Enjoy the View

May 1, 2009

The first time I saw Post Mills Airport (2B9) in Vermont was in 1984, back when I was in high school and dreamed of the pilot certificate I would have some day. Seeing airplanes tied down beside a runway made of grass changed my understanding of what an airport could be. I knew someday I’d come back to Post Mills by air.

Twenty-two years later I came back to Post Mills. When I did, I found an airport that is used by far more than just airplanes, that is a jumping-off point to some of Vermont’s most beautiful countryside, and is home to one of the world’s greatest balloonists.

The Zen master of ballooning

Brian Boland flew balloons in Connecticut for 17 years, much of that as a commercial business. He launched from a schoolyard near his own property but wanted a larger place where he could wake up in the morning and go fly if he wanted to, something he just wasn’t doing in Connecticut.

“It’s every aviator’s dream to be able to fly out of where you hang your hat at night, you know,” says Boland. “But in Connecticut, I was so busy with the commercial part [of ballooning], when I did have a day off I’d just hide under a pillow for a day.”

When the Post Mills airport went up for sale in 1988, Boland bought it. “For a balloonist you don’t need a whole airport, but I thought it was a good potential expansion,” he remembers. He did expand, at least in terms of the space occupied by his stuff. His home beside the northeast end of the runway is part residence, part balloon repair station, and part eclectic aviation museum.

Eclectic and fascinating is a good way to describe Boland’s career in aviation as well. He jokes that people have called him the Zen master or the Jimi Hendrix of ballooning, but, with all due respect, calling him the Bob Hoover of ballooning might be the most accurate. Similar to Hoover’s famous double-engine-out glide and coast to his tiedown that concluded his airshow routine, Boland flies hot air balloons with an accuracy few people attain.

On the morning of my visit, he flew four solo flights—therapy flights as Boland calls them—and on two of those flights he flew miles from the field only to return and land right where he took off. When you remember that balloons can only drift downwind, you realize this feat of piloting using minor variations in the wind borders on artistry.

Art is actually where Boland got his start. A 1970 Sports Illustrated article turned him on to the idea of ballooning, and he designed and built a balloon in 1970 for his master’s thesis—a master of fine arts from Pratt Institute. “It was just an inflatable piece of sculpture.” Boland’s plan was to be an art teacher, but ballooning and experimental airships just kept getting in the way.

In Boland’s 8,400 hours of ballooning, he’s designed, built, and flown hundreds of balloons and hot air airships (similar to blimps but inflated with hot air rather than helium). This includes his design for the world’s largest balloon, a 3.1-million-cubic-inch monster that lifted 61 people off the ground. He built two airships to capture all 30 possible records in hot air airships and still holds 29 of them. The missing one is an altitude record that was set in one of the airships Boland designed. He’s also flown a gazebo, a bathtub, and a Messerschmitt underneath balloons. (OK, the Messerschmitt was a Messerschmitt car made by the former aircraft manufacturer after World War II.)

You can see many of these vehicles in Boland’s museum. Boland’s tour and the stories about the vehicles are worth the trip. For example, Boland was on one of two teams representing the United States in the 1991 hot air airship world championships in Luxembourg. His homebuilt airship was competing with professional designs and coming in second to last in every event. “During the event, some of my buddies said, ‘What’s the world record for altitude?’” It was just more than 10,000 feet, and Boland’s team felt they could go higher. It normally takes months to get together everything you need for a record attempt, but all the necessary officials were at the competition. That afternoon they got the sanctions to make the attempt and borrowed an oxygen system and parachute from a local glider pilot. The next morning they took off and went up—to 16,000 feet.

That night the prime minister of Luxembourg was at the event and was thrilled that a world record had been set in Luxembourg. “I wasn’t a national, but they took me in as one of their own,” Boland remembers. This turned out to be convenient because the next day Boland got blown off the course at the competition and landed in front of a large party. “There were all these Rolls-Royces up front. It turns out that it was the prime minister at his daughter’s wedding. So, it’s like old home week.” The wedding photographer started taking pictures with the airship as a backdrop, and Boland got a photo of one of his ground crew in coveralls dancing with the prime minister’s wife.

Heavier than air

Just across the grass from the Boland museum, you’ll find a glider operation and some folks who have had their own huge impact on the world of soaring. Back in the early days of GPS it was clear that the technology could revolutionize competitive soaring, replacing the aneroid barographs and wing cameras used to prove the glider flew a particular course and altitude. The problem was to prevent cheating from fiddling with the computer data.

