‘Stalled’ hot air balloon lands on I-91 median

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 for pilots who have built their own balloons to exchange ideas and techniques, and was instrumental in sparking his interest in hot air balloons.

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 for 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. James M. Patterson

A hot air balloon landed in the Interstate 91 median in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday night, August 23, 2023. Hartford firefighter Mitch White photographed its landing. (Mitch White photograph)

A hot air balloon landed in the Interstate 91 median in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday night, August 23, 2023. Hartford firefighter Mitch White photographed its landing. (Mitch White photograph) mitch white photograph

By JOHN LIPPMAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 08-25-2023 1:32 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Five people who were part of a sunset balloon ride over the Upper Valley on Wednesday night are breathing a sigh of relief after their craft became “stalled in flight” and had to make an emergency landing on Interstate 91 near Exit 10. Hartford fire and police personnel shut down traffic for about 20 minutes to allow the balloon to touch down safely.

Veteran Quechee balloonist Chris Ritland was credited by officials and passengers alike for his skilled piloting. He brought the craft down in falling darkness to a safe spot on the median between the north and south lanes of I-91 in Hartford just south of the Quarry Road overpass. Prior to the landing, motorists reported seeing the balloon hovering just 30 feet over the roadway, according to Hartford Fire Department.

Ritland “did a good job of landing the balloon safely in the median and avoiding any issues,” Hartford Fire said in a news release.

Ritland, who holds a commercial pilot certificate from Federal Aviation Administration and is certified to train other pilots, has been flying balloons for 10 years and has a perfect safety record, according to the website of his company, Quechee Balloon Rides.

“We had a beautiful balloon flight on Wednesday evening that concluded with a common landing but in an uncommon and unplanned location,” Quechee Balloon Rides said in a statement on Thursday.

Ritland departed from the Quechee Green around 6 p.m. Wednesday with four passengers aboard, the company said. But when the winds unexpectedly shifted direction from what was projected in the pre-flight briefing, Ritland was no longer able to land at his target location.

“The pilot-in-command of the aircraft made a precautionary decision as sunset was nearing to land safely rather than taking unnecessary risk. Our team informed local authorities and officials prior to landing of our intentions so they could assist in ensuring a safe landing” the company said.

Hartford Fire said that when department personnel arrived at the scene on I-91, the first responding units saw the balloon “hovering … above the roadway” before the pilot managed to land it safely.

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Ritland was able to keep “the balloon inflated until Hartford units had closed down the left passing lane in both the north and southbound directions,” the news release said.

Traffic was restricted to one lane in each direction for 20-25 minutes while the balloon was deflated and packed away for transport. No injuries were reported, Hartford Fire said.

Witnesses who snapped photos of the balloon posted their pictures with comments on Facebook, and two who identified themselves as passengers also chimed in, with one of them exclaiming: “(W)e all made it out safe and sound! … Was an amazing flight nonetheless.”

One of the passengers in the balloon, who did not wish to be publicly identified, said the quintet took off at 6 p.m. and ascended to about 7,000 feet. At around 7:45 p.m., they were over the North Hartland dam on the Ottauquechee River when the wind speed dropped to near zero and “we just weren’t going anywhere.”

That is when the trouble began, he said.

“We were dropping pretty quickly and burning and burning (propane) fuel and weren’t going anywhere,” the passenger said. “The wind just wasn’t there.”

Then the balloon was buoyed by a thermal, which pushed it in the opposite direction of where they needed to go and over the interstate, he said. “At that point, we were pretty low,” the passenger said.

Ritland instructed one of the passengers to dial 911 to alert emergency responders that the balloon was in distress and rapidly descending near the highway.

At the same time, the passenger said, Ritland’s parents were in the chase vehicle — balloons are typically followed by a vehicle on the ground that carries supplies and meets the balloon at its landing spot — who were sending up small test balloons to assesses wind speed and direction.

The test balloons ascended straight up into the sky, indicating there was no wind activity.

The Upper Valley, with its verdant landscape and annual summertime Quechee Balloon Festival, is a destination for ballooning that attracts balloonists from all over the country. Wednesday’s unusual lack of wind activity in the region also led to the postponement of a “stunt” balloon event scheduled for Wednesday over the Lakes Region in New Hampshire, according to the event’s organizers. Justin Spencer, a drummer with the band Recycled Percussion, had planned to play the drums from a platform suspended from a hot-air balloon but the event was called off by the organizers.

To the passenger, Ritland was on the level of Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who ditched his Airbus A320 in the Hudson River on a chilly January day in 2009 after both engines were knocked out by a bird strike. All 155 passengers aboard survived.

“Chris did amazing in the moment. He stayed calm in the moment. Everything you were supposed to do, he did,” the passenger said.

Ritland might have prevented the Upper Valley from experiencing another balloon tragedy just two years after renowned Post Mills balloonist Brian Boland was killed in what was described as a freak accident near Bradford, Vt.

The passenger said the hair-raising incident in the balloon won’t deter him from going aloft again.

“It was still amazing,” the passenger said enthusiastically, despite what he referred to as “those little issues” in the flight. “The view was amazing.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.