The Enduring Allure Of Adventure
What drives a person to attempt something no-one has done before, something that maybe is not even do-able, risking your life and your time and your money, for an uncertain end? It takes a romantic disposition, for sure, to even imagine that it would be a good idea to fly across the ocean in a lighter-than-aircraft of any kind. There is no practical reason to do it, it's not the kind of adventure that opens new frontiers, in the way that Charles Lindbergh's trip revealed aviation's possibilities. To fly across the ocean beneath a cluster of colorful helium balloons, simply to experience it, simply to prove that you can dream such a thing and then make it happen and share it with the world, is perhaps as much a kind of exploration-artwork as it is a kind of aviation-technology experiment.
I was glad to spend a mostly-sleepless night in Caribou, Maine, last week for the experience of helping to assemble Jonathan Trappe's one-of-a-kind aerostat. Dozens of other sleepless souls were equally glad to be there, having traveled from around the country and across the county, with their boots and raincoats. It seemed highly improbable that any of us should be there at all, given that just hours earlier the town was inundated by thunderstorms and hail. When Noah and I arrived at 9 p.m., having dodged the weather systems between Providence and Caribou in his trusty RV-7, the brightly-lit soccer field was soaking wet, and a cool fog hung just above our heads. The air was still, though, and that's always a good thing when handling balloons.
Hundreds of helium canisters were laid out in a grid across the field, each one holding just enough gas to fill one balloon. Trappe demonstrated the filling procedure, explaining a very simple set of steps, then set us loose to get the work done. The field sprouted a ghostly forest of round balloons, each one standing gracefully at the top of its eight-foot tether, reflecting the lights into the mist and casting circular shadows onto the green grass. It was a sight unlike any seen before, I suppose, and there was something serene and primal about it.
There's something primal too in the impulses that drive people to attempt such things. Col. Joe Kittinger, certainly an expert in trying things that nobody else has done, occupied a bench with a view of the activities, just about all night long. I was glad to sit by him for a bit, since I had spoken with him on the phone but never met him in person before. He told me he'd been helping out with advice during the project, and had encouraged Trappe to launch from Caribou. That's where he launched from, in 1984, he said, and the people there are special -- they can be counted on to come out at night on short notice and lend a hand.
At 85, Col. Kittinger said he still goes flying often, in airplanes and balloons, and still lives in Orlando, where for many years he and his wife, Sherry, ran a balloon business. He sat there with Sherry through most of the night, till dawn approached and Trappe was in the gondola making his final preparations, then Col. Kittinger was there by his side, calm and quiet. He was the last one to shake Trappe's hand just before he launched into the morning sky. Col. Kittinger later would tell an Associated Press reporter that he and Trappe were inspired by the same thing -- adventure. He also said he had no qualms about the unusual balloon system, and if Trappe hadn't gone, "I would've flown it."
Trappe's adventure, despite two years of planning, ended far too soon. Only 12 hours aloft! And during that time, he was unable to maintain a steady altitude -- the aircraft would climb, then descend almost to the ocean, then rise again, and he was using too much ballast in trying to control it. The weather window looked good, Trappe said, all the way to Europe, but the sun was setting and Newfoundland was his last chance to land. All the balloons were cut away, their expensive helium lost, unrecoverable. The flight didn't reach its destination, geography-wise, but adventure-wise, it delivered. And Trappe walked away, safe to dream again.
Others have tried before to cross oceans or reach new altitudes or break all kinds of records in aircraft of all sorts, and many have failed and learned and tried again. Many of those have reached their goals on their second, or third, or fifth or sixth try. Will Trappe keep trying? He hasn't said, but the itch to do something that's never been done before, the creative urge to expand our experience, can be hard to resist.