Editor’s Note: This story by John Lippman first appeared in the Valley News May 14.
POST MILLS – Laura Lewis and her family were woken at dawn on Saturday morning by the dragon-like fire-breathing roar of jets of propane gas inflating hot air balloons just yards from where she had posed his head a few hours earlier.
“It was like carpe diem,” Lewis said, citing the Latin phrase meaning “seize the day” of how she, her husband and their three young children felt when they stuck their heads out of the flip to see the balloons inflate to gargantuan, kaleidoscope-like orbs.
Lewis, whose family drove in from their home in Hadley, Mass., and pitched their tent at midnight on the edge of the grass field at Post Mills Airport, called the excursion to watch the balloons s fly away from “do or die stuff”.
Saturday morning’s pure azure skies over the Upper Valley turned out to be perfect weather for the annual Experimental Balloon and Dirigible Meeting, an informal congregation of aeronauts founded by the late Vermont balloonist Brian Boland, who was killed in a hot air balloon accident near Bradford, Vermont, last summer. Boland’s spirit hovered over this year’s encounter, with friends and former colleagues from across the country – and beyond – remembering a pilot and balloon maker who many have called the best in the sport.
But, at the same time, this year’s Post Mills balloon was singularly voiceless.
“It’s not the same without Brian, that’s for sure,” said Jim Rogers, a balloonist from St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, who has competed in all but one competition since Boland started them. in 1988. (They were suspended from 2001 to 2014, and did not take place in 2020 due to COVID-19.) “You could hear his laughter from across the court.”
Unlike many hot air balloon festivals, with clever marketing campaigns designed to boost local tourism, Boland intentionally organized the Post Mills meet to eliminate ballooning nonsense. For starters, anyone showing up at Post Mills with their ball must have made that ball themselves – not factory-made models.
Hence the mention “experimental” in the name of the festival.
“Some hot air balloon festivals, like the big ones, (the organizers) give you a free hotel room, free propane, they sell tickets to the public, sell rides. But it’s absolutely not sponsored,” said Mike Lavoie, a retired industrial electrician from West Ossipee, NH, who has attended every competition since the first in 1988.
Lavoie had just finished manufacturing its sixth balloon in February, a 56,000 cubic foot balloon named Murray’s Brother, which made its maiden voyage to Post Mills, tied at the end of a 150 rope to test its deployment, Thursday evening .
“It worked very, very well,” said Lavoie, 67, who calls the annual meet “the basic hot air balloon.”
On Saturday morning, 19 homemade balloons were sent aloft between 6 and 9 a.m., slowly rising through nearly windless and unusually warm air before gradually meandering north toward Fairlee and over the Morey Lake.
Among those who came to watch the loosely choreographed launches were Sukie Hausmann and her daughter, Ana, of Topsham, Vt. They woke up at 4:30 a.m. to arrive in time for takeoffs – and were luckier than on previous trips. .
“Most of the years we were down, the weather wouldn’t allow them to take off,” Sukie Hausmann said as a balloon expanded and rose in front of her eyes. “We would keep trying, but this is the first year we’ve seen them go.”
“It was worth the wait,” she said.
But Hausmann said she didn’t feel like getting into a balloon. Although she was in a tethered balloon, Hausmann said she would be “nervous” to ride one as it floated freely in the sky, subject to the vagaries of the wind.
“It’s beautiful, I know, but I would feel too vulnerable,” she said.
Lauri Berkenkamp and Kate Siepmann, friends of Strafford, were also on hand to watch the balloons take off.
Siepmann said he enjoyed the beauty and majesty of the balloons, but admitted to being “a bit acrophobic” and was in no rush to go ride one and test his fear of heights.
Berkenkamp, however, said Boland took her for a balloon ride once, and the experience made an indelible impression.
“We followed the river and landed in Wells River,” she recalled, adding that Boland’s death “felt like a personal loss even though I didn’t even know him very well.”
Eric LaMontagne was inflating his 90,000 cubic foot balloon with his piloting partner, Darrek Daoust. LaMontagne said he rides about 40 weekends a year, including the annual Quechee Festival as they prepare to fly out on Saturday morning.
An environmental engineer and “second-generation balloonist” from Burrillville, RI, LaMontagne said there were 2½ miles of sewing to assemble the parts for his balloon.
The heated air inside the balloon cavity needs to be 100 degrees warmer than ambient temperature to rise, LaMontagne said, and he expected to burn about 20 gallons from his 35-gallon propane tank for a two hour flight. Although he was as high as 12,000 feet in his balloon, LaMontagne said he expected to stay at a relatively low 5,000 feet on Saturday.
But anything else that morning would not be under their control.
“We have no idea where we’re going,” LaMontagne said from the basket as he left the floor. “We go with the wind.”