Feds investigate crash of balloon that launched at Post Mills Airport

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/13/2021 12:13:10 PM
Modified: 9/14/2021 10:38:22 AM

RYEGATE, Vt. — Federal transportation officials are investigating the crash of a hot-air balloon Sunday morning that had taken off from the Post Mills Airport, the second accident in as many months to originate from the private airfield.

The pilot of the balloon was participating in The Experimental Balloon and Airship Association annual event at the Post Mills Airport, which was owned by the late Brian Boland, who was killed in Bradford, Vt., in July during a balloon accident near the Connecticut River and had lofted from the same place.

Troopers were called to Farquharson Drive, which runs south of Route 302 in Ryegate, Vt., around 8:30 a.m. Sunday and said the pilot and passenger were both uninjured. 

Keith Sproul, 62, of North Brunswick, N.J., had taken off from the Post Mills Airport with passenger Olivia Miller, 20, of Tewskbury, Mass., and “attempted to slow the balloon by brushing the tops of trees,” according to a Vermont State Police news release.

The two-person “chariot-style” balloon had a bench seat, and when they made contact with the trees Sproul “was pushed forward from the seat and unable to control the balloon.” He then “talked Miller through landing the balloon into the trees which caused damage to the balloon, the news release said.

The Ryegate crash site is about 30 miles from the Post Mills Airport.

Both were evaluated by first responders at the scene and said they were uninjured. The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating.

Sproul, a computer manager at Rutgers University, is a hobbyist balloon pilot and balloon designer who regularly appears at balloon festivals and other public events around the country.

In an interview with the Valley News on Monday, Sproul said he had been piloting the propane-heated balloon for “an hour and 20 minutes maybe” when he looked for a landing spot to put down the balloon and “landed hard in the trees.”

“I was coming into the valley to land, bumped a tree, which knocked me forward in the seat so that I could no longer control” the balloon, he said, saying he couldn’t comment further on the incident because it is under investigation.

Sproul said his passenger “was the friend of another pilot and that pilot was a friend of mine.”

Joyce Miller, mother of the passenger Olivia Miller, said the accident was “pretty traumatic” for her daughter, and said the family had no further comment.

Usually held in May, Boland’s annual gathering of experimental balloonists was canceled last year because of the pandemic and this year was postponed until September, when it turned into a celebration of Boland’s life following his death earlier this summer.

Sproul said about 50 balloon pilots from around the country attended the jamboree and, with each pilot bringing about three to four people with them as their chase crew, the total turnout for the weekend-long event, he estimated, was between 150 to 200 people.

On Saturday the Post Mills airfield was filled with 31 of Boland’s balloons, which attendees inflated — but did not loft — in Boland’s honor.

Sunday’s balloon accident was not the first for Sproul.

In 2008, he was involved in a balloon tragedy when a balloon he was in with another pilot hit power lines and burst into flames, killing the other pilot when he fell to the ground in Rio Rancho, N.M., during the annual Albuquerque, N.M., balloon festival.

Sproul, the owner-pilot who was critically injured in the accident — he suffered a coma and was not able to be interviewed by investigators until five months after the accident — told investigators that the balloon was being operated by the other balloon-rated pilot. 

The National Transportation Safety Board, which deemed that the other pilot was the “pilot in command,” concluded the probable cause of the accident was the PIC’s “failure to maintain clearance from the power lines.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.

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