-Atlantic endeavor, Trappe is looking for a launching site in northern Maine, a large field situated close to a community where he could find a team of more than 50 volunteers to help him inflate the 365 balloons, he said. He picked northern Maine, ideally a field near Caribou or Presque Isle, because the farther north he goes, the better chance he'll have of ascending into a good weather system, he said.
Trappe plans to set up and wait a few weeks or months for the right conditions -- a high pressure ridge. The type of balloons he uses are 8 feet in diameter and are sold commercially, typically for advertising displays at places such as automobile dealerships.
For the gondola, he plans to use a Portland Pudgy, a lifeboat manufactured in Portland by industrial designer David Hulbert. The rugged little boat is 7 feet 8 inches long.
The bright yellow Pudgy looks like an ordinary rowboat, which adds to the project's storybook aesthetics.
Trappe, who came to Maine last summer, took sailing lessons in Casco Bay and lived aboard his Pudgy for two consecutive days. He took a test flight while in Leon, Mexico, in November, sitting in the boat as hundreds of helium balloons lifted him to more than 20,000 feet. He then descended to a lake for a splashdown landing.
The balloons were attached to a harness strapped around the boat. The test flight proved that the boat could be flown and then landed in water, he said.
Trappe said he has thought hard about the possibility he might have to ditch in rough seas. Landing in a lake in Mexico doesn't quite compare to landing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Even if he does everything successfully, he said, he could still be battered to death while tethered to the boat by a restraint harness.
"It's the goddamn North Atlantic," he said. "I've given it some thought."
During the crossing, he will fly at 18,000 to 25,000 feet to catch the best wind currents, although he may have to fly lower to avoid ice forming on the balloons. He plans to carry two canisters of oxygen and dress as though he's climbing Mount Everest, to protect himself from the cold. The Pudgy's exposure canopy will essentially act as a tent.
"It's like camping in the sky," he said.
He may land anywhere from North Africa to Norway, he told the BBC World Service in November, and the journey will take three to six days, during which he'll take short naps to rest. A device on board will sound an alarm if the balloons change altitude suddenly.
He will not be able to control the direction of his flight, except to find wind currents by climbing and descending.
To maintain control over altitude for such a long distance, he will begin the journey with many more balloons than necessary to simply keep him aloft. He will climb by throwing ballast (sand) overboard, and he will descend by releasing individual balloons.
The total cost of the flight, including the helium, training and the previous test flight in Mexico, is roughly $470,000, of which he has raised $173,000 so far, he said. He said he's looking for sponsors and is confident he'll raise enough money because of the publicity the flight will generate.
The trip, however charming, is inherently risky. Since 1970, five people have died trying to fly balloons across the Atlantic, including passengers of two balloons that vanished.
While numerous balloonists have successfully crossed the Atlantic in gas and hot-air balloons, this would be the first to use cluster balloons, said Troy Bradley, president of the Balloon Federation of America.
Bradley himself crossed the Atlantic in 1992 riding in a capsule with two other men. They flew from Bangor to Morocco in a hybrid gas and hot-air balloon called a Rozier.
Four other balloon teams with identical balloons took off at the same time as part of a race across the Atlantic. Two of the teams ditched in the ocean, one landed in Spain and another in Portugal.
The first successful balloon crossing occurred in 1978. Three men riding a balloon called the Double Eagle II traveled from Presque Isle to the outskirts of Paris.
In 1984, Joe Kittinger flew the first solo transatlantic balloon flight, from Caribou to Montenotte, Italy.
In 1987, Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand were the first to cross the Atlantic in a hot-air balloon. They took off from Sugarloaf Mountain in Kingfield and landed in the United Kingdom less than 32 hours later.
Bradley said advances in meteorology have made crossing the Atlantic much safer. He said cluster balloons have the same lift as a single-cell balloon and there is no real difference in risk. The cluster balloons have an advantage over a single balloon, however, because cluster balloons are more colorful and playful, and it's much easier to attract the attention of the public and media with them.
"It's a stunt," he said of Trappe's Atlantic crossing.
He added that Trappe has a good reputation among balloonists for being methodical and well-organized.
Trappe disputes Bradley's assertion that cluster ballooning carries no added risk -- filling one balloon with helium gas is relatively easy compared to filling hundreds, he said. Also, he said he will be entering "uncharted territory" because there are few examples of manned flights in cluster balloons at high altitudes and for long distances.
Moreover, nothing he's done before can match the "epic scale" of this flight, he said.
"It takes a massive cluster to even get a person off the ground, let alone gear and ballast for a flight like this," he said. "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."
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: