Alaska warmth puts balloonist's record-breaking hopes on hold

Posted: Sunday, February 23, 2003

FAIRBANKS - Of all the places in the world, Steve Griffin figured he could count on Fairbanks for cold weather in February. But now Griffin could be left out in the cold because of one of the warmest winters on record in Fairbanks.

Ah, the irony of it all.

The Australian hot air balloonist traveled to Fairbanks in hopes of setting world records for both altitude and duration of flight in what are the smallest hot air balloons in the world. The only catch is that he needs some cold weather to do it.

The balloons perform better in the cold, Griffin explained, because cold air is denser. The coldest temperature Griffin can fly in back in Australia is about 40 degrees, he said.

"With the temperatures we have in Australia it will lift about 150 pounds (which includes the passenger)," said Griffin, who weighs just about that. "At 10 degrees it will lift 270 pounds."

Ten degrees in February is not usually a problem in Fairbanks, where the average high temperature is 4 above and the average low is 18 below. Unfortunately for Griffin, he chose one of the weirdest, warmest winters on record to try for the world record. He arrived Jan. 29 at the beginning of a warm snap that saw temperatures climb to 40 degrees earlier this week.

"I come halfway around the world to someplace cold and it's tropical," Griffin said with a chuckle.

At home, the 39-year-old Griffin gives tours over Brisbane, a city of about 1 million people, in an ordinary sized hot air balloon, which is about 80 feet high. But the balloons he brought to Alaska are not even half that size and there is no room for passengers.

The balloons, which Griffin designed and built himself, are 27 and 33 feet high, respectively, the two smallest categories of hot air balloons in the world. You can stuff them into a sack so that they look like an ordinary sleeping bag. They are made of lightweight nylon and weigh 20 to 25 pounds.

There are no baskets to stand in, either. Griffin wears a harness and sits on a bar, both of which are attached to the balloon. He looks like a trapeze artist swinging through the air, but with more clothes on. A frame above Griffin's head holds the propane burner, and the fuel tank and harness hang from the frame.

Asked if sitting on a bar suspended thousands of feet in the air supported by what amounts to a weather balloon is scary, Griffin, who has been as high as 33,000 feet in bigger balloons, replied, "Naw, it's not at all. It's quite comfortable."

Besides, he said with some Australian ballooning wit, "It's all academic above 50 feet - if you fall."

Tagging along with Griffin on his world-record pursuit is Rob Franklin, a friend and fellow balloonist from Great Britain who is using Griffin's balloons to set several British ballooning records.

"When the e-mail popped into my mailbox asking if anybody was crazy enough to come to Alaska I sent back a yes," said Franklin, a freelance TV cameraman making his fourth trip to Alaska.

On a recent Sunday, Griffin and Franklin took four flights in the Goldstream Valley and broke 15 national records - 11 Australian and four British - for altitude and duration of flight.

Their longest flight was 2 hours, 18 minutes, which covered about 4 miles. Their top altitude was about 3,000 feet.

The world record for duration of flight for the smallest balloon is 2 hours, 50 minutes and the altitude record is 7,400 feet. Records for the larger balloon are 4 hours, 8 minutes and 14,200 feet.

"Unless we get these target temperatures, we won't achieve the world record," said Griffin. "I think if we had a window with the right weather, we could be very successful."

Local balloonist Matt Anderson has been helping Griffin with logistics in Fairbanks and while he said he would love to fly one of Griffin's mini balloons, there is no way that's possible.

"There's no way I could get down to 150 pounds," said the ample Anderson.

Asked why he would fly halfway around the globe to pursue some obscure ballooning records, Griffin didn't hesitate.

"Ballooning is my thing," he said.

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