An Osakis couple, Colette and Brad Vandergon, have a passion for ballooning — and for creating special moments for adults with special needs.

On Tuesday, Aug. 20, the Vandergons set up their hot air balloon, nicknamed The Waddling Penguin, in a Lake Geneva Christian Center field to give tethered rides to those who were attending Minnesota Camp. The five-day Assemblies of God camp drew 105 adults with special needs and 125 volunteers this year.

Although it proved to be too windy for rides, the campers still got an up-close look at the colorful balloon and climbed in the basket to have a photo taken.

And that was fun, too. As the campers 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.

Balloon's history

The balloon has a fascinating history and Colette thinks it's 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.