CARIBOU, Maine — Due to technical complications, cluster balloonist Jonathan R. Trappe was forced to cut short his attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a small boat tethered to 366 colorful helium balloons — but not too short.
Launching out of Caribou Sept. 12, Trappe landed his aircraft about 12 hours and 466 miles later in Blow Me Down Provincial Park in Newfoundland to safely conclude his adventure toward the eastern hemisphere — and by doing so began a whole new adventure in the bug-filled bog where he landed.
Before posting the detailed story of adventure on his website clusterballoon.com, Trappe first recounted the experience for a few dozen community members on Oct. 8 at the Caribou Wellness and Recreation Center. He spent hours telling his story, answering questions, taking photos and sharing commemorative Air Mail envelopes — a ballooning tradition — for folks in attendance who helped inflate the cluster of colorful balloons.
Audience members asked Trappe two questions he’d clearly been asked before: What would he change? Will he do it again?
As far as the changes, Trappe said that he’d rearrange the ballast bags, space the helium tanks on the inflation field a bit farther apart to account for any wind, and use a different type of balloon.
“What we really need to do is try a new balloon type, test it unmanned … with a tracker, see where it levels out, see where it fails, then cluster them and fly a manned flight over land,” he said.
“To try again, I need two things … I need a municipal dump truck — no light pickup, I need a municipal dump truck. And the city of Caribou has an orange one driving around, I might be able to borrow that dump truck, so we have a good line on a dump truck,” Trappe said with all seriousness. “ I then need to fill it with money.”
The talk included dozens of photos from all parts of the flight and video — including the abrupt, foggy landing at dusk — but the story started at its chronological beginning at the Soucie Memorial Ball Field, where hundreds of volunteers came together to inflate the balloons and assemble the cluster.
“What a spectacular day at the airfield,” Trappe said to his audience.
While displaying incredible photos, Trappe spoke of all the smaller stories contained in the larger journey — how he almost mistook the cord connected to his laptop case for ballast and at the last second avoided rendering the computer to gravity’s pull; how he was determined to land safely in Newfoundland to avoid needing the services of search and rescue; and how after all his tremendous preparation and planning he found himself in a Newfoundland bog without bug spray — all three bottles of the stuff had been given to volunteers during the inflation process.
He described how the complex weather conditions and multiple cloud layers hindered uniform heating conditions for the balloons, meaning that once he broke free of the clouds and was ready to halt his ascent, the sun would heat the balloons and instead of the aircraft hitting the breaks, it would step on the theoretical gas pedal.
“It’s not the easiest aircraft to fly, but it’s also not the most practical — have you seen a picture of this thing?” he joked to a laughing audience.
Trappe said he used 66 of the 166 bags of ballast he’d brought with him on the 12-hour flight.
“I gave it some thought that the issue was this: I either make it to landfall at Newfoundland and put down in Newfoundland, or I put down in the middle of the Atlantic. And the problem with putting down in the middle of the Atlantic is one, it’s the middle of the Atlantic, and two, I can’t recover myself. So that means I have to rely on search and rescue, and I was loathed to evoke search and rescue,” Trappe said.
Even before his team could extract him from the bog he’d landed in, a Canadian Broadcast Corp. TV news team desperate for an interview picked him up in a helicopter. In a hurry to take off, however, the pilot wouldn’t allow Trappe to head back to his ship to retrieve his necessary documents like his passport or other necessities.
“You’ve seen the footage,” Trappe joked with the audience, “It was all downhill after I met the reporter from CBC.”
A detailed story about Trappe’s adventure can be found online at clusterballoon.com. Click on “Full Story” next to the title: “Trans-Atlantic attempt becomes: The Newfoundland Express.”