The Drifters

Of wind, helium, and hope — plus the occasional disaster.

Unlike the flash-in-the-pan types, John Ninomiya have put years into the pursuit. (Ed Stockard)
Air & Space Magazine

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Trappe’s original cluster balloon aircraft consisted of a standard Steelcase Uno office chair (the one he used for work every day) and 50 or so chloroprene balloons, plus assorted other gear. Chloroprene is a mixture of latex and neoprene—the material used to make wetsuits—and the mix, says Trappe, “makes a nice ‘boingy’ balloon.”

Trappe’s multiple-balloon system, now featuring a modified climbing harness in lieu of the office chair, is the only one to be granted an Airworthiness Certificate by the FAA, allowing him to fly legally during darkness as well as daylight. Last April 10, he launched at dusk over Raleigh for the first official overnight cluster balloon flight. Landing at dawn 14 hours later, he completed the longest-lasting cluster balloon flight on record.

Just after dawn on May 28, Trappe set out to cross the 22-mile-wide English Channel. Earlier attempts to cross large bodies of water with cluster balloons had cost three men their lives.

With 54 balloons, he took off at dawn from the Kent Gliding Club—the highest elevation in that part of the United Kingdom. Floating over Dover Castle (near where Louis Blériot landed in 1909 on the first airplane flight across the Channel), he passed over the white cliffs of Dover before heading out over water. He flew as high as 7,500 feet but descended at one point to just over 300, where he was able to hear the waves. A picture-perfect flight ended in a hectic landing: To avoid restricted airspace and a looming tower, Trappe had to knife some balloons to descend quickly. He set down in a farmer’s field in northern France, less than two miles from the Belgian border, and was immediately surrounded by French policemen, who threatened to detain him and his crew until they were convinced that he had not violated French airspace.

THE MOST COMMON REACTION when people watch a cluster balloon launch is a giddy, incredulous grin. Cluster ballooning evokes freedom, adventure, escape, breaking away from conventional expectations. The low-tech nature of the aircraft—akin to an aerial soapbox racer—adds to its innocent charm.

The sport does have a controversial image, largely due to the press’ focusing on inexperienced practitioners; that’s roughly equivalent to condemning driving because an unlicensed teenager crashes his dad’s car. Those who have done it right have shown it can be a very safe form of flight.

It is, however, expensive and organizationally complex, costing between $2,500 and $4,000 to launch one flight, without counting costs for reusable items, such as a parachute, transponder, and oxygen tanks. Then there is crew. Ninomiya, for example, says, “I need 15 people for the period of two hours” to inflate and assemble all the balloons. For these reasons, cluster balloonists often look for sponsors, such as balloon festivals and airshows. At venues like these, costs can be subsidized and volunteers mobilized for preflight operations.

The payoff for the balloonist? Jonathan Trappe says that the allure of cluster ballooning is in large part the silence. “We don’t even get the sound of the wind,” he says. “We move perfectly with the wind.” And he points out that cluster ballooning closely resembles how people experience flying in dreams: “floating in the open sky, looking down in silent observance of the world below.”

As for the spectator, he gets to leave the venue with a vivid, indelible memory: the image of someone floating silently into the sky, under a colorful bouquet of beautiful, boingy balloons.

A writer and former New York City cab driver, Mark Karpel drove the chase van for Jonathan Trappe’s English Channel flight.

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