Balloonists …touch the sky

~ Photo by Diana Hammell
~ Photo by Diana Hammell

By Diana Hammell
Caledonia Argus


The unique sensation of flight in a hot air balloon is beyond the physical… it seems that one’s heart takes flight as well. Balloon flight cannot be compared to airline flight in any way except that of being off the ground.


Spectacular views

Ed Chapman, owner and chief aeronaut at Balloon Ascensions Unlimited in Jordan, Minn. is a balloon pilot and is a big promoter of Caledonia’s Bluff and Valley Balloon Rally that occurs every December. Chapman doesn’t come to Caledonia just in December; he comes in October as well and his “Fire and Frost” balloon can be seen quietly floating across the landscape. “If you fly in an airplane and you’re lucky, and you have a window seat, you’ve got one window to look out of. But in the balloon you’ve got 360 degrees of view all the way around… it’s a spectacular view.”

It’s not just the window view that’s different from airplane flight.  Passengers are in the out-of-doors while they’re lifted away in a balloon. They’re breathing real air, not cabin air, and the breaths they take seem infused with something sweeter than just oxygen.

The views from the sky are amazing. Deer, while running, fold all four legs under them, then the legs sproing outward to touch the ground rocketing themselves forward. The tuck-sproing-repeat is something that’s hard to take one’s eyes off of. A buck blasting through a corn field and coming out the other side with antlers festooned with corn stalks is quite a sight to see. The leaves are off the trees in December during the Caledonia rally and wildlife of all kinds can be spotted. The contour of the countryside and the flowing water of our trout streams are exposed to view.


The balloon is the center

Passengers experience no turbulence and no wind. The earth falls away and spins while the balloon seems to stay stationary. The balloon is traveling with the wind. The balloon is the center of the universe.

One flies in an airplane to travel to a specific destination. Hot air balloon passengers better not have that in mind while climbing into the wicker basket. The winds decide where the balloon will travel. Although an experienced aeronaut can find air currents going different directions at varying altitudes, nature has the deciding hand in where that balloon will ultimately touch down. This gives another freeing, “let it all go and there are no decisions to be made here” dimension to balloon flight. Although the pilot is enjoying the trip too, he/she is always on guard and carefully measuring every aspect of the flight.

Chapman says that after carrying more than 5,000 passengers, even the ones who claim to be afraid of heights have not experienced any problems. “The best we can figure out is this: In every other situation, when we’re talking about being afraid of heights, you’re standing or sitting on something that’s attached to the earth. But in the balloon you’re suspended from above. And apparently, that tricks the mind into thinking everything is okay and there’s no problem. It’s a very peaceful feeling, very relaxed,” Chapman said.

Holly Youngerberg of Caledonia says that she’s terrified of heights, but she had to remind herself that perhaps she shouldn’t lean so far out of the basket of the balloon she had the good fortune to ride in. Passengers can tend to lean out so far they may feel their glasses start to slide away – a good reminder to bring it all in. The high sides of the basket are enough to keep passengers snugly safe even when they feel they’ve sprouted their own set of wings.


It’s more than the flight itself

Even before the balloon lifts away the trip begins on terra firma with the preparation for liftoff. Passengers and crew take the basket out and the envelope is removed from its bag and stretched out across the ground. The burners are installed on the basket, the envelope hooked on and big fans are rolled to the mouth of the envelope to fill it with air. When the interior is inflated with enough cold air to make room, the burners are fired up and hot air is aimed into the envelope making it slowly and magically rise up, revealing beautiful patterns and designs.

Persons not intending to fly find much pleasure and satisfaction in crewing. A chase crew is necessary on the ground to follow the balloon to its final destination and to pick up the fliers and help pack up the balloon. Balloon enthusiasts are encouraged to come and watch the balloons take off and are welcome to help crew.

