Jonathan Trappe, Cluster Balloonist

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Jonathan Trappe is a sort of super-hero to some children and a crazy man to some adults, but we found him to be a rather enthusiastic, and certificated, lighter-than-air gas balloon pilot. Trappe is licensed to fly beneath a group of (usually more than 50) homemade helium-filled polyethylene balloons. That means his aircraft is one of the most structurally redundant vehicles in the sky. After politely explaining the complications of flying with a parachute, he concluded that he didn't fly with one at Oshkosh and asked, "When you fly your aircraft, do you wear one?" Trappe's aircraft is registered and carries an "N" number. But because he can change "gondolas" (in this case a paraglider harness) and sometimes knifes balloons in flight, the exact part of the overall rig recognized by the FAA as an aircraft is a story in itself. We chatted with Trappe at AirVenture Oshkosh the day after his successful night flight across Lake Michigan.

Trappe controls his direction of flight like any balloonist -- by varying his altitude. He can drop water ballast or stab balloons with a knife to alter his buoyancy as he flies. That basically means that ballast is his fuel. Once he runs out of ballast, he effectively loses his ability to control his aircraft's altitude with any precision and therefore becomes even more limited in his directional control. Trappe used the winds at 12,000 feet to successfully carry him across Lake Michigan. He's also flown the English Channel. But for the price of helium, we'd imagine he'd be making more regular flights. Trappe flies with a radio and transponder to keep in touch with air traffic control and his ground crew and relies mostly on his 50-foot cluster of colorful balloons for collision avoidance. At night, he uses appropriate lighting. We asked Trappe what he hoped for from his next flight. He said he was hoping to make a flight from the West Coast, maybe launching from Catalina, for a trip (some distance) east.