Boland during a hot-air balloon flight in 1975
Boland during a hot-air balloon flight in 1975
Boland during a hot-air balloon flight in 1975 (Photo: Paul Stumpf)

A Legendary Hot-Air Balloon Pilot Died after a Bizarre Crash. It Still Doesn’t Make Sense.

Brian Boland was a prolific creator of handcrafted hot-air balloons who set distance and altitude records all over the world. But on July 15, 2021, during a routine outing with a family in Vermont, things went dramatically wrong. Sarah Schweitzer examines Boland’s eccentric and adventurous life, and finds out what happened on his fateful last flight.

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It took a few minutes for passengers aboard the hot-air balloon to notice that their pilot had gone silent. Brian Boland was no longer pointing out ridgelines rising above recently mowed fields in the Connecticut River Valley, or the land curvatures where geologists believe Africa was once connected to the North American continent.

Instead, he was stuffing his hands into the back pockets of his cargo shorts, feeling around for something, then patting the ones in front, as if he must have been mistaken and whatever he was looking for had to be in them.

If there was panic in his eyes, no one recognized it. Not immediately. Boland, 72, was a pilot of astounding experience and knowledge and a relentless creator of handcrafted hot-air balloons. He’d launched them over the Andes, Long Island Sound, and the Alps, setting international records for flight duration, distance, and altitude. His own designs could be sublimely practical. Among them: a functioning VW bus that could serve as a balloon’s basket and provide postflight transport.

Boland’s enthusiasm for ballooning drew legions of fans and apprentices who flocked to what some jokingly referred to as the Island of Lost Boys, Boland’s rural residence and airport in Post Mills, Vermont. They showed up to live in an unheated room called the Thinkatorium, pee out a window through a funnel, and learn ballooning from a master iconoclast. Locally, Boland was known simply as the Balloon Man, a bearded, six-foot-four artist and visionary with wire-gray hair flattened under a fisherman’s cap and eyes that people said could see the wind.

On the evening of July 15, 2021, Boland was at ease. Conditions were ideal: winds moderate, visibility at ten miles, the late daylight golden and velvety. The passengers—Emily Blake, her ten-year-old daughter, and her parents, Ellen, 67, and Roger, 73—were celebrating Emily’s 38th birthday. They were locals and knew about Boland’s ballooning, but they’d never flown with him. Roger and Ellen had gone on a balloon ride before with a different pilot, while Emily and her daughter were first-timers. As they ascended, any preflight jitters fell away. They could see Boland’s obvious ability, the easy confidence that comes from 11,000 hours in the air. Emily’s daughter slid her hand into her grandmother’s. They felt calm as they climbed over 3,000 feet, awed by the scale, the long view suddenly theirs.

At around the half-hour mark, Boland radioed their chase driver, Aaron Johnson, coordinating direction and course. Next, he disconnected the fuel line from a spent propane tank to attach it to a full one. It was then that Emily noticed him patting his pockets. Shortly after, the balloon began accelerating toward the ground at an alarming rate. Boland now looked panicked and was moving fast—circling the basket, searching compartments, prowling.

Emily asked what was wrong. Boland said the burner’s pilot light was out and he needed a striker to reignite it. She asked if she could help, but Boland didn’t respond and kept looking. Emily and her parents stood stunned and helpless. The balloon was now plunging, the green of the valley rushing closer, marked by the boundaries of a tasseled cornfield directly below.

They were moments away from hitting the ground when Boland grabbed a plastic bag from one of the compartments and ripped it open with his teeth to get at a backup igniter. He hoisted it to the darkened well of the pilot light and clicked out a spark. A flame appeared. Boland gave the burner more gas. It roared. Heat flooded into the balloon’s massive envelope.

“Bend your knees!” Boland shouted. “We’re going to bounce right back up.” They hit the field. But the quick rebound Boland predicted didn’t happen; instead, the jolt of the impact tipped the basket and sent both Boland and Ellen overboard.

Then the balloon—newly refired, buoyant, pilotless—lifted off again, ascending with breathtaking speed. Emily, her daughter, and Roger watched the ground fall away, now without Boland or Ellen—and with no idea how to fly.

The magnitude of the danger they were in was only starting to become clear when Emily looked over the basket’s side. She saw a brown loafer wedged into a strap that held one of the propane tanks to the outside of the basket. She recognized the shoe as Boland’s. Her mind told her it must have come off his foot when he tumbled from the balloon.

Then, from beneath the basket, she heard a voice.