At the end of the flight “there is always a brief moment where we congratulate ourselves on having made this magnificent flight and this beautiful landing. It just makes the moment that much more memorable,” Chapman said. The traditional way to celebrate this moment for over 200 years has been to celebrate with a champagne (or sparkling cider) toast. The cold December landscape makes for a slightly other-world atmosphere for this celebratory event.


A little bit of Chapman history

“I’m always asked how I got started in ballooning,” Chapman said. “For a lot of people it started with them crewing and then they had to go on from there. For me, I have to wind the clock back to 1976.” Chapman spent 12 years with the Marine Corps, six years on active duty and six years with the reserves out of Andrews Airforce Base in Washington, D.C. He would fly from his home in Ann Arbor, Mich. in his own plane down to AAFB and fly F4 Phantoms, two-seat, long range supersonic jet interceptor fighter/fighter bombers at the base, then he would fly back home. During this time he was applying to commercial airlines, “casting my bread on the water and watching it sink,” as Chapman put it. There were a lot of terrific Viet Nam era veterans like Chapman after the same jobs.

“One of the pilots in the reserve squadron threw a party every year,” Chapman said. “He had a nice house on a river near Annapolis. He had a sea plane and would give people rides; there were canoe races, waterskiing, beer and food. At around 11:30 at night he dragged out a beat up old hot air balloon which he inflated and would take  up 60-80 feet in the air.”

The riders could look at the lights of Washington, D.C., then he would bring the balloon down, and send it up again and again so everyone could have a ride. “The first time I saw that I was hooked,” Chapman said.

Two weeks later both Chapman and the other squadron pilot ordered beautiful new hot air balloons from a new maker. Ed’s came one day before the other pilot’s did. He went to Annapolis to fly it with his friend who signed off for Chapman to fly solo after the first flight.  Chapman completed a few more flights with an instructor, then one year later he moved to Minnesota because he was hired to fly for Braniff. Although being a hot air balloon pilot wasn’t what got Chapman the job with Braniff, being able to discuss ballooning and all its technical intricacies distinguished him from the crowd of other applicants.

After moving to Minnesota, “there were other balloonists in the area,” Chapman said. “Everyone flew Brand X; I flew Brand Y.  The dealer for Brand X told everyone that Brand Y was no good. I was the Rodney Dangerfield of ballooning in the Minneapolis area.” Brand X’s dealer held some records in ballooning, and to get some respect for his balloon Chapman decided to beat those records. Chapman did so in fine form, earning 20 records of his own in distance, duration and altitude. He demonstrated that he had a well engineered and very capable hot air balloon.


More rewards

“I’ve flown over 1,000 miles per hour in an F4 and zero miles per hour in a hot air balloon – all aviation but two different spectrums,” Chapman said. “I’ve flown two feet off the ground and 50,000 feet above the ground going Mach 2.”

Chapman flew over much of the U.S. while operating a balloon for Yoplait Yogurt. He flew over the Austrian, Swiss and Italian Alps in hot air balloons. In 1991 he flew in Leningrad, Russia, now St. Petersburg. “No one had ever seen a balloon there,” Chapman said. “We were told to fly as low as we could throughout Russia to avoid traffic conflicts.” While flying in Leningrad he flew with six story buildings around him at the four story level. He would have to fly higher to get over buildings and trees and once came upon an airport lined with MiGs – an airport that didn’t exist on any map. After 12 years of military training, coming up on a surprise like that caused a ripple of shock to Chapman’s core.

“I hobnobbed with Malcomb Forbes in 1984 in France,” Chapman said. “Forbes held an event every year at his chateau in Normandy. He would invite two balloonists each from 10 different countries to encourage growth in the sport. England and the U.S. were always included in the 10 because of the prevalence of ballooning in those countries. Forbes invited balloonists who distinguished themselves and Chapman was honored with the Montgolfier Award the year before. The other U.S. aeronaut was Col. Joe Kittinger who is best known for his high-altitude balloon flights and parachute jumps. He made history in 1960 by ascending to 102,800 feet in a high-altitude balloon and jumping to earth. He continued breaking records from there. Kittinger was on the team for the recent Felix Baumgartner world record jump from near space. Although Chapman and Kittinger knew of each other, neither had met the other until the Forbes event.


