Cluster Ballooning












A Complete Set of Cluster Ballooning Gear

The System at Launch

At 6,000 Feet and Climbing

OK, back to work . . .
Photos by Jonathan Trappe

Cluster ballooning is a style of flight that uses a large number of small gas balloons (usually Helium-filled) rather than the more typical single large balloon.

Some very experienced pilots, for example John Ninomiya, have developed cluster ballooning techniques over a period of years and now fly cluster systems on a routine basis. At the other extreme, there are wild-eyed antics that involve little more than lashing a big bunch of party balloons to a lawnchair and seeing what happens. The news media are particularly fond of reporting on the latter style.

And then there are rare folks who take a thoughtful approach to making a one-time cluster balloon flight. The protagonist of the story chronicled here, Jonathan Trappe, is such a person.

One fine day in 2007, Jonathan's muse inspired him to make a cluster balloon flight using his office chair as his "basket." Jonathan was determined to avoid having his voyage lead to either the comedy or tragedy that has sometimes resulted when other people have tried to become one-off cluster balloonists. To that end, he methodically did his homework, designed his system, obtained appropriate flight training, and informed the FAA.

Jonathan's story is an fine example of the diligent risk management of a Quixotic endevour.

The Preparations

Jonathan's preparations are described below in a series of email "Communiques" that he sent to people following his progress. (Note: Click on any picture to get a full-sized version.)

The Flight

Jonathan made his long-planned flight on the morning of June 7, 2008. The flight was 4-hours in length, reached 14,000+ feet in altitude, and covered nearly 50 miles.

Two hot air balloons escorted the first part of Jonathan's flight. One, flown by Tom Tomasetti, launched beforehand and served as a 'pibal' by radioing down wind reports at regular altitude intervals. The second escort, flown by Brian Hoyle, launched simultaneously and served as a camera platform.

Here is Jonathan's initial report:

  • Communique #11 - 9-Jun-08 - Chairway to Heaven
    Associated images -
  • And Here is Jonathan's final report:

  • Communique #12 - 14-Jun-08 - Highlights, Full debrief, and Farewell
    Associated images -

  • Epilogue

    It appears that it was just too much fun. So Jonathan didn't "hang up his spurs" as originally expected. He's made at least one more cluster flight and plans to make more. You can check out his website at

    Press Coverage

    Story in the News & Observer newspaper

    Photos from the above story

    Some Comments from Experienced Balloonists

    Due to their checkered safety record, cluster balloons are fairly controversial amongst balloon pilots. For some perspective, here are the thoughts of some of the "old hands" in the field as expressed on the "Balloon Reflector" mailing list.

    Troy Bradley, 1-Jun-08 -
    To anyone on this list questioning Jonathan's upcoming flight preparations, I can assure you his flight is very well thought out and meticulously planned. When Jonathan first contacted me about his project I told him I think cluster flights are stunts and I don't really see the point. However, seeing his enthusiasm and determination to move forward I was more than willing to offer my assistance. He has spent an incredible amount of time and financial resources to insure he is well versed in all aspects of this flight. Although, I still feel it a stunt, I have the ability to help him pull off this "stunt" safely. Anyone that has positive input should help, but you would be hard pressed to point out any of the down sides to this flight that Jonathan hasn't already thought of. There are an awful lot of people on this list who have an abundance of opinions, but never seem to go out and do anything. Even though I don't see the point, it's Jonathan's dream and I am behind him 100%.

    Don Piccard, 8-Jun-08 -
    Congratulations to Jonathan R. Trappe
    Cluster Balloonist
    For his great contribution to the sport.

    For a wonderful bit of public relations for ballooning.

    He even went higher than dad did in 1937 - and with just a chair instead of a basket. (The chair was great for Jonathan's flight, but not so good in the mud.)

    Hit that link and enjoy a great article - even to the peanut and jelly sandwiches. He should have taken Angel Food cake.

    (Note: Don's Plieiades-style cluster system can be found at

    A Word of Caution

    If you ever get the urge to emulate Jonathan's journey, you would be wise to follow his example of careful planning. However, don't blindly mimic what you read here because what worked for him may not work for you. The most important thing to learn from Jonathan's approach is the need to seek advice from competent instructors and consultants. And please keep this disclaimer in mind.

    All information on this site is subject to the following disclaimer.

    Copyright 2008
    Jonathan R. Trappe and Daniel Nachbar
    All text and images on this page are freely available
    for use and redistribution under the terms of a
    Creative Commons License
    Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.