Riding the Chairway to Heaven

photo by Paul Cyr/Barcroft

photo by Paul Cyr/Barcroft

What exactly makes Jonathan Trappe, an IT manager at Accenture in New York, think he can fly across the Atlantic beneath a towering cluster of helium filled balloons? What makes a sailor think he can stay at sea for 1,152 days? Or a polar explorer mush across Antarctica for seven months and 3,741 miles? For 19 years this month we’ve celebrated stories of extraordinary expeditions, and this one is right up there. As in Up, the popular hit movie from Disney Pixar.

So, what makes Trappe, 40, think he can do this? Well, consider this:

  • Last month, Trappe broke the record for the largest-ever manned cluster balloon flight, lifting off from Caribou, Maine, and traveling 466 miles – over 300 miles of that above open water – en route to Newfoundland. Impressive. A record, although far short of a 2,500-mile trans-Atlantic crossing, which was his goal.
  • Trapped landed with 60 liters of water, 38 liters of Gatorade, and 65,000 calories of food leftover – enough for a flight to Europe. CBC-TV sent a helicopter to greet him. “Nobody has built a cluster of balloons this large, and launched them into manned flight so beautifully,” he wrote afterwards. “Taller than a church steeple.” The legendary Col. Joe Kittinger, 84, was there, holder until just recently of the world’s skydive record. Video of the trans-Atlantic attempt can be seen on YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6uWBU7wpIlg

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5B7M6sSN1BQ

  • In June 2008, Trappe, who is single, took a regular office chair from Accenture, a standard Steelcase Uno, tied it beneath 55 8-ft. balloons, and flew it to 15,000 feet. “I washed it off, then returned it to work. They would have never known, except it was in all the papers,” he tells EN.  
  • Trappe was hired by Disney Pixar in spring 2009 to participate in a 20-market promotion tour, flying his multi-coloredcraft above a small house to help promote the theatrical film Up in which the central character, Carl Fredricksen, strapped hundreds of equally bright balloons to his house to transport it from the U.S. to South America.
  • Then in May 2010, he crossed the English Channel in a cluster balloon flight, beneath 55 balloons ranging in size from 5-1/2- to 8-1/2 feet.
  • Another test flight was flown in Mexico in 2012, where he logged 118 miles at a maximum altitude of 20,000 feet over a period of 7-1/2 hours.

If anyone can cross the Atlantic under a multi-cell cluster balloon system, our money is on Jonathan Trappe. A licensed pilot, and builder of the aircraft, it took over a year of FAA applications to get the system certified as a federally registered aircraft with an airworthiness certificate. To date, his $500,000-plus project is largely self-funded. Sponsorship support would speed the next attempt along, but he’s not actively looking for dollars. He’s too busy sweating over the details for another trans-Atlantic attempt next summer.

“Cluster flight, honestly, is not something that will catch on,” he tells us. “It takes an immense amount of preparation and planning for these ephemeral moments in the sky. There are more practical ways to get from point A to point B. But it’s a gorgeous and fantastic way of flight.”

He adds, “We had exceptional exposure from our trans-Atlantic effort this year, and a successful crossing would be a world-wide event; even our flight this season, which was well short of my goal, generated national news and front pages around the world. Nonetheless, it takes a very specific sponsor to enable this type of flight ­- someone that is not risk adverse.”

Between now and next summer when the trans-Atlantic weather window opens July 1, Trappe will be testing a new cluster balloon system. First unmanned, then manned – like a famous character in a Disney cartoon.

(For more information: www.clusterballoon.com)


Jeff_BlumenfeldJeff Blumenfeld is the founder, publisher and editor of Expedition News, a monthly review of significant expeditions, research projects and newsworthy adventures. It is distributed online and by mail to media representatives, corporate sponsors, educators, research librarians, environmentalists and outdoor enthusiasts.

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