The Albatross, a 112-foot-long balloon Brian Boland built with his then wife, Kathy Wadsworth, in Farmington, Connecticut, in 1975
The Albatross, a 112-foot-long balloon Brian Boland built with his then wife, Kathy Wadsworth, in Farmington, Connecticut, in 1975 (Courtesy Kathy Wadsworth)

The first untethered, manned hot-air balloon was launched on November 21, 1783, when a nobleman, François Laurent d’Arlandes, and a scientist, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, set fire to a grated pile of wool and straw beneath the open bottom of a silk balloon and flew over Paris. Benjamin Franklin was present at the event, witness to history’s first human flight. Franklin would later write: “This Experience is by no means a trifling one. It may be attended with important Consequences that no one can fore-see.”

Flash forward 188 years to 1971. In Brooklyn, New York, young Brian Boland was facing the deadline to come up with a proposal for his master’s thesis at the Pratt Institute. He was still scrambling for ideas when he read a Sports Illustrated article about hot-air ballooning. The pastime had experienced a resurgence due to the development of an onboard burner system fueled by bottled propane. Propane was significantly cheaper and easier to handle than gases like hydrogen and helium, which had been used for decades to fly balloons. Carrying liquid-propane tanks in the basket itself permitted greater flexibility and control.

Boland was smitten. The son of a homemaker and a New York City fireboat crewman and instructor, he’d grown up on Long Island and had a curious mind that was constantly stoked by new ideas and experiences. Ballooning fit that bill, with its mix of precision and mechanical whimsy. At Pratt he sketched a proposal and spent the next eight months in the basement of an apartment he shared with his wife and son, designing and sewing a balloon. When he finished, he inflated and tethered it on campus, calling it a sculpture. Boland never stopped seeing balloons as art forms. Kathy Wadsworth, his second wife, says he thought of a balloon “like a conceptual work of art—there, then gone, changing the landscape.”

This was an idea Boland would return to again and again. In the mid-1970s, as an art and photography teacher in Farmington, Connecticut, he taught students to fabricate balloons, paint them, and even weave wicker baskets. He urged them to see the work as a valuable act of creation. “He was just this very cool guy who basically knew how to give people permission,” says Paul Stumpf, a former student of Boland’s who went on to become a balloonist in Vermont.

The magnitude of the danger they were in was only starting to become clear when Emily looked over the basket’s side. She saw a brown loafer wedged into a strap.

There’s a seductive simplicity to ballooning: heated air rises because it’s less dense than the air surrounding it. When hot air fills a balloon, it goes up and floats whichever direction the wind is blowing. Decrease the heat, and the balloon goes down.

Within these parameters, of course, there are the nuances of thermodynamics, materials, and weather, not to mention luck. Balloon competitions all over the world crown victors in contests that involve dropping markers on targets, arriving at a precise location from a mile away, and flying the farthest distance. The outer reaches of the pursuit have attracted extreme adventurers. For example, Russian balloonist Fedor Konyukhov climbed Mount Everest, trekked to the North Pole, and rowed across the Atlantic Ocean before setting the record in 2016 for the fastest solo balloon circumnavigation of earth—268 hours and 20 minutes (just over 11 days)—supplanting a record set in 2002 by the late American entrepreneur Steve Fossett. In 2005, Indian textile billionaire Vijaypat Singhania set the world altitude record at 68,986 feet, previously held by Swedish engineer Per Lindstrand.

Like any method of flight, ballooning can be dangerous. Since 1983, there have been 431 accidents involving serious injuries and 52 resulting in fatalities, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Balloon accidents are infrequent compared with the number of flights, but the accident rate increased over the past two decades, according to a 2020 analysis of NTSB accident reports published in the Journal of Aeronautics and Space Technologies. The majority of accidents are caused by operator error or adverse conditions such as bad weather. Two of the deadliest U.S. balloon crashes in recent years—one in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that resulted in five deaths last year, and another in Lockhart, Texas, that killed 16 people in 2016—were caused by hitting power lines.

Boland’s flying career was daring by any measure, but Stumpf says that beyond a few errant landings, no flight had ever put his life in serious danger. “He must have had balloon gods or someone looking out for him, because he pulled off flights no one else could,” Stumpf says.

For Boland, ballooning was first and foremost an adventure in creativity, his expression taking form with help from Tyvek, ripstop nylon, and rattan. In the 1970s, he transformed the house where he was living into a design studio and manufacturing center. He soaked wicker in the bathtub and built additional work space around a towering oak tree that poked through the ceiling. One time in 1974, he attached a three-wheeled Messerschmitt KR200 to a balloon, launched it, and drove himself home afterward. It was dubbed the Cloud Car.