Caledonia area a knockout

“The Caledonia area is just a knockout over all the places in the U.S.,” Chapman says. “It’s tough to beat the Alps, but the Caledonia area with its bluffs; it holds its own against anything.”

The Caledonia Balloon Rally begins when the pilots arrive with their balloons on Friday, Dec. 7. Ray Ebert from Wisconsin and Ed Chapman will present a program to Caledonia’s fourth graders about ballooning. They will at least tether a balloon and inflate it, and hopefully the lyceum will culminate with a balloon flight. The children can wave goodbye to the receding balloon and its passengers and dream aeronautical dreams that night.

More aeronauts will arrive Friday evening. Many wait to eat until they get to Caledonia to enjoy the Rotary Club soup supper in the basement of the auditorium. During the Winter Wonderland parade, watching the balloonists in their baskets blasting a tower of flames from their twin burners is a delight for parade goers. The flames actually warm the crowd on the sidewalks, and when the weather is especially cold the crowd yells out to the pilots for more heat.

The pilots will meet while it’s still dark outside the morning of Saturday, Dec. 8 at the commons area at Caledonia High School. That’s when they discuss the forecast, test the wind with helium balloons and decide if it’s possible to fly. With as far away as many pilots come for this event, whether they have the opportunity to fly is all up to the weather. A 7:30 lift off is planned for the morning, and the process is repeated for a flight again in the afternoon at 4:30. The aeronauts will try for yet another flight the morning of Sunday, Dec. 9 – same place same time. The community is invited to come to the liftoffs and people who would like to crew are warmly welcomed.

To finance the event, paying for propane for the burners and insurance, the balloon committee historically has had only one fundraising event each year, the wine tasting party and silent auction, which will be Saturday, Dec. 8 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Four Seasons Community Center. To attend, a ticket must be purchased from a committee member or at the door, and guests are encouraged to bring an item for the silent auction.

Sponsorships can be obtained for the balloons. A sponsorship will get a sponsor a balloon ride for two passengers during one of the flights. Because of the possibility of bad weather, sponsorships cannot be brought forward to the next year. When one considers that purchasing a balloon ride could cost $250 per person, the opportunity to sponsor a balloon at the rally and get a ride for two, perhaps over your own neighborhood, is pretty great. Just hanging out with the bunch of  fliers is pretty awesome, too.

If the pilots and any family or crew they bring along with them would like, the balloon committee finds housing for them with families in Caledonia. It’s very possible for a host to find themselves in a balloon if the balloons get off the ground more than once. Many balloonists stay with the same families year after year and sometimes see each other more than that one weekend per year.

A landowner drawing for a thank you prize will be held this year. Balloonists are very grateful to settle their balloons down in a welcoming atmosphere. Balloonists, when possible, will call down to people on the ground to ask for permission to land. This year, upon landing, a form will be filled out with the name of the landowner. The winning landowner will be drawn at the pilot breakfast on Sunday morning after the last flight of the weekend.

If anyone has any questions about the rally, would like to sponsor a balloon or house balloonists, they may contact any of the balloon committee members. Members are: Patty Goetzinger, Sue Bauer, Erica Jacobson, Chris Swain, Diana Hammell, Janell Torgerson, Holly Youngerberg and Lucas Hammell.

The Bluff and Valley Balloon Rally likes to welcome as best they can the amazing men and women who fly these contraptions and are willing to share them with us. Jim Borchert, an aeronaut from Bloomington said last year at Sunday’s breakfast, “Every time I come here it’s like coming home for the holidays.”

Mark your calendars for Dec. 7 and 8 when balloonists intend to descend on Caledonia. ~ Holly Youngerberg
Mark your calendars for Dec. 7 and 8 when balloonists intend to descend on Caledonia.
~ Holly Youngerberg