The solution was partly the work of Rick Shepp, who helped develop the system that prevents such cheating and changed soaring forever. His house is just off the airport. Shepp is also the main instructor and one of the tow pilots for the Post Mills Soaring Club. The club operates the expected Schweizer 2-33 and Schweizer 1-23H gliders, but it also offers a Blanik L-13 and a high-performance Glasflügel 304C. The Blanik L-13 is technically a Russian warbird. “Many Russian pilots did their primary instrument training in this ship,” says Kevin Brooker, a member of the club. “They’d put the pilot in the rear seat and cover the canopy.” A small battery powered the instruments, and the glider even had flaps and retractable gear for procedures training. “I tell people I have Russian warbird time,” says Brooker with a smile, “but then they find out it’s in a glider and suddenly it doesn’t rate.” The Blanik can actually be equipped with a ski instead of a wheel for winter flying, and the story of flying the Blanik on a ski one Vermont winter can be found on the club Web site.

Brooker is an inventor in his own right. He’s the designer of Peetot Pants, which have a big zipper running up one inseam and down the other and help pilots “go faster.” Glider pilots often have to relieve themselves during flight, and the tight confines of normal pants and the glider seatbelts make that a challenge. Brooker was motivated to create the pants after a near miss with a Beech 1900. “Here I was with my zipper down and my hands in my pants and they were going to find my body wondering why I didn’t see the other airplane. I thought, There has to be a better way.”

Inspired by the snap-pants used for easy diaper changing on his baby daughter, Brooker developed the pants. They also have 45-degree pockets to keep stuff from falling out when sitting down. “People restricted to wheelchairs have been using these pants too, since they have the same problem getting things out of their pockets.”

The overall look of the pants reflects back on the kind of club at Post Mills. You see, they had to be nice enough to wear out to dinner. Traditionally, when a glider pilot doesn’t make it back to the airport—lands out as it’s called—he or she has to buy dinner for the crew that goes and retrieves the glider from the farmer’s field. In Post Mills, the crew buys the pilot dinner because the experienced club members encouraged them to try flying cross-country in the first place. “We have a culture of being safety conscious,” says Brooker, “but we encourage people to go out and do things.”

“This field is about flying, not technology,” says Tony Moehrke, one of the pilots in the club. “It’s like the Saturday Evening Post. Where else are you going to find a culture where the tow pilot will run over on his lunch hour and give you a tow?”

Landing and lodging

Many of the aircraft at Post Mills have no radios, including the soaring club towplane, and gliders and balloons don’t fly a pattern quite the same way airplanes do. Keep your eyes open approaching the airport.

The field actually has two runways, but the longer, 2,800-foot one is the choice for powered aircraft. Running northeast to southwest, the general flow is to land northeast and takeoff southwest as the field slopes slightly downhill to the southwest. There are hills on all sides, so you’ll want to be current on your mountain flying and short-field technique before coming in. If balloons are on the grass, the procedure is to land toward them and depart away from them.

Departure in a climb-challenged aircraft might require “the dump run,” as locals call it. This means departing west and immediately turning about 20 degrees right. This takes you away from rising terrain and over the old dump. Past the dump is a long valley with ample room for a causal climb or even a climbing spiral. You can find out more about the airport online.

If those conditions don’t sound like a good match for your airplane, you can land just 13 miles south at Lebanon Municipal Airport (LEB) in New Hampshire with crossing 5,400-foot paved runways and an ILS approach. A rental car or pickup from lodging near Post Mills will get you to your ballooning or soaring getaway in no time. (If you want a rental car at Post Mills, the Enterprise office in White River Junction, Vermont, will do a pickup from Post Mills at no extra charge.)

One of the better deals is between the Silver Maple Lodge and Boland Balloon. They have a $725 package that includes two nights’ lodging and a balloon flight with Boland. The lodge has eight rooms in the main house plus seven cottages. Two of those cottages have kitchenettes. Note that by late spring the lodge is usually booked full on weekends through October. Another spot to stay is the Lake Morey Resort in Fairlee, Vermont, which sports a championship golf course and conference center. Prices vary quite a bit with accommodation and date, so check the Web site for more information.

You can also contact Boland directly to arrange for a ride and even rent one of his cabins right on the field. Bakers General Store is walking distance from the Post Mills airport and can supply you with any basic food you forgot to bring as well as ice cream or cold beer.

No matter how you get there, take some time to explore the beautiful countryside. This is quintessential Vermont, and small towns such as Bradford, Thetford, and Fairlee each have their own character and sights. Do be aware that Vermont drivers regularly treat highway dividing lines as recommendations rather than rules.

Departing Post Mills requires some daylight, so as the sun dropped behind the hills I headed back to my home airport in the Class C airspace. It was easy to feel nostalgic for simple aviation watching the glider pilots beginning their evening beer ritual and watching Boland making his last flight of the day up the Connecticut River valley. If you want a taste of the Post Mills experience, you can find it in print in Plane Crazy, A Celebration of Flying by Burton Bernstein, or you can head for the Vermont hills and experience it for yourself.

Jeff Van West is a flight instructor in Portland, Maine, and editor of IFR magazine.