January 28, 2013

From Maine to Europe via balloon

A balloonist plans to take off from Maine this summer on a colorful and risky trans-Atlantic flight.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

It sounds like the stuff of fantasy tales – or an animated feature film.

click image to enlarge

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.

Photo by Stewart Cook/Barcroft Media/Landov

Related headlines

WATCH one of Jonathan Trappe's test flights.

LEARN MORE at Jonathan Trappe's website, www.clusterballoon.com.

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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