Area Man Attempts to Cross the Atlantic Using Nothing but Helium Balloons

A real-life Up, aided by weather-tracking software and documented on Facebook
Jonathan Trappe, on a 2012 flight (Facebook)

Meet Jonathan Trappe. Trappe is an IT manager by career; by calling, however, he is an adventurer. And a flight enthusiast. And one of the few people in the world who can fairly be called a "cluster balloon specialist."

Trappe, you see, is an expert in that particular, poetic art that involves connecting a capsule or a chair (or a house, or what have you) to a collection of enormous helium balloons ... and then launching those balloons into the air. In that capacity, Trappe has completed a series of Up-worthy adventures: He is the first person to have crossed the English Channel hoisted only by helium. He is the first person, as of 2010, to have made a similar passage over the Alps.

This week, however, Trappe took on an even bigger challenge: crossing the Atlantic. In, yep, in a basket buoyed by helium balloons -- by 370 helium balloons, to be precise. Balloons of red and blue and orange and white -- balloons that looked like something out of a carnival, save for the fact that they were carrying a guy over an enormous ocean. (The basket in this case was actually more like a lifeboat -- a precaution taken in the event Trappe would need to ditch in the ocean.)  

Trappe's trip started yesterday morning, when he and his balloon-buoyed, er, conTrappetion took off from Caribou, Maine. From there, Trappe headed East, away from the U.S. coast. His route, as you might imagine, was heavily reliant on wind patterns. On the plus side, this meant that Trappe might be able, as he put it, to "catch those transatlantic winds and ride them across like a conveyor belt." On the minus side, it meant that he had no real idea where he'd end up. (In a news conference before his takeoff, Trappe noted that he could land anywhere from Iceland to Morocco, depending on the weather.) 

To mitigate some of this, Trappe relied on the same kind of real-time weather data that helped inform Felix Baumgartner's skydive-from-the-stratosphere last year. Still, though, as Trappe put it, "Weather is absolutely the most dangerous factor. It's the only thing that will carry me across, but bad conditions could also ruin the attempt or endanger my life."

Jonathan Trappe, on a 2012 flight (Facebook)

The trip started out normally -- or, well, as normally as a trip can start when its progress is propelled by 370 helium balloons. Trappe reported, to those following his progress on Facebook, a "quiet sky ... traveling at over 50mph in my little yellow rowboat." Later, though, he sent another message: "Hmm this doesn't look like France."

And that's because it wasn't. It was Newfoundland. "Landed safe," Trappe wrote, "at an alternate location. Remote. I put the exposure canopy up on the boat. Will stay here for the night." 

The problem, it seems, was technical as much as environmental. As one of the engineers overseeing Trappe's flight explained, the cluster balloon was never able to achieve a stable altitude. That led to a kind of yo-yo effect, with the aircraft hitting the surface of the water and then ascending to altitudes as high as 21,000 feet. This was not sustainable. At 6:30 local time yesterday evening, Trappe and his team made the decision to abort the trip. Though Trappe hadn't made it across the Atlantic, he had spent 12 hours in the air, floating over 350 miles' worth of Earth. Which is not bad for a guy and bouquet of balloons. 


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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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