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Tar Heel cluster balloonist struggles to cross Atlantic, 'Up'-style

Putting a helium cluster-balloon craft at the mercy of nature is more than a hobby for Jonathan Trappe of Raleigh, N.C. Ending a transatlantic attempt in Newfoundland, he sighed: 'This doesn't look like France.'


A balloon cluster carrying Jonathan Trappe lifts off from Caribou, Maine, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013. A team waited in Caribou, Maine, near the Canadian border, for weeks in anticipation of a certain set of conditions that would clear the way for launch.

Mark McBreairty/AP

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Jonathan Trappe, a Raleigh, N.C., IT guy, pilot, and the top cluster balloon explorer in the world, abandoned his attempt to ride 370 balloons of helium on “conveyor belt” winds across the Atlantic on Thursday.

“Hmm, this doesn’t look like France,” he posted on Facebook before landing in Newfoundland after 12 hours aloft. It’s unclear whether he voluntarily abandoned the attempt because of unfavorable weather or whether he was forced down. At last report, he was alive and well.

The failed attempt was likely crushing for the almost-40 explorer who has previously crossed the English Channel and the Alps using nothing but small balloons and an office chair.

Trading chairs in for a double-hulled inflatable life boat to serve as his basket, Mr. Trappe, in an online missive, listed other explorers who have sought to cross what he calls “that tremendous body of water” using only “Wind, Helium and Hope.”

Before the launch, Trappe wrote: “Two years of work, and years more of dreams. My heart could never live a long life the way it is beating now. My heart would never last to old age, the way it is beating today. We have this moment – these ephemeral hours – to stand in this aircraft and undertake the first flight of its kind, and to pursue, and to seize, and to realize the dream that has held me, and generations of dreamers, rapt for ages.”

Edgar Allan Poe was the first dreamer, in 1844, to ponder a transatlantic balloon flight, laying down a path for a succession of helium balloon explorers, the latest of which was Col. Joe Kittinger, who floated a helium balloon across the Atlantic in 1984.

While Trappe is considered a professional cluster balloonist given his pilot background, arguably the best known cluster balloon flier was an amateur, “Lawnchair” Larry Walters of California, who broke a tether on an experimental lawn-chair balloon flight in 1982, and had to use a BB gun to shoot out enough balloons to get back down – but not before climbing to 16,000 feet and, later, earning a $1,500 fine from the FAA.


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