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Balloonist looking to soar to Europe from northern Maine under hundreds of balloons

Posted Feb. 17, 2013, at 4:15 p.m.

FORT KENT, Maine — Jonathan Trappe is living the fantasy of every 5-year-old child who ever held tight to a balloon, looked up and dreamt of floating to the clouds.

This summer Trappe brings his dream of balloon-powered flight to northern Maine.

Trappe will be in Aroostook County from July potentially through September, waiting on the weather window he needs to launch his trans-Atlantic balloon flight.

“During that time I will stare at the sky, stare at the sea and wait for the right weather system — the high pressure ridge — that can carry me across the waters,” Trappe said.

Northern Maine has already played host to successful trans-Atlantic balloon flights, with The Double Eagle II in 1978 from Presque Isle and the first solo flight in 1984 that launched from Caribou.

For his adventure, Trappe is crossing the Atlantic as no balloonist has before — with a massive collection of smaller balloons instead of one, giant inflated air bladder.

Trappe is a “cluster balloonist” — think the Disney movie “Up” in which the hero used thousands of small balloons to lift his house and float away to South America.

“I will use 365 individual balloons and I anticipate an inflation time of roughly 12 hours with 50 volunteers,” Trappe said. “The balloons are commercially available and are typically used for events such as open houses or for promotional purposes [and] it is fair to say that their manufacturers never intended them to be used for manned flight [because] they are toy balloons.”

The planned trans-Atlantic flight is by no means Trappe’s first cluster balloon adventure.

The 40-year-old FAA-licensed pilot has successfully flown cluster balloons over the English Channel, over the Alps and numerous record setting flights around the world.

Crossing the Atlantic would seem to be the next logical step in a life filled with adventure.

“This is one of our earth’s great challenges,” Trappe said. “The Atlantic Ocean [is] the Great White Whale of adventure.”

Trappe estimates it will take between three and six days to cross the ocean, depending on altitude and wind currents.

“That final destination is unknown at launch,” Trappe said. “I could literally land in north Africa, Portugal, Spain, France, the UK [or] all the way up to Norway.”

That, he said, is one of the great attractions.

“When was the last time you set out on a trip without any final destination in mind?” Trappe said. “Let alone when the destination options could be a thousand miles apart?”

During his time aloft Trappe’s home will be a small survival dinghy made in Portland.

The Portland Pudgy, according to the manufacturer’s website, is an unsinkable, self-rescue boat capable of sail, oar and motor power that contains survival equipment, a telescoping mast and inflatable canopy.

Should Trappe find himself in a position in which he is forced to ditch at sea, the Pudgy would become his lifeboat, he said.

The adventurer has already taken the small craft on several shakedown cruises and tests and said it performed perfectly.

“We did a test flight in Mexico and took [the Pudgy] up 20,000 feet on a seven-and-a-half-hour flight,” Trappe said. “I put it down in a lake to test how it would handle if I have to ditch and it was a great success.”

For his flight, Trappe said he can pack the Pudgy with pretty much anything he wants to in the way of food, comforts and gear.

“It’s all ballast,” he said. “If I have to, I can just toss stuff overboard.”

Among the more important pieces of gear is the specially designed and built “Dr. Gary Snyder Trappe Nag.”

Basically a combination altimeter and alarm, the device is the dreamchild of Trappe’s friend Dr. Gary Snyder and will allow the cluster balloonist to catch a few Zs during flight.

“If I fell asleep and got into a 100-foot-per-minute descent I could get all way into the ocean, or if it was an ascent I could get so high I’d never wake up,” Trappe said. “The ‘nag’ is an alarm that will go off if there is a 500-foot plus or minus elevation deviation.”

While in the air Trappe will rely on a team of meteorologists to give him up-to-date weather information that will allow him to avoid conditions that could create flight hazards, such as icing on the balloons.

Also important is the lighter-than-air gas that will carry Trapper up, up and away.

One of his major sponsors is Matheson TRIGAS, which is donating a third of the needed helium in addition to coordinating the logistics of getting all the helium tanks to northern Maine.

Overall the expedition has a $470,000 price tag and so far Trappe has raised $223,000.

Given his success and attention he has garnered from groups such as the National Geographic Society in past flights, he is confident of raising the remaining $247,000.

While in northern Maine, Trappe hopes to attract up to 50 volunteers to assist with pre-launch and launch day procedures.

“The order of [balloon] inflation has to be planned for months,” Trappe said. “There is lots of measuring and calculating months in advance in designing the cluster.”

Trappe said he must know exactly where in the that cluster of balloons each one is, something he does by color-coding the lines.

“I start off with far more lift than I need to fly only myself and that lift is produced by having additional balloons,” he said. “All of this extra lift is offset by the ballast I carry in sand and water and controlling altitude is a matter of venting helium by stabbing a balloon with a knife to descend or releasing ballast to climb.”

As a last resort, Trappe said, if he is within sight of his destination but losing altitude, he can eject from the Pudgy and continue the flight on sort of “armchair” contraption.

Along with following the air currents of the ballooning legends before him, Trappe said launching from the Presque Isle area gives him the best chance to catch the best possible weather system that will guide him eastward to Europe.

“None of the other balloons that did the crossing were like our cluster balloons,” he said. “Those were high tech balloons that people really can’t connect with, but when they see mine they don’t need a lot of explanation — they’ve been dreaming of doing something like this since they were 6-years-old.”

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