Annual Post Mills balloon event lifts off for first time after founder’s tragic crash, death

  • Mike Kuehlmuss, of Whately, Mass., floats over the airstrip in a balloon directed by the motor and fan of an ultralight as Tom Ritland, right, and his son Chris's dog Moose look on at the Post Mills, Vt., Airport during the Experimental Balloon and Airship Association Meet on Saturday, May 14, 2022. The meet has returned to its usual date in May after being postponed until the fall of 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

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    Chris Ritland, of Quechee, fills his balloon with hot air in preparation to take Annika Ringen, right, on her first flight at the Post Mills, Vt., Airport during the Experimental Balloon and Airship Association Meet on Saturday, May 14, 2022. Ritland said the meet is a relaxed gathering pilots who have built their own balloons to exchange ideas and techniques, and was instrumental in sparking his interest in hot air balloons. "I came to one of these events when I was young, and that was the first time I saw someone flying in a trash can," he said. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Balloonist Tom Handcock, of St. Petersburg, Fla., keeps his hand on the burner as he rises into the air over the airport in Post Mills, Vt., during the Experimental Balloon and Airship Association Meet on Saturday, May 14, 2022. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

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    With his dog Gwillie on his lap, Zachary Weindel, of Providence, R.I., waits for an assessment of the wind direction before taking off, suspended from his balloon "Independent Enlightenment" during the Experimental Balloon and Airship Association Meet at Post Mills, Vt., Airport in on Saturday, May 14, 2022. Gwillie rode with Weindel's brother Eric in a chase vehicle during the flight. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • A pair of balloonists lift off during the Experimental Balloon and Airship Association Meet in Post Mills, Vt., early on Saturday, May 14, 2022. The meet, started by Brian Boland, who died last July in a ballooning accident, is held each year around the May 17 birthday of Boland’s first balloon, the Phoenix. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/14/2022 9:41:18 PM
Modified: 5/14/2022 9:39:30 PM

POST MILLS — Laura Lewis and her family were awakened at dawn Saturday morning by the dragon-like fire-breathing roar of propane gas jets inflating hot air balloons only a few feet away from where she had put her head to rest a few hours earlier.

“It was like carpe diem,” said Lewis, citing the Latin phrase meaning “seize the day” about what she, her husband and their three young kids felt when they poked their heads out of the flap to see the balloons inflate into gargantuan, kaleidoscope-like orbs.

Lewis, whose family drove up from their home in Hadley, Mass., and pitched their tent at midnight at the edge of Post Mills Airport’s grass field, called the excursion to watch the balloons waft away a “do-or-die thing.”

Saturday morning’s pure-azure sky over the Upper Valley turned out to be perfect weather for the annual Experimental Balloon and Airship Meet, an informal congregation of aeronauts that was founded by the late Vermont balloonist Brian Boland, who was killed in a ballooning accident near Bradford, Vt., last summer. Boland’s spirit hovered over this year’s meet, with friends and former colleagues coming from around the country — and other countries — remembering a pilot and balloon maker many said was the best in the sport.

But, at the same time, this year’s Post Mills balloon ball was without a singular voice.

“It’s not the same without Brian, that’s for sure,” said Jim Rogers, a balloonist from St. John’s, Newfoundland, in Canada, who has been to all but one of the meets in since Boland began them in 1988 (they were suspended from 2001 to 2014 and didn’t take place in 2020 because of COVID-19). “You could hear that laugh of his from across the field.”

 

Unlike many balloon festivals, with slick marketing campaigns designed to boost local tourism, Boland intentionally set up the Post Mills meet to take the baloney out of ballooning. For starters, anyone showing up at Post Mills with their balloon has to have made that balloon themselves — no factory-made models.

Hence the “experimental” designation in the festival’s name.

“Some balloon festivals, like the big ones, (the organizers) give you a free hotel room, free propane, they sell tickets to the public, sell rides. But this is completely unsponsored,” said Mike Lavoie, a retired industrial electrician from West Ossipee, N.H., who has attended every meet since the first one in 1988.

Lavoie had just finished in February making his sixth balloon, a 56,000-square-cubic-footer named Murray’s Brother, which had its maiden voyage in Post Mills, tethered at the end of a 150-rope to test its deployment, on Thursday night.

“It worked very, very well,” beamed Lavoie, 67, who calls the annual meet “grassroots ballooning.”

On Saturday morning, 19 homemade balloons were sent aloft between 6 and 9 a.m., rising slowly in the near-windless and unseasonably warm air before gradually meandering north in the direction of Fairlee and over Lake Morey.

Among those who had come to watch the loosely choreographed launches were Sukie Hausmann and her daughter, Ana, of Topsham, Vt. They woke up at 4:30 a.m. to make it in time for the liftoffs — and had better luck than on previous trips.

“Most years when we’d come down, the weather was not permitting them to take off,” Sukie Hausmann said as a balloon expanded and rose upright in front of her eyes. “We’d keep trying, but this is the first year we’ve seen them launch.”

And?

“It was worth the wait,” she affirmed.

But Hausmann said she is not eager to ride in a balloon. Although she’s been in a tethered balloon, Hausmann said she’d be “nervous” to ride in one while it freely floated in the sky, subject to whim of the wind.

“It’s beautiful, I know, but I’d feel too vulnerable,” she said.

Also there to watch the balloons take off were Lauri Berkenkamp and Kate Siepmann, friends from Strafford.

Siepmann said she appreciated the beauty and majesty of the balloons but acknowledged being a “bit of an acrophobe” and was in no rush to go climb into one and test his fear of heights.

Berkenkamp, however, recounted that Boland had taken her for a balloon ride once, and the experience made an indelible impression.

“We followed the river and landed in Wells River,” she recalled, adding that Boland’s death “felt like a personal loss even though I didn’t even know him that well.”

Eric LaMontagne was inflating his 90,000-square-cubic-foot balloon with his piloting partner, Darrek Daoust. LaMontagne said he balloons about 40 weekends a year, including at the annual festival in Quechee, as they prepared to go aloft on Saturday morning.

An environmental engineer and “second-generation balloonist” from Burrill-ville, R.I., LaMontagne said there is 2½ miles of stitching to sew together the pieces of his balloon.

The heated air inside the balloon’s cavity needs to be 100 degrees hotter than the ambient temperature to rise, LaMontagne said, and he expected to burn about 20 gallons of his 35-gallon tank of propane for a two-hour flight. Although he’s been as high as 12,000 feet in his balloon, LaMontagne said he expected to remain at a relatively low 5,000 feet on Saturday.

But anything else that morning would not be in their control.

“We have no idea where we are going,” LaMontagne said from the basket as it left the ground. “We’re going with the wind.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.




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