For much of his adult life, Brian J. Boland was devoted to hot air ballooning, building his own craft as far back as his college days, sponsoring a festival that drew people from all over, and piloting countless groups in trips high above the Upper Valley of the Connecticut River.
But on Thursday, what seemed to be a routine outing ended in disaster when the 72-year-old pilot became trapped under the balloon’s basket and plummeted to his death, police said.
Boland and four passengers took off in the late afternoon from the Post Mills Airport in Thetford, Vt. Some time later, the balloon descended and briefly touched down in a field, causing the basket to tip over. A passenger fell out but wasn’t injured.
But then, as the balloon started to rise again, Boland got tangled in his gear and dangled under the basket, Vermont State Police said Friday, and “eventually fell to the ground from a height.” He landed in a field in Bradford, Vt., about 16 miles north of Thetford, and was pronounced dead at the scene.
“The guy was probably the top balloon pilot in the world,” said Scott Wright, who owns Silver Maple Lodge and Cottages in Fairlee, Vt., and worked with Boland for more than 30 years offering vacation packages to visitors. “It must have been some freaky, flukey thing that happened.”
The balloon had dropped to the ground because it had run out of fuel, according to a law enforcement source. Boland was switching to a new fuel tank on the descent and regained power just as the balloon touched down, the source said.
After he fell to the ground, the pilotless balloon floated north for about 1.5 miles before it got caught in a tree grove in Piermont, N.H., authorities said. The remaining passengers were able to climb down to safety. They were not injured. The four passengers included a woman and her child, and her parents.
Reached Friday night, the grandfather declined to comment, saying the tragedy was “too tough to deal with. . . .We need some time.”
Boland was well-known in the Upper Valley and a beloved figure in the world of ballooning.
“His niche was home-built experimental balloons,” said Mark West, president of the Balloon Federation of America. “He worked with many people over the years and helped them build their own balloons,” he said. “He helped so many people.”
Boland’s partner, Tina Foster, recalled him as “an amazing, creative person and an incredible pilot.”
Boland owned Post Mills Airport, where he operated the Experimental Balloon and Airship Museum. It featured the Vermontasaurus, a giant dinosaur sculpture made of out of scrap wood.
“In one word, he was unique,” said Mark Snider, 63. “He was quite a character. It’s quite a shock to the community that he’s gone.”
Snider lives next to Post Mills Airport and saw Boland go up in the balloon Thursday. As soon as he heard about the accident, he knew “it was Brian,” he said.
Boland hosted a popular balloon festival every spring that would draw anywhere from 50 to 75 hot air balloons, Snider said.
Justin Roman, 32, of Pike, N.H., attended Boland’s balloon festival in the past and is a big fan of his museum.
“It’s one of my favorite places in the world,” he said.
Roman marveled at some of the creations Boland came up with and recalled how Boland once mounted a snowmobile on an ATV frame so he could drive a snowmobile on wheels.
“He had some really crazy, funky stuff,” Roman said. “He was a creator, an inventor, a builder.”
Boland was profiled in a 1979 New York Times article, just before his 30th birthday, that traced his path from schoolteacher in Farmington, Conn., to a career in ballooning. The first hot air balloon he built was for his thesis while working toward a master’s in art at the Pratt Institute in New York. It took about eight months, but the final product was “a hit with his professors,” the Times reported.
“I’d never seen a balloon before that day I got the idea to make one for my master’s degree,” Boland told the paper at the time. “My brother who never writes had sent me an article about a guy who ballooned around Colorado, and the story thrilled me. But building one proved a lot harder than I had ever imagined.”
He got more attention with his next build, a 112-foot-long blimp that he called the Albatross, according to the Times. He would go on to build close to 200 balloons in his career, according to Mick Murphy, owner of Aer Blarney Balloons in Bethlehem, Conn. Murphy said Boland was known as the “zen master of experimental ballooning.”
“He was extremely creative,” Murphy said. “He was a consummate balloonist, a very experienced pilot, and an incredible guy. . . . It’s a major loss for our community.”
“Brian Boland was our master and mentor in experimental ballooning,” balloon pilot Robert Willbanks, who lives in Georgia and has known Boland since the 1970s, wrote in a Facebook post. “Creative to the end and always willing to share his love of ballooning and the true spirit of light (sic) than air aviation with anyone who would listen. His Post Mills balloon port was the Mecca of home-built experimental ballooning.”
According to FAA records, Boland was certified in February 2010 as both a commercial hot air balloon pilot and a repairman for “hot air balloon and airships” while working at his Post Mills facility.
The case is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration, along with the Vermont Agency of Transportation and the New Hampshire Department of Transportation. Boland’s body was taken to the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in Burlington, Vt., for an autopsy.
Audrey Sabiston had been driving along Route 25 over the Connecticut River into Vermont Thursday evening when she saw cars pulled over in front of a home. The people were clustered around a body. When she returned along the same route about 30 minutes later, the figure was covered with a white sheet and authorities were on the scene.
”Oh, it was sad, so sad,” she said. “I didn’t know exactly what went on . . . but I knew a life ended at that moment. When you see something like that and you know someone’s life has ended, it just puts a little hole in your heart.”
John R. Ellement and Bryan Marquard of the Globe staff contributed to this report.