Brian Boland: A Tribute to the Vermont Balloon Man Known Worldwide
Post Mills, VT, 7/17/2021 — This was supposed to have been a piece about Brian Boland, the Vermont Balloon Man, and his latest adventure to build a vintage diner sideways on the body of a bus he planned to install across the street from his Post Mills Airport in this tiny section of Thetford, Vermont. This is where a grass landing strip, ultralights, experimental aircraft, and balloons of all shapes and sizes have been the order of the day for many years thanks to Brian’s creative efforts. But it’s now a somber time in Post Mills and around the ballooning world after a freak balloon accident took Brian’s life this past Thursday, July 15, 2021.
So this has become an epitaph of sorts. Or, perhaps an homage to a larger-than-life man I’ve gotten to know in fits and starts during my years living two houses away from him and his airport.
On Tuesday, July 13th, just two days before the accident that took Brian’s life, I’d brought some friends from out of town to visit the airport’s Experimental Balloon & Airship Museum. Housed in a great elongated barn, the museum, which Brian affectionately called his collection of “rusty, dusty stuff” is filled with a lifetime of collectibles discovered from the air. It’s connected to a workshop where Brian sewed balloons from ultra-lightweight parachute material and it contains artifacts ranging from antique cars to balloon baskets, airplanes, a tribute to Spam, dozens of old sewing machines, a left-handed wooden school desk, a sculpture of crutches, another floor to ceiling sculpture of skis that rises upward through the Museum’s two stories, a brace of bicycles hanging from the ceiling, bundles of buggies without horses, the front half of a Volkswagen van, dozens of antique sewing machines, a gathering of Electrolux vacuum cleaners, a handful of motorcycles—some with sidecars, a swarm of Encyclopedia Brittanica, a wall where visitors can sign their names in black magic marker, a life ring from the Titanic (could this be an original?), and, of course a flamboyance of pink flamingoes that lines one side of the second floor’s upper deck.
99 pink flamingoes. There aren’t quite that many in the Museum, but they reminded me of the 1983 song by the West German band Nena, 99 Luftballoons (also in the English-language version as 99 Red Balloons). It’s a cold-war era song where a covey of balloons rising through the air brings leaders of countries to the brink of war. It sings of heroes and Captain Kirk, both descriptors that for me capture the essence of Brian. He was a local hero to many Vermonters with his 100-plus foot long, twenty-five foot high Vermontasaurus sculpture, a massive structure of wood scraps cobbled together by Brian and volunteers that’s fixed to the ground at the Airport, and another, smaller Baby Vermontasaurus on a trailer that could grace local parades. He was also a hero to many children and families he gave rides to in his airships, or to whom he threw candy from aloft as he flew over their rooftops, or to the adults he offered a glass of champagne after they helped drag one of his balloons to the ground in their backyards.
To me, Brian was a Captain Kirk figure, seeking out new art and artifacts for his Museum from the air, searching for unusual parts of the world from on high, finding new ways to bring ballooning to others, and always reaching higher into the atmosphere. He flew balloons in Australia, the Alps, and the Andes. He held an altitude record of 11,375 feet in 1978 and the Absolute World Altitude Record for all types of airships of 16,600 feet a decade later. And after that, he rode still higher, reaching 20,496 feet in 1995.
The Balloon Federation of America remembered Brian on Friday on its Facebook page with two posts. The first reads: “We have just learned of the passing of Brian Boland. Our prayers and condolences go out to his family and friends.” And the second post states: “RIP Brian Boland.” It also includes a link to a Rusty, Dusty Stuff with Brian Boland video by Ryan Miller (see below).
Brian’s Experimental Balloons & Airship Museum was always a place to explore, ponder, and wonder about the man whose collectible spirit created a marvelous space for an excursion to delight all ages. Watch the above video for scenes from a ballon on high and back on earth inside the Museum.
When I spoke with Brian this past Tuesday, he wasn’t quite his former, burly, affable, bear-of-a-man self I recalled from two winter’s past. Then, he had been up in a balloon trying to land on his airstrip while the wind was having its way with him. He wanted me to wait at the far end of the snowy field so he could throw me a line. As I waited, he yelled down in his booming voice that he had completed his 10,000th hour of balloon flight. I congratulated him as he drifted farther away. Today, he seemed somewhat shrunken, slightly hunched, his hands shaking a bit, and his voice not resonating with quite the same piercing timbre as usual.
Later that Spring, I bumped into Brian after a windstorm had torn off some metal roofing that covered an unusual collection of wheeled vehicles used as balloon baskets over the years. He was contemplating the purchase of a bus so he could build a diner on top of it to make it look like the bus had driven through the diner. Brian’s wry sense of humor was always refreshing. He planned to park the diner across the street from the Airport and find someone to run it. He was looking for someone who would invest something in the diner, adding the kitchen equipment so the new manager would have “some skin in the game.” He wanted a long-term commitment. And he wanted a nice place, close-by, to have a cup of coffee and breakfast now that other local diners had closed their doors.
This past Tuesday, Brian told me he’d had heart surgery over the winter and that the bus project had been the only thing he had to look forward to. The bus-cum-diner project, he said, had kept him alive. He also wondered aloud, oddly, what might happen to the Airport should he die. After a bit more conversation about the width of the diner, he mentioned he thought he would give the Airport to the Town. I suggested he consider making it a non-profit organization so it could be preserved for future generations. We concocted a scheme to find a handful of people from around town to sit on a board of directors to oversee the airport and raise money to keep it going. I told him I’d help raise the money to get things rolling. He asked for my card so we could talk again in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, unbeknown to either of us, he had only two more days left on this earth.
I’ll miss Brian and his aviator’s winter fur cap with earflaps, his big grin, his warning not to let my dog “do its business” on his landing strip when I went out for a walk. I’ll miss catching a rope for him on a descent. I’ll miss hearing the whoosh of his burner filling a balloon with hot air at 6 o’clock in the morning or earlier. I’ll miss his colorful personality and the vibrant panels of color he brought to the skies above Thetford and around the Upper Valley region of Vermont and New Hampshire. Brian flew year round, on days when going outside meant the risk of frostbite in twenty below zero weather. He flew in the summer under brilliant skies, and he flew over the Vermont countryside where his airships rode higher than the hills and grew large as they descended to the ground. I suppose it was fitting for Brian’s life to end doing the activity he loved more than anything else. But I lament his passing in an accident that pulled him from the ground beneath a balloon basket to drop him from on high to the earth with a thud.
99 red balloons. Floating in the summer sky. 99 red balloons go by. I’m going to find some, fill them, and let them fly at the Post Mills Airport as a fitting memorial tribute to Brian Boland, an extraordinary man and friend who reached great heights in balloons and ballooning circles the world over.
For information about Brian’s life and accomplishments Click Here to see a memorial article written by Li Shen on Thetford’s Sidenote newsfeed. Thanks for this, Li.
For a Valley News article about the ballon accident, Click Here.
For a Boston Globe article about Brian, his life, and the accident, Click Here.
For a Concord Monitor article about Brian and the accident, Click Here.
For a Valley News article with more details about the accident, Click Here.
For the NTSB report on the accident, Click Here.
For a Zoom video of the August 1, 2021 memorial service at the Airport, Click Here.
Dave Celone writes from Sharon, Vermont. He lived in Post Mills across the field from the Airport to become friends with Brian Boland over a period of years. Brian’s 52-acre Post Mills Airport is worth preserving as more than just an artifact. It’s a piece of the State’s history and a ballooning epicenter in the heart of Vermont where people interested in flight of all stripes have flocked for many years. Dave may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.