The first untethered, manned hot-air balloon was launched on November 21, 1783, when a nobleman, Francois Laurent d’Arlandes, and a scientist, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, set fire to a shredded pile of wool and straw under the open bottom of a silk balloon and flew over Paris. Benjamin Franklin was present at the event, witnessing the first human flight in history. Franklin would later write, “This experience is by no means insignificant. It can be accompanied by significant consequences that no one can foresee.
Flash forward 188 years to 1971. In Brooklyn, New York, young Brian Boland was facing the deadline to submit a master’s thesis proposal to the Pratt Institute. He was still looking for ideas when he read a Sports Illustrated hot air balloon article. The hobby had seen a resurgence due to the development of an on-board burner system powered 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 cart itself allowed for greater flexibility and control.
Boland was hit. The son of a homemaker and fireboat crew member and instructor in New York, he had grown up on Long Island and had an inquisitive mind that was constantly fueled by new ideas and experiences. The hot air balloon fit that bill, with its mix of precision and mechanical whimsy. At Pratt, he sketched out 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 was done, he inflated it and tied it up 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 “as a piece of conceptual art, there, then gone, changing the landscape”.
It 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 how to make balloons, paint them, and even weave wicker baskets. He urged them to view the work as a valuable act of creation. “He was just this really cool guy who basically knew how to give people permission,” says Paul Stumpf, a Boland alumnus who became a balloonist in Vermont.
The extent of the danger they were in was only beginning to become clear when Emily looked over the side of the basket. She saw a brown moccasin stuck in a strap.
There is an alluring simplicity to hot air ballooning: heated air rises because it is less dense than the air around it. When hot air fills a balloon, it rises and floats regardless of the direction the wind is blowing. Turn the heat down and the balloon goes down.
Within these parameters, of course, are the nuances of thermodynamics, materials, and weather, not to mention luck. Balloon competitions around the world crown the winners in competitions that involve dropping markers on targets, arriving at a specific location a mile away, and flying the furthest distance. The confines of the pursuit have attracted extreme adventurers. For example, Russian balloonist Fedor Konyukhov climbed Mount Everest, walked to the North Pole, and rowed across the Atlantic Ocean before records in 2016 for the fastest solo balloon trip around the world – 268 hours and 20 minutes (just over 11 days) –replace a record created 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 detained by Swedish engineer Per Lindstrand.
Like any method of flight, hot air ballooning can be dangerous. Since 1983, there have been 431 crashes involving serious injuries and 52 resulting in fatalities, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Balloon accidents are infrequent relative to the number of flights, but the accident rate has increased over the past two decades, according to a 2020 Analysis of NTSB Accident Reports published in the Journal of Aviation and Space Technology. The majority of accidents are caused by operator error or adverse conditions such as bad weather. Two of the deadliest US balloon crashes in recent years – one in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which killed five people last year, and another in Lockhart, Texaswhich killed 16 people in 2016, were caused by 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 ball gods or someone watching over him because he got steals that no one else could,” Stumpf says.
For Boland, hot air ballooning was above all an adventure in creativity, its expression taking shape with the help of Tyvek, ripstop nylon and rattan. In the 1970s, he transformed the house where he lived into a design studio and manufacturing center. He soaked wicker in the tub and built additional work space around a towering oak tree that ran through the ceiling. Once in 1974, he tied a three-wheeled Messerschmitt KR200 to a ball, threw it, and returned home afterwards. It was nicknamed the Cloud Car.
Boland left teaching in the late 1970s to focus on ballooning: balloon instruction, flying passengers in balloons, writing about ballooning, repairing balloons, and most importantly, designing and creating balloons. “When we’re all done, and everyone goes home and the day is over, I stay up thinking about balloons, designing new things,” Boland would later say. He decreased the weight of his designs by swapping fabrics and reconfiguring the shape. Streamlining opened up the realm of competitive ballooning. Boland set records, along with Wadsworth, for distance, time and elevation. He was always on to the next thing, the intensity of freeform his guiding philosophy. He often bypassed traditional hot air balloon 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 area of departure without spilling a drop.
In 1982, a film crew followed him and Wadsworth as they made the first-ever ascent of the world’s tallest waterfall, the 3,212ft Angel Falls in Venezuela. Bad weather and high winds plagued them before takeoff, but once airborne, Boland’s face showed neither fear nor anxiety. He was, despite everything, completely in the moment.