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

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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.

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:


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