Boland left teaching in the late seventies to focus on ballooning: balloon instruction, flying passengers in balloons, writing about ballooning, repairing balloons, and, above all, designing and creating balloons. “When we’re all done, and everybody goes home and the day’s over, I lie awake thinking about balloon things, designing new things,” Boland would later say. He decreased the weight of his designs by swapping out fabrics and reconfiguring the shape. Streamlining opened up the realm of competitive ballooning. Boland set records, together with Wadsworth, for distance, duration, and altitude. He was forever onto the next thing, free-form intensity his guiding philosophy. He often bypassed traditional ballooning competitions and reveled in fanciful ones, including a contest in Ireland to see who could land a balloon closest to a pub and then bring a pint of Guinness back to the starting area without spilling a drop.

In 1982, a film crew followed him and Wadsworth as they made the first-ever ascent up the face of the world’s tallest waterfall, 3,212-foot Angel Falls in Venezuela. Bad weather and ill winds plagued them ahead of takeoff, but once airborne, Boland’s face showed no fear or anxiety. He was, despite it all, completely in the moment.

Brian Boland and his team inflating The Albatross in 1975
Brian Boland and his team inflating The Albatross in 1975 (Courtesy Kathy Wadsworth)
Boland taking off from the Post Mills Airport in 2019
Boland taking off from the Post Mills Airport in 2019 (Jim Rogers)

Emily peered over the balloon’s rail a second time. Again she saw the brown loafer stuck between the propane tank and strapping. This time, though, she realized she’d been mistaken: The shoe was not empty. It was still on Boland’s foot. He was hanging beneath the basket, the one foot wedged and one hand barely gripping a small handle used to carry the basket. His other leg and arm were free, his body dangling over a vast and growing emptiness.

“He was looking up at me,” recalls Emily, “and I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ ” Emily, who speaks slowly and is naturally cautious, lives with her partner a few miles from where she grew up in Vermont, near the New Hampshire border. She homeschools her daughter and takes care of dogs and cats and a bunny. She’s also a former EMT.

With Boland in obvious danger of losing his life, her mind went to her training. The balloon had a drop line, a rope for ground crew to help maneuver landings. Could she and her father hoist him using that? Could he help himself? They weren’t anywhere near their original cruising altitude but still high above ground. Surely he had ideas himself. Surely there was a way.

“We need to get you in the basket!” Emily shouted.

“Just leave me here, just leave me here,” Boland shouted back.

Emily was incredulous. She repeated herself, and again Boland refused help. They went back and forth: Emily pleading, Boland refusing, repeating, “Just leave me.” Emily’s mind reeled. They had to save this man’s life, and they needed him in the balloon to save theirs. Again she pleaded; again he refused, his voice escalating each time.

Then, incredibly, he began calling out instructions. His plan was not clear to Emily. There were two landing options—the water or a field—both of them terrifying and bewildering. Her daughter could swim, but not well. And what would happen to Boland if they landed on solid ground, his head and body dangling below the basket?

Almost an hour had passed since they first took off, and they were now headed east, toward New Hampshire. Below, the Connecticut River threaded past the comings and goings of normal life in the town of Bradford—truckers headed into the Hungry Bear Pub and Grill, shoppers pushing carts out of the Hannaford supermarket. All of it impossibly unavailable.

They tried to follow Boland’s commands. Roger gave the balloon gas-heated air, then let it float, then gave it more air. The balloon’s simple controls belied its susceptibility to the wind. “You can’t steer,” Roger later recalled in a newspaper interview. “I had no idea of what I was doing.”

The light was starting to fade, scattering pink across the valley. Emily looked at her father. He was shaking, as was her daughter.

Shortly before 7:45 P.M., Boland’s instructions stopped. Emily looked over the side again. His face was wildly, desperately red.

“I can’t hold on much longer,” he whispered.

Diagram of a hot air balloon
(Brian Boland Archive)

In 1988, while still living in Connecticut, Boland came across a listing for an airport in a village in eastern Vermont, over the Ompompanoosuc River, past the New England trifecta of Little League diamond, Congregational church, and cemetery. The airport, founded in 1945, had been through several owners and one bankruptcy. In the 1800s, it was a farmer’s field. Boland decided to buy it.

