Post Mills pilot killed in fall from hot-air balloon; four passengers survive harrowing flight
|Published: 07-19-2021 11:07 AM
BRADFORD, Vt. — As the hot air balloon began to rise swiftly over the treetops, Roger Blake knew he had to make a decision.
Just seconds earlier, in a freak accident, the pilot had become trapped under the balloon basket while it was on the ground.
Suddenly, Blake, his daughter and his granddaughter were the only people who remained in the unpiloted aircraft as it ascended with increasing speed above Fairlee.
Below them, the farmlands and the dark vein of the Connecticut River fell away as Blake looked at the balloon controls.
“I’ve never had that much burden,” Blake, 73, said Friday while standing outside his Norwich home, tears welling up.
He took a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped them away.
“My daughter and my granddaughter’s lives were in my hands.”
Blake spoke less than a day after the harrowing hot air balloon tragedy on Thursday night that took the life of 72-year-old pilot Brian Boland. Blake, a former Selectboard chairman in Norwich, managed to land the balloon safely across the river in New Hampshire.
He, his wife, Ellen, 67, their daughter Emily Blake, 37, and her daughter survived. Officials from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration are investigating the incident, which was called in around 9:30 p.m. Thursday. There has not been an official determination of the cause of the crash.
Blake said the family went up in the balloon on a sightseeing trip. Boland had decided against taking off Thursday morning because there were too many clouds, so the group waited until evening, when they took off from Post Mills Airport into the humid summer night in the Cameron 0-105 air balloon around 6:30, he said.
“It was otherwise an innocent activity,” Blake said. “All it took was one mistake.”
That moment came during the flight, Blake said, when Boland realized the pilot light for the balloon’s burner was out. The burner heats the air inside the balloon, allowing it to rise. Without any burners, Blake said, the balloon began to descend rapidly toward the ground as Boland frantically searched for an igniter.
“Seconds are like ...” Blake’s voice trailed off as he pointed toward the ground, indicating how quickly the hot air balloon fell through the sky.
Boland was able to relight the burners, but it was too late, Blake said. The ground was too close, and the balloon landed heavily in a field off of Alan Lane in Fairlee. The basket tumbled over and Ellen Blake and Boland were ejected, Roger Blake said.
In a statement Friday, Vermont State Police said that Ellen Blake was thrown clear of the basket, while Boland got tangled in ropes underneath the basket as the balloon began to quickly reascend. With the burner relit and one fewer person, Blake said, the balloon rose rapidly.
Blake recalled as they crash-landed, Boland had yelled one instruction to the passengers: “Stay in the basket.”
The balloon continued to rise as it traveled north over Bradford, where Boland ultimately fell to his death into a field off of Route 25, just feet from the river, according to Vermont State Police.
Police have not said how far Boland fell, but said he was pronounced dead at the scene. On Friday morning, FAA officials and state police were at the site of his fall, marking a circle around the dirt imprint of his body left in the grass.
Blake and his daughter and granddaughter remained in the basket but were by no means safe.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “I just kept looking for a place to land.”
The balloon continued to travel up the Connecticut River for 1½ miles, and Blake told his granddaughter to crouch down in the basket as he assessed his moves.
He was worried about hitting power lines as they traveled. He was worried about hitting one of the many hills or cliff sides.
As his daughter used the radio to communicate with the balloon’s chase van, which picks up occupants after a trip, Blake tried to work the controls in hopes of bringing the balloon closer to the ground.
“I knew; I have to do this,” Blake said.
The balloon’s simple controls left him at the mercy of the wind: “You can’t steer.”
Finally, Blake said he saw an opportunity: A large field behind a farm off of River Road in Piermont began to come into view on the other side of the river, and Blake tried to navigate toward it.
“I was just trying to get it on the ground,” he said.
Slowly, the balloon began to descend then, all at once, it crashed head-on into the top of poplar trees that lined the river.
The danger wasn’t over, Blake said. The basket was stuck near the top of the trees, and if it tipped over and the family fell out, they surely would have been injured or worse.
The branches under the basket began to give way, breaking one after another and shredding the balloon as it fell. But the basket upright, Blake said, until it hung just feet from the ground. He, his daughter and granddaughter jumped out, uninjured.
“I am so grateful,” Blake said.
Later, when he and his daughter discussed what had happened, he said she told him that when she saw the branches coming closer, she believed they would die. Blake agreed.
The chase van picked the family up and reunited them with Ellen Blake, who was brought to an emergency room but released by Friday evening.
The Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in Burlington will conduct an autopsy on Boland authorities said.
Neighbors said the grove of trees where the balloon landed was located near a horse farm off River Road in Piermont.
Residents in the area said they saw the balloon rise and dip twice as it traveled up the Connecticut River on Thursday but don’t recall seeing anything unusual under the basket of the balloon.
Bill Putnam, who lives on Route 25 across the river from where Boland was found, said he was taking out his grill on Thursday evening when his dog started “going nuts” barking at the balloon.
“The dog does not usually pay attention” to the balloons, Putnam said, adding that he frequently sees them flying over his house.
The balloon was rising when Putnam spotted it flying up the river and then dipping low behind the trees to his north.
“It just missed the trees,” he said; he watched the balloon fly over the treeline by his house. He said he knew something was wrong with the balloon because there was “more movement” than he normally saw in the hot air balloons that fly over his property.
River Road resident Kate Farley said she was at home Thursday evening when her dog also started barking, alerting her to the balloon flying over their neighborhood.
“It was headed low and then it shot back up,” Farley said. While she didn’t suspect anything strange at the time, she said in retrospect the quick upward motion of the balloon was unusual. Her husband later said he saw a long rope hanging from the balloon, Farley said.
For Blake, the memory of what happened is both raw and painful.
“This should never have happened,” Blake said, adding that he’s worried most about how his granddaughter will recover from the fear. “A young child shouldn’t have to endure that trauma.”
Looking out over his yard, with the sun beginning to set and shouts and laughs from kayakers traveling across the Connecticut River behind his house, Blake said some things are coming clear amid the cloud of trauma.
“Suddenly it means so much to be able to lay my head on my pillow at night,” Blake said, with watery eyes as he stared toward the river. “Life is precious.”
Anna Merriman can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3216.