CARIBOU, Maine — Balloonist Jonathan Trappe lifted off around 6:30 a.m. Thursday from a Caribou field under a colorful umbrella of hundreds of cluster balloons to begin his trans-Atlantic flight.
By 3:30 p.m. that afternoon he was just above 16,600 feet, drifting in an easterly direction over the Gulf of St. Lawrence at around 57 mph. Flight updates on his website at http://tinyurl.com/TrappeInReach indicate that he reached a top altitude of about 22,000 feet at one point and a top speed of about 68 miles per hour during the day.
“Two years of work comes down to tonight, and then this flight,” Trappe wrote on his website this week. “Two years of work, and years more of dreams.”
“It was just awesome,” said Caribou City Manager Austin Bleess, one of the volunteers who helped prepare for the launch. “To just be there and witness history being made right here in Caribou and to be a part of it was just great.”
The last manned trans-Atlantic helium balloon flight was piloted by balloonist Col. Joe Kittinger in 1984, who also took off from Aroostook County.
Kittinger was in Caribou this week as an on-site advisor for Trappe’s epic adventure, in which he is attempting to cross 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 in an interview with the Bangor Daily News last February. “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.”
Attempts to speak to Trappe before the historic flight were prevented by his public relations’ team from Barcroft Media, who are keeping tight control on information and images released in anticipation of producing their own documentary.
Volunteers working on inflating the balloons had to sign an agreement preventing them from bringing cameras — other than the ones available on their cellphones — to the preparations leading up to the launch. All media inquiries were directed to Barcroft Media, which is based in London, with an office in New York City.
An army of volunteers spent close to three hours inflating the balloons at Sincock Field in Caribou in preparation for Trappe’s record-breaking attempt and at midnight began the five-hour process of assembling the “cluster.”
Among the volunteers was City Manager Bleess, who on Thursday confessed to catching a bit of a catnap during his lunch hour after pulling an all-nighter helping to inflate 370 balloons.
A big part of the launch success, Bleess said, were all of those volunteers.
“The number of people who came out to help support this from Caribou and from communities around here, from down state and even out of state was amazing,” he said. “They are what helped make this event successful.”
Volunteer Kyle Washington of Presque Isle put five years of volunteering with the Crown of Maine Balloon Festival to good use.
Volunteers, Washington said, were trained onsite with the procedures and protocols for filling 100 plastic and 270 latex balloons with helium.
After three hours of training, volunteers were split into about 35 teams of two to five members each, he said, and the inflating began around midnight and lasted until 5:30 a.m.
Given the nature of helium, Washington said, and the humid conditions at the time, the helium lines tended to freeze, making removing them from the tanks a bit of a chore.
“The wrench was a very popular tool,” he said with a laugh.
When it came time to collect or “harvest” the balloons, Washington said he happened to grab the first one affixed to the Maine-made “Pudgy” survival boat Trappe is using as his gondola.
“Towards the end nobody had claimed the last couple of balloons,” he said. “So members of our team grabbed them and brought them over [and] I was able to have the first and last balloons put on.”
As he worked throughout the night and into Thursday morning, Washington said his duties prevented him from really considering the enormity of the flight.
“It wasn’t until [Trappe] was saying his goodbyes to friends and Col. Kittinger that it really hit me and this wave of emotion just swept over me,” Washington said. “Looking around, you could see handkerchiefs and napkins out as this wave of emotion swept over the field.”
The entire process was largely glitch-free from what Washington could see, he said, save for one thing.
“We had a balloon get away,” he said. “That’s the first time that has happened to Jonathan [Trappe] and I heard it may have landed in Collins’ Pond.”
Two others balloons may have popped, Washington said, one due to a bird landing on top of it.
Both Bleess and Washington say they will be tracking Trappe’s progress over the next few days.
“I have had it up on my computer screen all day,” Bleess said. “We have it set up on a giant monitor at the town office so people going by can see it, too.”
Trappe estimates it will take between three and six days to cross the ocean, depending on altitude and wind currents, and he could end up anywhere from north Africa to Portugal or all the to Norway.