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The Transatlantic Helium-Balloon Voyage That Wasn't

Jonathan R. Trappe, a North Carolina man who's traversed the Alps and the English Channel under a cluster of balloons, had to abandon his planned float across the Atlantic. But he'll no doubt be at it again soon.
September 13, 2013, 5:20pm
via Jonathan Trappe

In theory, the simpler your technology, the easier it should be to address technical problems. So crossing the Atlantic Ocean, suspended by hundreds of helium balloons, should be easier than booking a ticket on an airliner, right?

Sadly though, Jonathan R. Trappe, a North Carolina man who has flown over the Alps and the English Channel under a cluster of balloons, has been forced to abandon his planned float across the Atlantic. Twelve hours after lifting off from Caribou, Maine, Trappe was forced to land in Newfoundland, completing just 350 miles of what was supposed to be a 2,500 mile trip.


Aero News Network talked to the balloon pilot Kevin Knapp, who had the first duty shift in Trappe’s control center following the launch:

According to Knapp, the cluster balloon was never able to achieve a stable float altitude and developed a severe yo-yo effect—rapid descents with the aircraft hitting the surface of the water, followed by rapid ascents to altitudes as high as 21,000 feet or more. Trappe was unable to gain a steady hand on the errant balloon cluster, which at 3,000 cubic meters of volume, was the largest in the world.

So it’s understandable that Trappe didn’t want to head out over the North Atlantic like that, skipping his way toward anywhere from Iceland to Morocco, for three days and, terrifyingly, nights.

Someone else cluster ballooning, via omnibus/Flickr

Actually under the best of circumstances, which according to Knapp would have been a 94-hour flight to Ireland, riding in a lifeboat suspended in the air by 370 helium balloons with no way to steer sounds pretty ballsy, even if it produces a Tumblr of utterly stunning images. The danger isn’t totally lost on Trappe, either.

"Five people have lost their lives attempting to cross these waters in a balloon, and two non-pilots were lost into the oceans flying cluster balloons," he told the BBC.

Unlike Larry Walters, who used weather balloons to launch himself and a lawn chair into the sky over California in 1982, Trappe is an experienced cluster balloonist. He was the first to cluster balloon across Lake Michigan, and he even holds a “Special Airworthiness Certificate” from the FAA for his craft.

Trappe announced on his Facebook page that he had safely touched down around 10 last night, and the post is still being flooded with sentiments of “good job,” “glad you’re safe,” and “try again soon.”

Given the sort of Zen-like nature to ballooning—just go where the wind dictates—patience is a common virtue among balloonists. It took until 1976 for the Atlantic to be crossed in balloon and even then it took the team two tries. Then it took until the ‘80s for it to be done solo. Brian Jones and Bertrand Piccard, who also piloted the Solar Impulse, required three attempts to get the Breitling Orbiter balloon around the world for the first balloon global circumnavigation.

So while this aborted attempt is sort of a bummer, it means another launch is likely coming soon.