On September 1, 2021

Balloon pilots remember colleague on eve of festival

By Katy Savage

With the 41st annual Quechee Balloon Festival coming up Labor Day weekend, many balloon pilots are remembering a lost colleague.

Balloon pilot Brian Boland, 72, of Thetford, died July 15 after he fell out of his basket and became entangled underneath.
Boland was well-known and beloved among the pilot community. He built about 200 of his own balloons and was always inviting pilots to see his work at his Experimental Balloon and Airship Museum.

“He was one of the most creative balloon pilots on the face of the Earth,” said Dick Young, who has been flying in Quechee for 24 years.

A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board found Boland and four other passengers began a scenic flight from Boland’s Post Mills Airport around 6:30 p.m. on July 15. They flew along the Connecticut River, toward Bradford. The balloon was in the air for about 45 minutes when Boland discovered his pilot light wasn’t lit.

Boland switched propane bottles but could not find his striker to relight the burner. The balloon descended toward the ground while Boland continued to search and found a second backup striker in his supply bucket. Boland re-lit the pilot light but could not get the balloon to climb again before it touched down in a field 2 ¼ miles south of Bradford. Boland and another passenger were thrown from the basket.

The balloon then started to take off again, but Boland’s foot was trapped under the basket frame. The report said Boland successfully untangled his foot, but remained hanging below the basket for about 1¼ miles before he fell to a field near the Connecticut River and died. The remaining passengers used a handheld radio to contact ground support and received instructions on how to operate the balloon to landing. The balloon traveled about 3½ miles before it got caught in a tree in Piermont, New Hampshire. One passenger sustained minor injuries while the rest of the passengers were uninjured.
Boland’s death sent a shock through the balloon pilot community.

“It makes us more cautious,” said Bill Whidden, a longtime pilot, who is the balloonmeister of the Quechee Balloon Festival. “I can bet you everyone’s going to be checking their second source of strikers.”

About 16 pilots will be coming to Quechee for the event Sept. 4-5, and 10,000 people are expected to attend to take balloon rides, enjoy live music, and watch skydivers and Frisbee dogs.

Quechee is a coveted area for pilots — known for its beauty and its difficulty. The Quechee Gorge, the roads, powerlines, and the lack of open fields, make it a difficult area to fly for pilots, Whidden said.

Flying a balloon requires the same safety procedures as a Boeing 747, Whidden said, but balloons have no steering wheel, no accelerator and no brakes. They also typically don’t take off or land in airports.

“Ballooning can get such bad press so easily because people don’t understand what balloons do,” said Kelly Dubé, who will be flying in Quechee for her first time this year.

Balloon pilots are at the mercy of the wind, Dubé said. They drift where the balloon takes them. Sometimes they land in front yards or in the back of restaurants.

“We’re problem solving every second,” Dubé said. “We have to anticipate the changes — whether it’s temperature or wind speed, wind direction or obstacles — even passenger behavior.”

Dubé, who is one of two female pilots coming to Quechee, never met Boland, but said her pilot colleagues talk about him like he’s a legend.

“He really touched a lot of people,” Dubé said.

Each pilot has their own connection to being in the air.

“It doesn’t keep you from flying,” Dubé said. “I think every pilot is always thinking about safety.”

For Dubé, becoming a balloon pilot was her way of doing something for herself after spending so much time thinking about others. Dubé homeschooled her five kids over a 25-year period.

“I had lost touch with myself,” Dubé said. “I had poured all myself into my children and their education. I was overwhelmed with everything that is homeschooling.”

Dubé remembered liking balloons as a child.

Dubé’s friend connected her with a hot air balloon pilot and after being a crew member, Dubé decided she wanted to get her own license in 2015. Dubé said Boland’s death provides an opportunity to remember why she loves being a pilot.

“It’s another opportunity to reflect on the privilege of flying a hot air balloon and the responsibility of flying a hot air balloon,” she said. “There’s a great sense of freedom being in a balloon.”

For Dubé, the uncertainty of each flight is a metaphor for life.

“You don’t know where you’re going to land, but you’re going to land and it’s going to be OK,” she said.

Young, who remembers countless laughs with Boland, commended Boland for keeping his passengers safe.

“He upheld the highest commitment and command as a pilot, which is to get your passengers back on the ground safely,” Young said. “If Brian taught us anything, he taught us our enduring commitment to safety is number one.”

Pilots said Boland was always full of fun and always willing to teach others.

“He was a real artist,” said Denny Welser, who has been ballooning since 1982.

Boland had logged over 11,400 hours in the air — well above the average pilot. Boland flew twice a day in the summer, taking what he called a “therapy session” in the morning, only to return to the air later in the day. In the dead of winter, when most balloonists stop flying, Boland flew two or three times a week.

“It was his passion,” said Tina Foster, Boland’s wife of 15 years. “He was so incredibly lucky to find something he was really, really good at and really, really loved.”

Boland built his first balloon in 1971 for his master’s thesis at Pratt Institute. Boland named the balloon Phoenix, and flew below it in a harness. Boland had a tradition of flying the balloon every spring, on its birthday.

After college, Boland became an art teacher in Connecticut. His students were so intrigued by his balloon that Boland had his students help him build another one. A couple years later, Boland decided he wanted to be a full-time balloon pilot.

“His real love was designing and innovating,” Foster said. “He was on a constant quest to make the lightest and most portable balloon he could.”

Boland made a foldable basket so he could travel with it. Boland had memorable flights in Europe and South America. He flew his smallest hot air balloon, named Peaches, over the Alps and over Angel Falls in Venezuela, over the Andes, and over a giant sinkhole in a jungle.

Boland moved to Vermont in 1998 after he saw the Post Mills Airport was for sale. Boland took an existing apartment at the airport and expanded it into a living space with an attached museum.

He affectionately called it “the museum of rusty, dusty stuff,” Foster said.

Here, Boland’s true creativity shone. Boland made a tree-like sculpture out of used skis that stretched from the first floor of the museum to the second. Boland also made an outdoor sculpture out of wood scraps he called “Vermontasaurus.”
The sculpture started when Boland “woke up one day and said ‘those are dinosaur bones,’” Foster remembered.

The sculpture was a tribute to Boland’s son, who died at age 26 due to a cardiac event while biking.

Boland later made a small herd of dinosaurs.

Boland hosted an annual event at his airport for balloon pilots to bring their own handmade, experimental balloons. The event, which is usually in May, will be Sept. 11-12 this year. Around 30 pilots are expected to come. Dozens of Boland’s balloons will be on display as a memorial, Foster said.

“He loved people, he loved kids,” Foster said. “It was so important for him to share his real joy of ballooning with people.”
Boland will be remembered in Quechee. For Boland, nothing was impossible and he wanted to inspire others to achieve their craziest dreams.

“He could inspire people to feel like they could actually do something, or they could have a weird idea and make it come true,” Foster said.

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