On the last day of Vt.'s hot air balloon season, late ballooning giant Brian Boland looms large
It’s late October in Essex, Vermont, a warm afternoon with temperate winds.
On the grassy ground lies a massive pile of yellow and red nylon and a wicker basket.
In less than an hour this pile will be a 300,000-cubic-foot hot air balloon capable of carrying 14 passengers. It’s among the largest in the Northeast and belongs to Essex-based company Above Reality, Vermont’s only commercial balloon company.
Today, the balloon will fly from Essex to Willison in the company’s last flight of the commercial season, landing just as the sun sets — if all goes according to plan.
With the basket on its side, the inflation begins.
Three industrial fans fill the balloon with cold air. Then, propane burners give bursts of hot air. The balloon takes about 30 minutes to inflate.
Lina Baclom, a hobbyist balloon pilot, explains that weather is a huge factor in flying a hot air balloon. The calmer it is, the easier it is to steer.
"We are entirely in control of the altitude of a balloon but you are not entirely in control of the direction that you’re heading, and wind blows in different directions at different altitudes," she says. "And so, we can 'steer' by moving the balloon into different airspace."
As the hot air rises in the balloon, the basket moves upright. With more bursts of hot air, the balloon bounces higher and higher until lifting above the treeline and catching the evening breeze west.
Now begins the great balloon chase.
Because balloons follow the wind, this means that they can’t know precisely where they’ll land, so they’re followed by a crew from the ground.
Today's crew includes Paul Stumpf. He’s been flying, building, and maintaining balloons for over 40 years. He’s made the 2-hour drive from his repair barn in Andover to inspect the balloon we’ll be chasing. Ten people follow the floating aircraft, as best we can.
“This is the wait-and-see approach to balloon chasing," he says. "We watch the balloon, get ahead of them a little bit."
We follow the chase crew, pulling over every 10 minutes to get a sense of which way the balloon is headed next.
Paul describes some of his most beloved flights.
"I’m a nature guy, so I call it the aerial nature walk," he says. "And I just love flying at treetop, over places you could never get, like over marshes and swamps, and rivers."
He says he got his ballooning start early.
“So my thing was doing this ballooning thing in high school, at 16 years old, my art teacher, balloon-building mentor — Brian Boland — who you probably know about," he says.
Brian Boland, eccentric ballooning legend of the Northeast, was a mentor to most of the Vermont-based pilots today. He died in a ballooning accident in July of 2021. In the ballooning world and Orange County, he was the kind of person it was impossible not to know about.
“I met Brian, he landed at my neighbor’s house," says Tina Foster, Brian's partner. "I lived down on Academy Road in Thetford. He landed at my neighbor’s house, and I was just smitten.”
The two lived together in a house on the Post Mills Airport, a small airstrip Brian purchased in 1988 that launches small aircraft and balloons.
Brian was continually adding onto their home: a wooden bow of a boat breaching out the side of the barn, a small gazebo on the roof that Brian dropped there by floating it up as the basket of a balloon. The barn is now the Experimental Ballooning and Airship Museum of Vermont.
"I met Brian, he landed at my neighbor’s house. I lived down on Academy Road in Thetford. He landed at my neighbor’s house, and I was just smitten."Tina Foster, Brian's partner
One of Brian’s passion projects was to build a balloon basket that once landed, could become a car. They look futuristic in the old-timey imagined way, like out of a '60s movie set on Mars.
He was also well known for designing lightweight equipment and coined the invention of a folding basket, in addition to engineering and constructing 161 balloons during his career.
The museum is full of dusty buggies and cars, balloon baskets. It’s got the wheel of a NASA spacecraft, a glider plane mounted to the rafters, and old sewing machines and vacuum cleaners arranged into sculpture.
Brian was the kind of person to reach people through art, both as a lifelong mentor to numerous apprentices, and first, as a high school art teacher.
“At some point, the kids found out that he had built a balloon, and they wanted to see it, and Brian being Brian, at some point said, 'Well OK, let’s make one,'" Tina says. "And so he got this whole class of kids to help him build a balloon. For a while there was a balloon building elective at the school. He said Seventeen magazine came and did a story about it. There were several people out of that class, like Paul, who went on to be balloon pilots.”
Brian spent his whole life flying. Tina recalls on their second date, they flew a picnic table in place of a basket over the Post Mills Airport, their feet dangling.
"He kind of never really grew up," Tina says. "And he was so lucky to find — like, most of us aren’t lucky enough to find the thing we love more than anything, and then be able to do it every day."
Back in Essex, Paul and the chase team follow the balloon to a hay field. The sun is setting. It is beautiful.
“Here he comes. Yep, looks like this is gonna be the spot for today," Paul says. "That’s beautiful with the hay bales and the sun coming over there.”
The crew guides the balloon to a soft landing, and the passengers shuffle out. There is that feeling of excitement in the air. It’s something pilot Lina Balcom, who knew Boland, describes as having to do with perspective.
“The thing that I can relate it to is when you sit at the edge of the ocean, you understand how small you are, because you look out and see how massive the ocean is," Lina says. "I have a similar experience, a similar feeling, when I’m in a balloon.”
It’s a feeling palpable in today’s landing, but also in the life remembered of Brian Boland. There really is no better word for it than wonder, wonder that fueled his fascination with these flying machines and the community they knit around him.
Each basketful of sky-bound passengers fosters new wonder, and as these final riders mill in the Vermont sunset, there seems to be a lot to smile about.
There’s a table the crew’s set up with glasses of champagne and Vermont apple cider. Pilot Jeff says it’s tradition to end each flight in celebration.
“The winds have welcomed us with softness, and the sun has blessed us with his warm hands," he says. "We have flown so high and so low, that the gods have joined us in our laughter, and set us gently back again in the loving arms of Mother Earth. Cheers. Gentle breezes, soft landings."
This story is a collaboration between Vermont Public and the Community News Service. The Community News Service is a student-powered partnership between the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program and community newspapers across Vermont.