Grass blades moved. Shirt collars fluttered. Standing next to the trailer containing her hot air balloon, Colette Vandergon studied a nearby tall oak tree, its topmost branches swaying in the wind.
Watch that tree, she said. The balloon, seven stories tall, is at least as tall as the tree. What the wind does to that oak tree, it will do to the balloon.
It wasn’t quite 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 20. Across the field at Lake Geneva Christian Center, chairs began to fill with adults with special needs who were attending Minnesota Camp. They were eager to catch a glimpse of the balloon nicknamed The Waddling Penguin after Vandergon’s stepfather, a short, rotund man who once wore a tuxedo to a hot air balloon festival.
Music thumped. More campers trickled into the viewing area.
Vandergon didn’t want to let them down.
At 6:22 p.m., she checked the wind speed at the Alexandria Airport. It was 10 knots, about 11.5 miles per hour, much higher than the 4-6 knots needed for ballooning.
“Don’t worry,” said Rene McCullough, the leader of Minnesota Camp, a five-day Assemblies of God camp that drew 105 adults with special needs and 125 volunteers this year. “We’ve got a lot of people praying.”
Found in a barn
Vandergon and her husband, Brad, of Osakis, enlisted campers and camp counselors to tip the wicker balloon basket on its side and spread out the red, yellow and purple fabric. She tested the burner, which whooshed loudly and shot out a flame.
It is, she thinks, probably the oldest airworthy hot air balloon in Minnesota.
Colette’s parents had bought the balloon in 1980 from a Raven, a Sioux Falls, South Dakota company that made and sold hot air balloons until 2008. She got a ride in it for her 10th birthday. But ballooning is an expensive hobby; parts have to be replaced regularly, and balloons undergo annual safety checks. So the balloon ended up in the family’s barn for nearly 26 years.
In 2009, Colette decided to track the balloon down. It had not been stored in any special way, yet no rodents had chewed through the ripstop nylon. The basket was in good shape and it still had its burner, fuel tanks and instruments.
To check its airworthiness, Brad had to take the balloon up to 5,000 feet, shut off the burners and recover. But when he turned the burners back on, the balloon kept sinking fast. Not only that, but the basket was spinning like a Midway ride while Colette watched anxiously from the ground and Brad worked to steady the balloon.
Eventually enough warm air filled the balloon that it stabilized. Still, he came down hard, a “pile driver landing,” Colette called it.
They realized that the protective coating had come off the balloon, allowing air to penetrate the fabric. So they ordered 20 gallons of a protective coating developed by a New York pilot, and one Thanksgiving weekend, the Osakis School District allowed them to use its gymnasium to put it on. Over four days, they stripped the fabric of all its old interior coating and then, on their hands and knees, spread on the new coating.
The work was so taxing that Colette’s hands went numb. Her fingers were still so numb two months later that she didn’t realize the balloon had a propane leak until she looked down and saw blisters on her hands. She ended up having carpal tunnel surgery on both hands, she said.
Yet the new coating worked. Hundreds of tests revealed that the 30-year-old fabric was airworthy and strong. They were able to take it on its re-inaugural flight on April 10, 2010, over Jordan. They have brought it to the Osakis school for special events, and to balloon festivals in other places.
The Vandergons had brought the balloon to Minnesota Camp before, in 2018, and the wind was gentle enough that they were able to inflate the balloon. They didn’t give rides, as neither is certified to go up except solo or with an instructor. But they tethered it to the ground and let campers climb in and have their photos taken.
On Tuesday night, they hoped the wind would die down. It often does toward evening, they said, when the heat of the day slips away.
But the wind kept blowing. Skirts swirled. Hair lifted gently. A gust sent the oak branches into a frenzy.
At 7:16 p.m., Colette reported grimly that the wind speed had just picked up — 11 knots, gusting to 17. Still, she considered inflating the balloon. They wouldn’t be giving rides, after all, just allowing people to climb into the basket. They would tie the basket down.
“Don’t do it,” warned her mom, Mary Jo Brown, a licensed pilot for hot air balloons and fixed-wing aircraft. “You’re only as good as the weather allows you to be.”
Winds can topple balloons and roll them. In strong winds, the balloon will even move vehicles they’re tethered to.
In the viewing area, campers ate popcorn and snowcones and danced to the music.
A strong gust — the strongest yet — whipped through. The oak branches gyrated.
“OK, that’s it, stand ‘er up,” Colette decided.
The balloon would not inflate that evening. But campers at least could climb into the basket for photos.
And that was fun, too. As they waited, they chattered excitedly.
“My older sister is afraid of heights!” one told Colette.
“This is my first time!” another one said.
“Why don’t they have a door (on the basket)?” someone else asked.
Some needed help climbing in and out. But they all got a chance to pull a metal cord that caused the propane to whoosh straight up above their heads.
Each time that propane whooshed, everyone clapped.