A Legendary Scorching Air Balloon Pilot Died After a Weird Crash. It Nonetheless Doesn‘t Make Sense.



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.

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