Inspired by the Oscar-winning animation “Up,” – where the young stowaway said: “You know, most people take a plane” – Jonathan Trappe didn’t take a plane and yesterday as the sun rose over the Kent countryside he filled several dozen balloons with helium, strapped himself into a chair and drifted across the English Channel.
Four hours later he landed in a cabbage field in France, the first cluster balloonist to cross the Channel and, for the French police who arrived to question him, possibly the most unexpected visitor of the year. In the Pixar animation “Up,” Carl Fredricksen strapped hundreds of equally bright balloons to his house to transport it from the U.S. to South America.
The 36-year-old Jonathan Trappe just thinks that it’s fun and said: “It is unique. A hot-air balloon is beautiful but makes a huge roar. A gas balloon is the only kind of aircraft that flies in complete silence. I can hear the waves from a thousand feet.”
His equipment included an aircraft transponder, oxygen masks, aircraft radios, emergency locator beacon, in-flight satellite tracking and a radio tracker.
While his final destination was dictated by the weather, the rest of the flight was meticulously planned. In March Mr Trappe met the aviation authorities in both England and France, and his seat pod was packed with position-finding and communication equipment and technical gadgetry to make sure he did not get lost or hit anything.
“There are risks and we work to methodically reduce the risk so we can have a safe and fun flight,” said Mr Trappe, a trained pilot. “Because really it’s only about dreams and enjoying an adventure and that’s only enjoyable when it is safe.”
The technical project manager from North Carolina has several cluster ballooning adventures earlier. Last month he claimed a new world record for the longest free-floating balloon flight, 109 miles across his home state.
“Didn’t you have this dream — grabbing on to a bunch of toy balloons and floating off?” he said. “I think it’s something that’s shared across cultures and across borders. Just this wonderful fantasy of grabbing on to toy balloons and floating into open space.”
The Channel was, he said, an “iconic ribbon of water that is calling”, and yesterday he set off from the Kent Gliding Club in Challock, near Ashford, to a destination unknown (although with any luck it was going to be in France rather than, say, the sea: with no immersion suit, Mr Trappe was ill equipped for a watery landing). As he put it, “part of the adventure is you don’t know when you need to land”.
Mr Trappe said: ‘The flight was outstanding, but it was a hell of a landing. I’m tremendously proud. It’s an outstanding thing to do. Right over the white cliffs of Dover in complete silence. It was tremendously peaceful, tremendously beautiful.”
Of the flight, in which he reached 7,500 ft and endured temperatures down to minus 15C, he said: “I’m tremendously proud. It’s an outstanding thing to do. It’s not really about flying balloons. It’s about dreams and inspiration and accomplishing what we set out to do and that’s what I’m happy about.
“Usually people don’t understand the system or the thought and effort we put into it. Nobody who looks at what we put into it thinks it’s crazy.”
French police said they were ‘surprised’ by Mr Trappe’s unorthodox arrival, but he avoided arrest after producing authorisation to land in the country. “He had all the correct authorisation and I believe he even gave something to the owner of the land where he came down by way of damages,” said a police spokesman.
Mr Trappe is the first ‘cluster balloonist’ to successfully cross the Channel, a 22-mile journey from Dover to Calais. He set off from the Kent Gliding Club in Challock, near Ashford, shortly after 5am and took about an hour to drift the 10 miles to the coast.
He then spent almost two hours soaring over the Channel and floated over northern France before reaching Dunkirk. Unfortunately, the wind carried him off his intended route, and he was forced to make a crash-landing to avoid flying into restricted airspace, a no-fly zone between Dunkirk and the border with Belgium.
Mr Trappe’s girlfriend, Nidia Ruiz Ramirez, 30, a student nurse who has been his “chaser” since he started cluster ballooning in 2007, followed his journey by taking a train under the Channel while he floated thousands of feet above her. “It was fantastic,” she said. “His first ever cluster ballooning attempt will always hold a special place in my heart but this was truly amazing.”
Cluster ballooning is a relatively new adventure sport, which first hit the headlines in 1982 when Larry Walters attached 42 helium-filled weather balloons to a patio chair and took off. The American had no prior ballooning experience and only intended to rise a few hundred feet, but rose more than 15,000ft into the air. He floated into controlled airspace near Los Angeles International Airport.
Then he used a pellet gun to burst several of his balloons, but accidentally dropped it overboard, and descended slowly until his contraption got caught in a power line, causing a 20-minute blackout in Long Beach. He was arrested when he landed. [Cluster Baloon via Sky News and Daily Mail]