At the Post Mills Airport, Boland realized his vision of a creative life dedicated to ballooning. He transformed 50 acres into an eclectic playground, erecting treehouses and filling sheds with his inventions, such as picnic tables, barbecues, and beds, all adapted to be motorized. The main structure was both home and workshop, an improvisational compound clad in raw wood and a windowed gable with views onto the fields and runways. Boland reserved a loft space, the Thinkatorium, for his balloon apprentices.

By the end of the eighties, the first floor had become a warehouse for Boland’s collections: fire trucks, wicker baskets, English roadsters, skis arranged to look like fountains, a space shuttle uniform that may or may not be real, empties from around the world, VW buses. Neighbors dubbed the jumble Brian’s Museum of Rusty Dusty Stuff. Boland loved what he called “patina,” markers of age and use that conveyed a sense of time, like an art installation unto itself.

Boland joked that he was the most famous balloonist in Post Mills, but as a creative force, he was widely known. He hosted an annual Experimental Balloon and Airship Association Meet for home builders to revel in offbeat ballooning. “He gauged how creative people were by how many balloons they built,” says Stumpf. For apprentices, Boland was the voice on the other end of a walkie-talkie, waking them with: “OK, time for ballooning.” He was a model of how to be a nonconformist in a conforming world. “Brian always had the courage and drive—and perhaps the insanity—to do exactly what he wanted with his life,” Jordan Long, one of his apprentices, later recalled. “The thought of joining society in a mundane profession was impossible for him.”

For Boland, ballooning was first and foremost an adventure in creativity, his expression taking form with help from Tyvek, ripstop nylon, and rattan.

By 2005, Boland had three divorces in his wake. One day he landed in a yard next to the home of a woman named Tina Foster, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine. He asked: Want to come back to my house and help me fly a bathtub up to the roof? She did, and she became his romantic partner.

He was always willing to have a beer and talk ballooning with friends and acolytes who made the pilgrimage to Post Mills. It was less common for Boland to go deeper. His private life, even to some closest to him, was veiled, often emerging through his art instead. In 2010, nearly two decades after his son, Jeff, an avid cyclist, died of a heart attack at 25, Boland constructed a huge dinosaur sculpture made of scrap wood, modeled on a tiny wire figure Jeff had shaped. The town decided that the creature, which came to be known as the Vermontasaurus, was a structure, which required a $272 permit. The dinosaur was a sculpture, he insisted, not a structure. The town backed down. Boland’s massive tribute was allowed.

In 2020, at 71, Boland, after suffering a hernia, underwent heart surgery to repair a faulty valve and an aortic aneurysm. A CT scan for his heart led to the discovery of a kidney tumor. His recovery was long and difficult; friends and family remember him being eager to get back to his life. He hoped to finish transforming an old bus into a diner. Above all he wanted to start flying again. Finally, the doctors cleared him. In the spring of 2021, the skies, once more, were his.

Boland standing in front of his 25-foot-tall Vermontasaurus sculpture in 2010
Boland standing in front of his 25-foot-tall Vermontasaurus sculpture in 2010 (Alden Pellett/AP)

They’d been flying for about ten minutes with Boland hanging under the basket when he went silent. According to the NTSB’s preliminary accident report, at this point he’d gotten his foot unstuck and was holding on to the balloon with his hands. Emily kept the drop line between her knees, in the hope that Boland would change his mind and let her throw it to him. They were nearing the western edge of the river when she heard him say, “Oh shit.”

She felt the release of Boland’s weight before she saw him fall, faceup, his eyes visible. Emily didn’t know how high they were. Only that there was no surviving a fall from that distance.

“Oh my God, now what?” she heard her father say.

Her daughter asked if they were going to die. Emily looked into her daughter’s eyes. “It’s very possible,” she said. “But we’re going to do the best we can. You need to trust me.” It was a lot to ask of a ten-year-old. It was a lot to ask of anyone.

Emily reached for a walkie-talkie attached by carabiner to the rail of the basket. At the other end was Johnson, the chase-vehicle driver and a pilot in training. Emily told him that her mother and Boland were no longer in the balloon. Johnson, 56, had served in the U.S. Army’s Special Forces. He asked no questions. He thought: I can’t do anything about the people who fell—I have to keep the bigger catastrophe from happening. He closed his eyes and tried to visualize what Emily was describing: the river, the fields of New Hampshire. Johnson relayed instructions for maneuvering the balloon in the direction of a field past the river. Roger fired the burner according to Johnson’s orders. Up they went, down, and then up again, the winds shifting, confusing.

