After death of owner in balloon crash, quirky Post Mills airport has uncertain horizon
|Published: 11-14-2021 7:03 AM
Since its founding in 1945, Post Mills Airport has changed hands only a few times, most recently in 1988, when Brian Boland acquired it.
And since its founding, the small grass airstrip has been privately held.
Boland’s death in a July 15 hot air balloon accident might change that pattern. In his will, Boland left the 50-acre parcel to the town of Thetford with the proviso that it remain a working airport.
“He didn’t want it to go to someone who was going to sell it off,” Tina Foster, Boland’s life partner, said earlier this month.
He also didn’t want to burden her or the town, she said. His will grants Foster a life tenancy in the home they shared at the airport, so long as she pays the taxes and keeps the place up.
Since the 72-year-old Boland’s death, neighbors and members of the aviation community have stepped in to help run the airport, Foster said.
During his years in Thetford, Boland exhibited a knack for bringing the community together, ranging from keeping the airport open for recreation to inviting people to help build a massive sculpture of a dinosaur out of scrap wood. Keeping the Post Mills Airport up and running seems likely to remain a community activity.
“I think he liked having people come by to see whatever wonderful stuff was going on,” Foster said.
The grass airstrip, which sits just west of Lake Fairlee off Route 244, is flanked on one side by Boland’s home and collections and on the other by tie-downs for aircraft and a small hut. Tucked behind a line of trees are hangars for planes.
Foster met with the Thetford Selectboard on Oct. 18. The meeting minutes reflect the early stage of the conversation about the airport’s future. Board members asked questions for which there are no answers. Before Boland’s will can move through probate court, Foster has to take an inventory of his thousands of possessions, and has already been granted an extension by the court.
Foster told the board that the airport’s community wondered whether the town could take ownership of the airport and lease it back to a company set up to run, and most likely own, the airport’s operations. That way the town could avoid liability and still receive some tax money from the airport, the main body of which is valued at $775,000 on the Thetford grand list.
Selectboard Chairwoman Sharon Harkay directed questions to Town Manager Bryan Gazda, who said Wednesday that he and the town’s attorney had met with Foster and her lawyer but no decisions have been made.
“Really we’re still in the discovery phase,” said Gazda, who noted that the town’s attorney was preparing a memo for the Selectboard on the matter.
As a business, the airport has always been marginal.
“I saw this here field, and I said to myself that this is the spot for a farmer airport,” Len Hoyt, who started the airport, told The New Yorker in 1985. It’s still the kind of place where flying is cultivated, not mined.
The aviation business experienced a boom after World War II, and Hoyt thought he’d get a share of the riches. It didn’t work out that way, “but it was a lot of fun,” he said.
The New Yorker story, written by Burton Bernstein, an avid pilot (and Leonard Bernstein’s brother), and illustrated by Brookfield, Vt., cartoonist Ed Koren, describes a place that’s well-loved by the aviation community and that has been characterized by a kind of raffish charm.
“We had what we called a dollhouse here at first, with two chairs, a stove and a 50-gallon drum of gasoline,” Hoyt said.
He sold the place in the mid-1970s to a man who “went broke,” Hoyt said. That man sold it to Hanover residents Babs and David Nutt.
The Nutts took to flying later in life, after their six kids were grown. They kept the airport going by diversifying. Babs taught people how to fly airplanes and gliders and also taught aerobatics. They took people up on sightseeing flights, did some forestry patrols for the state to look for fires and defoliation, leased space to aviation businesses, and towed banners.
Running a small Vermont airport was “no hobby,” David Nutt, who’d been a researcher at Dartmouth College, told The New Yorker.
“Up here we have to drum up business wherever we can find it,” he added.
Babs Nutt was a distinguished flyer, though. She still holds an altitude record for female glider pilots, soaring higher than 35,000 feet over Colorado in 1975.
When Boland bought the airport, he added ballooning to its repertoire. He made his own balloons and baskets and held an annual Experimental Balloon and Airship Festival, activities Foster said will continue.
“Ballooning is really kind of a magical activity,” Foster said, one that draws people in. “It’s amazing to me how many people have said to me, ‘I miss the balloons.’ ”
Foster met Boland when he landed a balloon at her neighbor’s house on Academy Road.
Boland also was one of the busiest magpies in the Upper Valley, collecting all kinds of things, most of them mechanical, from antique cars to sewing machines. With help from friends and community members, he built a huge, multi-story hall to house his Experimental Balloon and Airship Museum and his Museum of Rusty Dusty Stuff. The museums, the balloons, the wooden Vermontasaurus and the general openness of the place has made the airport a kind of roadside attraction.
The glory of it is still the grass airstrip. On a Friday morning earlier this month, a row of gliders sat enclosed in their trailers, frost still on the grass in their shadows. The tow plane used to haul them into the air made a brief warmup flight, rumbling into the air and turning a circle around the village before landing again.
Skip Jenkyn, of Hanover, opened the trailer for his glider and started to assemble it. He’s been using the airport since 1984. “Babs Nutt taught me to fly,” he said.
Like everyone who lifts off from Post Mills, he wants to see it stay open.
“It’s hallowed ground, basically,” he said. Soaring is flying for flying’s sake, and the Post Mills Soaring Club, of which he is one of more than 30 members, share a bond and a sense of community.
As one of only a few private airports in Vermont and New Hampshire, Post Mills is treasured both as a place for aviation and a sort of time capsule. Most of the dozen or so airplanes at the airport — Pipers, Aeroncas, Taylorcrafts — date to the decade just after World War II, according to Don Graber, an airplane and glider pilot.
For the price of a snowmobile and a trailer, a person can own a plane, he said.
Pilot Tim Chow, of Norwich, who was at the field Nov. 5, said he hopes to see the airport stay as it is.
“Brian left a great legacy, and it would be nice if we could maintain it,” said Chow, who’s been flying out of the airport for 15 years.
That’s all Foster is after, too. She plans to keep the dialog going among pilots, town residents and officials.
“It’s really important to me to have good conversations with the community and the Selectboard and figure out what’s the best way forward and what’s the best way to honor his wishes,” she said.
Alex Hanson can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3207.