Raleigh balloonist crosses English Channel

Staff WriterMay 29, 2010 

  • Jan. 7, 1785: The first crossing by hot air balloon from Dover to Calais, by Frenchman Jean-Pierre Francois Blanchard and American John Jeffries.

    Aug. 25, 1875: Matthew Webb of the United Kingdom swims Dover to Calais in 21 hours and 45 minutes.

    April 16, 1912: American Harriet Quimby is the first woman to fly across. Unfortunately for Quimby, she does this the day after the Titanic sinks, so she doesn't get much attention.

    Aug. 6, 1926: American Gertrude Ederle is the first woman to swim the channel, taking the Cap Gris Nez to Kingsdown route. She completes the swim in 14 hours, 39 minutes, breaking the men's record by two hours.

    July 25, 1959: Sir Christopher Cockerell is on board for the first hovercraft crossing.

    June 12, 1979: American Bryan Allen guides the first human-powered aircraft across. He pedaled his Gossamer Albatross for three hours.

    July 31, 2003: Austrian Felix Baumgartner crosses in a 20-mile long freefall using a windsuit and a carbon fiber wing.

    July 26, 2006: Swiss pilot Frank Rinderknecht sets a record for crossing in a hydrofoil car, a two-seater open-top sports car. He completes the crossing in 194 minutes.

    Sept. 26, 2008: Yves Rossy goes via jetpack, in less than 10 minutes.

    March 12, 2010: Christine Bleakley of the United Kingdom does it on water skis.

    News researcher Brooke Cain

Just before he reached the English Channel, Jonathan Trappe of Raleigh saw that he was about to fly over the White Cliffs of Dover, so he stabbed a couple of balloons and cut loose others. It was OK. There were a few dozen more in a pleasing mix of colors to keep him aloft.

Out hissed helium. Down he drifted, to within a few hundred feet of the chalk cliffs where he could enjoy the view from a few hundred feet, nothing between him and the scenery except sky.

Then Trappe dumped some water ballast and began climbing again as he headed for France and the odd place in history that he claimed Friday morning: first person to cross the English Channel dangling under a cluster of small balloons.

"It was so beautiful," he said by phone. "Sure, there's a sense of accomplishment, a sense of adventure, but it was also just beautiful, a beautiful sunny day of flying over these green fields, that really deep English green, and these little villages and old stone churches, the cliffs and the Channel, and just this silence."

Trappe, a 37-year-old technical projects manager at Accenture, the global consulting firm, is legitimizing the idea of floating around under a bunch of balloons.

He is a licensed pilot who creates meticulous designs for his aircraft. He makes careful flight plans, files paperwork with aviation authorities and carries not only radios to keep in touch with his ground crew but also a parachute and a transponder so he will show up on radar.

Cluster ballooning started with a guy dubbed "Lawn Chair Larry" after an impromptu flight that ended with a crash into power lines and a blackout for parts of Long Beach, Calif. Its notoriety increased with the deaths of other balloonists, including a Brazilian priest and a Japanese adventurer whose poorly planned flights ended in the sea.

Trappe's attention to safety and detail, though, has led to success after success. In 2008, his first flight, an almost 50-mile jaunt over North Carolina with his office chair as gondola, went off with few hitches. Last month, he set a cluster-balloon flight world record of 14 hours in a 109-mile journey over the state.

Flying friendly skies

His professional approach led to a contract that let him spend a few months touring the nation last year to promote the animated Pixar movie 'Up,' in which an elderly man turns his house into an aircraft by attaching it to thousands of balloons.

Now, he and his team have been invited to fly this summer at the nation's largest air show at Oshkosh, Wis., which routinely draws several hundred thousand aviation enthusiasts. "These are people who are serious about being pilots, serious about flying, and serious about safety, so this is a big kick for us," Trappe said.

It's not so much his goal to make cluster ballooning more professional, he said, as it is just to be able to fly more. The only way he'll be able to do that, he says, is by doing everything properly so that no one stops him, and so new opportunities come his way.

Like the flight over the Channel.

About three dozen British flying enthusiasts were so keen on the adventure that they showed up at the small airfield he had picked, Kent Gliding Club, about 2 a.m. to help build up the array of balloons and straps that was fastened to the padded harness Trappe would wear.

Good trip, bad welcome

He lifted off at 4:23 a.m. The wind began to take him almost due east, and he dipped down for his look at the cliffs about 5:30 a.m. Then, mid-Channel, things were going so well that he felt comfortable killing off a few more balloons so he could drop down close enough to hear the soft churn of the waves.

"Tell me any other aircraft in which you can hear the waves at 500 feet," he said.

Then Trappe dropped more water to ease back into the sky. At points in the journey, he reached nearly 30 mph and a maximum altitude of about 7,500 feet.

He crossed over the beach at Dunkirk, France, after about an hour and a half over water, but knew better than to end the flight there, because winds near the ground could take him out over the Channel again. So he continued inland for nearly half an hour before setting down beside a cabbage patch in almost no wind.

Trappe's ground crew chief and girlfriend, Nidia Ramirez, arrived in minutes with a documentary filmmaker, having crossed so quickly via the Channel Tunnel that they beat him to Dunkirk. A good thing, he said, because the wind began gusting, and the journalists who had started to arrive shot photos and video as the team wrestled with the balloons among the cabbages.

Then six or eight French police appeared and a cross-cultural misunderstanding - fueled, no doubt, by his means of travel - ensued. It got so heated that some news outlets mistakenly reported that Trappe had been arrested. Trappe gave them copies of the fat stack of paperwork he had filed with U.S., British and French aviation authorities. Still, it took them a while to decide that he was a legitimate visitor to France.

Too much debriefing

In a telephone interview about 12 hours after his record-setting flight, Trappe said he had been spending so much time fielding interview requests from the likes of the Guardian newspaper, the BBC and American morning shows that he and Ramirez hadn't had time to celebrate. The bottle of champagne they had brought along was in their car, unopened.

"Really all we've been able to do is maybe look at each other and say, 'Man, we did it, we did what we set out to do,'" he said. "But that's OK, I don't mind, because I love to fly, and when people write stories, we get the opportunity to fly again."

jay.price@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4526

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