Up and Away in the Land of Wonders

For three days in May, the skies over Post Mills, Vermont, are closed to store-bought balloons, and only homebuilts are welcome to fly. Experimental pilots from all over the U.S. and abroad lay down their scissors and thread, and gather to show off their creations. AVweb's Mary Grady was there, and filed this report.


“Nobody runs a balloon meet like Brian Boland,” declares Norman Metivier, a white-haired gent who’s been to many a meet in his day. “There’s no structure to it – it’s a happening.” And so it is: spontaneous, unpredictable, capricious, even a bit bizarre. During one weekend every May, Post Mills, Vt., becomes the center of a far-flung but small universe, as Brian Boland hosts the world’s largest gathering of homebuilt, one-of-a-kind, lighter-than-air flying machines. “It’s the little mecca, ” as Boland describes it, “for Experimental balloons and airships.”

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The Land of Wonders
A 1919 book in the balloon museum collection.

The experimental spirit – down and dirty, nuts and bolts, figure-it-out-for-yourself kind of spirit – is alive and well at Boland’s sprawling grass-field airport. These aviators design their own aircraft, labor over them in basements and garages, and test-fly them from pastures and backyards. And every spring, just as the aviation faithful later in the summer migrate to Oshkosh, the experimental balloon builders feel that hint of warmth in the air, notice the days growing longer and the winds blowing gentler, and head for Post Mills.

They come from Alaska, Ohio, Texas, all around the U.S.; Canada, Switzerland, England. They arrive early and stay late, turning the three-day rally into a weeks-long affair. By the time it’s over, maybe 50 different balloons have launched from the airfield – not a lot by airplane standards, but a significant portion of the 400 or so homebuilt balloons in the whole world. The homebuilders gather to show off their creations and soar above the springtime hills. But mainly, they come to confer with like-minded souls, who know the pleasure and pain of giving birth to an idea, shrouding it in bright fabrics, and filling it with enough hot air to get it off the ground.

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Brian Boland
Brian Boland.

Post Mills Airport sign
Post Mills Airport sign.

Waiting for the fog to lift
Waiting for the fog to lift.

Hanging rig
Hanging rig.

Boland’s “flying fish” balloon.

Barrels of fun
Barrels of fun.

Up and away
Up and away.

Ride 'em, cowboy
Ride ’em, cowboy.

Reigning lord of this international band is Brian Boland, owner of the Post Mills Airport and keeper of the flame. Everything in the Boland domain has that homebuilt, experimental patina, from the house he lives in – which ambles and segues into a sewing room, a balloon museum and a wide-open loft workspace – to the vehicles he drives around the grounds. The airport fleet includes an ancient red fire engine, a picnic table on wheels, an old minivan dressed up as a Viking ship, motorcycles and bicycles. At random moments these vehicles, loaded with diverse and boisterous crowds of balloonists, crew members, Brian and/or his wife Louise, visitors and kids, tear across the airfield and back, with no clear destination.

Nowhere to go but up

But the lack of a destination is, after all, what ballooning is all about. Balloons drift with the wind, they can’t be steered very effectively, and they can’t fly if it’s too windy or foggy. They symbolize aimlessness and anarchy, and to many who fly them, that’s their appeal.

“We like to come to this rally because nobody takes it too seriously,” says Carol Klein, of Alaska, who brought the small blue-white-and-red balloon she recently flew in Burma. No officials or launchmasters or walkie-talkies to be seen on this field. No competition, no prize money, no sponsors or vendors. No admission fees, no parking attendants. Every pilot and every visitor does exactly as they want to do, and it works out just fine.

Technologically, there’s not much to a balloon: a basket to hold the pilot and passengers, a propane tank that fuels a sort of flamethrower, and an envelope – the big bag that holds all that hot air the giant flame generates. Yet these basic components can be varied in infinite ways. Here at Post Mills, the baskets include classic woven wicker, padded metal frames covered in cordura, a plastic trash can, a pair of metal barrels. Some have luxurious seating, others are barely big enough for the pilot to stand up in. A few builders discard the basket altogether in their quest for simplicity – they sit in a suspended chair or harness, or even straddle the fuel tank, like Slim Pickens on his way to the end of the world.