They were nearing the river’s eastern shore, far above the trees, then they started drifting westward. Johnson told Roger not to give the burner gas, so they could drop to a lower elevation. The hope was that the west-to-east winds would reverse their direction back toward New Hampshire and allow them to clear the embankment’s trees. Emily was terrified that the winds would not be enough, that they would be forced to land in water. An idea came to her as she looked down at the embankment. The arms of the trees were right there, a potential anchor.

Emily pulled the balloon’s vent cord. Hot air gushed out of the top of the balloon. Branches poked into the envelope, tearing the fabric and slowing their momentum. Roger told his granddaughter to crouch. Emily pulled the cord again. More air released and they descended farther, branches shredding the balloon, letting even more air out, bumping them downward limb by limb. The landing was absurdly gentle.

When the balloon came to rest, they scrambled onto solid ground, hiked up the embankment and across a field, and saw Johnson flying toward them in the chase van. There were calls to 911 and to Emily’s partner. A text from her mother came in: “How was the rest of your flight?” Ellen had tumbled safely from the basket, walked to the nearest road, and, in the confusion of events, assumed that her family and Boland had finished the flight.

In the van, crossing the bridge back to Vermont, adrenaline finally slowing, Emily glimpsed a field through the window. There she saw Boland lying on his back. His glasses were still on his face. He’d barely missed the water. Seeing his position, unchanged from when she’d watched him drop, she recalled his battle to hang on, and then, in those final moments, his submission. He hadn’t flailed or resisted. It was as if he were at peace with the cascade of gravity finally overtaking him.

Boland and his partner, Tina Foster
Boland and his partner, Tina Foster (Paul Stumpf)

Soon after Boland’s death, the NTSB launched an accident investigation, which is still underway and isn’t expected to be completed for several months. A preliminary report released in August notes an inconsistency in the disclosure Boland made to federal authorities when he registered the balloon. Boland told the government that the balloon was manufactured by Cameron Balloons US, a large balloon company based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. But it wasn’t. In fact, no part of it was Cameron-built. The report says that the basket and burner were made by Galaxy Balloons, a smaller manufacturer; the propane tanks were Worthington; and the rainbow-patterned envelope was made by Boland himself. This kind of balloon is classified as experimental by the Federal Aviation Administration, and typically it isn’t authorized for carrying commercial passengers. It’s not clear if the balloon itself played any role in the accident.

Chase driver Aaron Johnson thought: I can’t do anything about the people who fell—I have to keep the bigger catastrophe from happening.

Modern manufactured balloons are equipped with built-in igniters for burner pilot lights—not dissimilar to many backyard grills—making the need for a striker rare, according to Pat Cannon, president of the Balloon Federation of America, who reviewed the preliminary NTSB report. Johnson, the chase driver, didn’t believe that Boland’s burner was equipped with this feature. But he says Boland was always meticulous during balloon-flight preparation. His policy was to carry three strikers in the baskets of his balloons. “You have a main striker, and then you have a backup, and then you have one that’s on a Velcro, so you can easily grab it and rip it off,” he says. “We have a checklist that we go through when we’re getting ready to depart. We check strikers and make sure they’re operational.” Whether there were other backup strikers aboard the balloon, in addition to the one Boland found, has not yet been reported.

Also unknown—and inexplicable to those who knew him—is why Boland refused help to get back in the basket.

Emily’s parents both declined to comment for this story, and I did not try to interview her daughter. The events of the flight were reconstructed from accident reports and interviews with ground crew and Emily. For her, there are many what-ifs and run-throughs of what she might have done differently. For a long time, she hesitated to be out and about, leery of questions that remained on people’s minds and of the tin-eared comments they might direct at her. “Did this land us in therapy? Yeah, of course,” she says. “I am learning at some point you have to talk about it. If you bottle it up, it doesn’t heal.”

At a memorial service held for Boland at the Post Mills Airport last summer, a succession of speakers took to a small stage, reached via the steps of a shorn-off transit-bus front, to recall the joy of seeing Boland in his balloons, soaring above the banality of the world, untethered from the daily slog. They wondered at Boland’s uncompromised vision of art as defined by ballooning. “Whenever we saw Brian in his balloons,” one neighbor recounted, “no matter what was happening elsewhere in this country or the world, somehow it felt like all was good.”

Ballooning was Boland’s holy grail, and having discovered it, he never let go. He remained totally awestruck by the experience. “With all the years that I’ve been doing this,” he told Vermont Public Television in 2014, “every now and then I look up inside the balloon and it’s empty. There’s nothing. Except it’s full of magic.”