Balloonist Ed Chapman, who holds several world’s records for balloon flight, visited Houston County on a recent beautiful fall day.<br /><br /><!-- 1upcrlf2 -->
Balloonist Ed Chapman, who holds several world’s records for balloon flight, visited Houston County on a recent beautiful fall day.

Dawn frost thickened the grass behind Caledonia High School on Oct. 19 as Ed Chapman rigged his lighter-than-airship for another flight. A 36-year veteran balloonist and retired airline pilot, Chapman was in town to visit some friends who share his enthusiasm for traveling through the "wild blue yonder."

When Chapman's feet are on the ground, he lives in Jordan, Minn. He's logged over 24,000 hours in a wide variety of aircraft, and over 2,400 hours in balloons. Over the course of his ballooning career, Chapman has broken 20 world records for distance traveled, time spent aloft and altitude.

Chapman's balloon is named "Fire and Frost." Loaded with 55 gallons of fuel, the wicker gondola lay on its side, ready to inflate the ship's 120,000 cubic foot envelope as he spoke.

The only thing that delayed the launch was a thick bank of fog, due to dissipate as the day wore on. For eager riders, the wait was lasting forever.

"I enjoy the look on people's faces when they see it fly by," Chapman smiled.

Deep purple and black checkered with a silvery "frost" design surrounding a single fiery square, "Fire and Frost" is likely to be the biggest airship at Caledonia's Winter Wonderland Balloon Rally this December, he noted.

Popular with organizers, the balloonist will be making his third appearance at the event later this year.

"Ballooning has afforded me the opportunity to travel to some places and see some locations around the world that I otherwise might not have seen," Chapman said as he re-checked each detail of the rig.

"I took a balloon to Russia a number of years ago. The kids would show up when you take off or land and just have a ball. We took marshmallows, Coca Cola, Tootsie Rolls, things you would recognize as being from the U.S. They'd never seen a Tootsie Roll or a marshmallow."

Chapman said his fuel would suffice for a couple of hops of around an hour with four or five passengers aboard. Floating along at anywhere from treetop level to 1,500 feet, those two fairly short flights would suffice for a laid-back Saturday.

A number of years ago, Chapman loaded up 250 gallons of LP and stayed aloft for 19 hours, 12 minutes. It was good for a world record.

Another record involved strapping on an oxygen mask and soaring over seven miles high - in an open gondola such as shown.

What's it like to go up 38,900 feet in a wicker basket?

"It's pretty lonesome... Once you get past about 25,000 feet it seems like the sides of the basket are about an inch shorter every 1,000 feet, until finally you're standing there in one spot, and you don't want to move.

"You get the feeling that you don't really belong up there, but you're allowed to stay for a few minutes. You use an oxygen mask from the ground up, because you've got to get the nitrogen out of your system. I've been over 30,000 feet five times. Two of those were world record flights. The highest was when I took off from Prior Lake and landed down in the vicinity of Rochester.

"The wind up there is over 100 mph, so you're just cooking along. It's also about 75 (degrees) below zero. I was wearing some good stuff, designed for mountaineering expeditions. It took almost an hour to get up and about 25 minutes to get back down.

"You're busy... you're talking to air traffic controllers. You can't tell you're traveling that fast because there's no sense of relative speed. You are moving with the wind. You check your condition to see that you aren't getting chilled. If you get to the point where you say, 'I'm getting cold,' you need to pay real close attention to any decisions that you're making.

"The cold can slow your thought processes. You have to keep managing your fuel system, so you can't really spend much time looking over the side. It was fun, though."

Back in Caledonia, the low-lying cloudbank slowly burned away, and "Fire and Frost" ascended, much as it will in December (weather permitting). Aeronauts require at least 3-mile visibility, Chapman said. Ideally, winds should be less than six miles-per-hour, but not dead calm. Sunshine is OK, as are high cloud ceilings. Rain or snow is not good for flying.

Winter Wonderland coming up

When "Fire and Frost" returns to Caledonia, it'll have some company.

The rally committee already has five confirmed responses from pilots who will be heading to Houston County for the Dec. 7, 8 and 9 event.

There will be a parade on Friday night, and balloon liftoffs at 7:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, and another 7:30 a.m. flight on Sunday morning, if the weather cooperates.

A wine tasting party and silent auction will be held on Saturday from 7 to 9 p.m. at Caledonia's Four Seasons Community Center.

Visit the Winter Wonderland Celebration online at www.caledoniamn.gov for more information on the festivities,