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Up, up and away in my beautiful balloon...


Fri, Dec 13th, 2002
Posted in Features

Every December, as the Christmas spirit begins to fill our hearts, the city of Caledonia in Houston County, puts on their annual "Bluff Valley Balloon Rally". At this event, the people of Caledonia open their homes and share them with the balloon teams that travel from various locations to participate. This year there were 21 balloons, with pilots and crews from as far away as Sioux Falls, SD and as close as Preston.

My wife, Deb and I attended the event this year for the second time and though the weather wasn't perfect for flying, everyone had a great time, sponsors and balloonists alike. We stayed at the home of Miles & Jeanne Miller along with Curt & Jolie Shippy, from Burnsville, flying the "Phoenix" balloon, and Mike & Deb Benson from Rochester, flying "Just Duckie". The Millers took us all in as if we were family and made us all feel as if we were just "home" for a visit.

There were flights scheduled for Saturday morning and afternoon, as well as Sunday afternoon. Friday night, there was a welcome waiting for us at the town auditorium and a parade that included any balloonist that wanted to join in. The balloonists in the parade set up their baskets so they could fire off their propane burners as they drove through town, which is always a great crowd pleaser.

After the parade, everyone headed to a local tavern, appropriately named "Good Times", where we all got reacquainted with the other pilots and crews. We were also introduced to our sponsors, who would be riding with us if we were given the opportunity to fly. This year, our sponsors were Matt & Jodi Schmitz of Schmitz Refrigeration, Heating & A.C. We spent the early evening getting to know one another a bit but ballooning requires an early start in the morning, therefore an early retirement. Once back "home" at the Millers, we all got settled in and hit the hay in anticipation of our early morning flight plan.

Unfortunately, morning brought with it high winds and a bleak outlook for the afternoon as well. The information was met with disappointment from balloonists and sponsors alike. As the pilot briefing broke up, plans were made for the day's activities that included some sight seeing, a bit of napping and a lot of shopping.

To everyone's further disappointment, the wind continued to blow. It was decided that the wind speed was "borderline" so we headed for the airport to wait for a weather window. The window remained closed. However, a few adventurous souls decided to give it a try anyway. The other pilots and crews all banded together to pitch in and help. We did succeed in launching one balloon but the pilot had to fly solo, as there was no time to load passengers. Actually, that was a good thing because under the circumstances, it wasnt a good time to fly passengers anyway. There were two other attempts to launch but both of them failed. As hard as we tried, the wind was just too strong.

We all spent an evening filled with lots of camaraderie and catching up at the "Good Times". The food was tasty and the tales got taller and taller as the night progressed. It's amazing what great pilots we all are, as long as we don't have to prove it!

The morning forecast was very encouraging so another early evening was in order. Once we got "home", I made a call to the weatherman to get a better picture of what to expect in the morning. By all indications the winds would be perfect. After a very pleasant and enjoyable visit with our hosts and fellow borders, it was off to bed for a good night's sleep.

Upon arising, the weatherman let us down again. The winds hadn't diminished as expected so it looked as though the event would be weathered out completely. At the pilot briefing, attended by the crews and sponsors as well, the bad news was given but everyone involved understood that in any form of aviation, safety must be the first consideration.

The event organizers held a very nice brunch for us all at the Good Times later in the morning. At the brunch, we once again contacted the Flight Service Weather Briefer who told us that the evening should be perfect for flying. Those of us who werent far from home decided that it wouldn't hurt to wait around and see what happened so we put our heads together, got out the maps and made up a rudimentary flight plan.

When the updated forecast came out at noon, it was very encouraging so the flight was on! We quickly rounded up our crews and passengers and put our plan into action. Given the wind direction, we had decided to drive north to Houston and fly back towards Caledonia.

We attained permission from a local farmer to launch from his farmyard. The wind was still brisk but manageable. Inflations got underway and one by one, four out of the five of us that stayed lifted off for a wonderfully scenic flight through the ridges and valleys that wind through the area.

Flying in my balloon, "Screwball", I was joined in the sky by Ray Ebert of West Salem, WI, flying "Lofty View", Mike Benson, of Rochester, flying "Just Ducky", and Raphael Pantin, a Frenchman living in Owatonna, flying "Fireball". The four of us were able to lift 15 of our sponsors from the surly bonds of earth to a unique perspective and breathtaking views of the valleys below.

We bobbed in and out of the deep valleys and over the ridges under a brilliantly clear blue sky. The light snow on the ground made it easy to spot the abundant wildlife including deer, turkey, pheasant and a few coyotes. One minute we would be skimming just above the treetops of a high ridge and the next minute 500 feet above the valley floor below. At 1500 feet, our view included the Mississippi River basin stretching as far as we could see.

As the saying goes "All good things must come to an end" and this is as true for balloon flights as anything else. The sun was beginning to sink toward the horizon so I picked a nice grassy spot next to a farmhouse and radioed Deb in the chase truck, which was close by so she was able to drive to the farmhouse I had pointed out and ask permission to land. Permission was granted eagerly so I gently set "Screwball" down on a grassy area at the edge of their yard.

We all went to work deflating the balloon and packing up. Once the work was all done, it was time for a traditional champagne toast, which included a brief ceremony welcoming the first time passengers to the world of the Aeronaut.

On the way out, I stopped the truck in the landowners' driveway and went to thank them for letting us use their land. I gave them a couple of lapel pins that depict my balloon and they informed me that they had taken a picture of their daughter with the balloon in the background and that it would be used as their Christmas card this year. It warmed my heart on a cold December evening to have the honor of being included in someone's Christmas that way. People whom I had never met before chance brought me to their doorstep. But then, that's the nature of hot air ballooning and a perfect end to a perfect flight.

The good people of Caledonia open their homes every year to we balloonists and make us feel like family, whether we get to fly or not. It is the epitome of hot air ballooning and one of the reasons I love this sport so much. We all look forward to going back "home" to our Caledonia families next year and many more years to come.

Sam Blackburn, who lives near Forestville, is a commercial pilot who operates Screwball Balloons. He can be contacted at samwho@hot-mail.com.

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