Saturday morning, it’s misty and overcast, but as the wind dies down the burners heat up. It’s chaotic yet casual – pilots inflate, tether, and fly on their own prerogatives; nobody with a badge or a uniform or a loudspeaker is telling who to do what. A smiling Curtis Pack hangs on to the tether line of his homebuilt balloon, the Miss Kathy Ann Starship – a smallish red-white-and-blue striped envelope with just a chair suspended below it, a fuel tank behind the pilot’s back and a burner overhead. “Would you like a ride?” he asks all who stop to stare. They’re strapped into the padded seat with a five-point harness, shown the emergency cutoff pull-ring and the blast trigger, and off they go, rising to just above rooftop altitude in the blink of an eye. Pack calls out the commands: “A three-second blast!” and you’ll rise, “Two seconds!” and you sink down, nice and gentle.

Balloons of all sorts are dragged onto the field, and the roar of inflator fans fills the air. As the envelopes undulate and expand, burner blasts add to the cacophony, and one by one the balloons take shape, stand up, warm up for their flights. Pink, blue, yellow, big and small, round or cylindrical, squat or narrow, all colors, patterns, and shapes. One has pointy purple protuberances decorating its equator; Brian’s fabulous new creation has the face, fins and tail of a giant green-and-orange flying fish. At the edge of the field, a bagpiper plays, the mist fades away, and graceful balloons gradually fill the sky.

Art, science, and aerostation

Launch windows for the Experimental Balloon & Airship Meet are early morning, around 6 or 7 a.m., and just before sunset, around 6 or 7 p.m., when the winds are gentlest. Flights rarely last more than an hour or so, and are often even shorter, depending on the availability of good landing spots and the fuel supply. Which leaves big chunks of the weekend to fill with other activities.

Flyers bring their families, their crews, their friends, and erect tents around the edges of the airfield and under open-front hangars. Some camp in RVs or in one of the tiny summer cottages that nestle in the woods. Barbecues and tailgate parties go on nonstop. Saturday and Sunday mornings, a local theater troupe serves up a tasty pancake breakfast with all the fixings, plus real Vermont maple syrup. A jazz band plays on the porch after the morning flight, and the theater people entertain with folk dances and other revelry. When there are no balloons to watch, the sky is still lively, with powered parachutes and ultralights buzzing in and out all day. Tiny balloon models, about 15 feet tall, fly by remote control. Saturday afternoon, a couple gets married on the field, then launch their new life with a balloon ride.

Saturday night, a sheet suspended from the side of the museum becomes the screen for a double feature. The first movie is a poetic visual journal telling the story of a half-dozen or so pilots who flew in Burma recently, on a goodwill tour to boost a national tourism campaign. The second is a hilarious home movie by Phil MacNutt, of Austin, Texas, who chronicled his adventures at last year’s meet – including an imaginary balloon trip to the edge of space, and a tour of Brian’s shop and museum, with such highlights as “63 pairs of scissors – that’s 126 scissors, altogether,” and a mysterious collection of worn-out light bulbs, each of them labeled “dead” and stored in a plastic bag.

The museum and loft invite hours of exploration. With the atmosphere of your eccentric uncle’s dusty attic, this is a collection of collections and obsessions – there are no real exhibits, no labels or explanations. Here you’ll find a wild assortment of contraptions that Brian has at one time or another flown beneath a balloon – from a Volkswagen bus to a glass-bottomed basket to a lawn chair. They hang from the rafters and crowd in the corners. This year’s contribution was a rusty old device that Brian thinks might be a Civil War-era submarine. Whatever it is, he rigged it to hang below a balloon, climbed inside, and flew it briefly over the field – thus qualifying it to be added to the display.

An experimental life

Brian Boland has built more than 100 balloons and airships, and helped many other pilots to give form to their dreams at his balloon-building camp at Post Mills. He’s accumulated about 6,000 hours of flying time, and flown in far-flung parts of the world. He’s also the overseer of the loosely organized Experimental Balloon & Airship Association (EBAA), which has no dues, no bylaws, and no forms to fill out. Anyone, anywhere in the universe, who builds or owns an experimental lighter-than-air ship is automatically a member, whether they know it or not.

The EBAA literature, however, does define the goal for building an aircraft: “The joy of flying one’s own creation.” And at this little airfield in Vermont, for a few days in May, all are welcome to share in that enchantment.

There are many more gorgeous photos of
the 2001 Post Mills Experimental Balloon Rally
on our photo gallery page. Don’t miss it!