In 1984, a Milford Christmas tree salesman named Dale Riley walked up the front steps of a colonial home on Old Wilton Road to ask the elderly lady inside if she might donate the large field on her property to stage hot air balloons. He had never met Bernice Perry before, but he had an inkling of why she might say yes: In the 1920s, the former “fly girl” had been the first woman in all of New England to hold a pilot’s license.
A contemporary of Amelia Earhart and the early distance and stunt pilots, Perry was one of the original “99ers,” the group of just under one hundred American female flyers led by Earhart. As a girl, Perry had marveled at the World War I planes flying off to Europe and by the late 1920s, she was hanging out at Grenier Field and getting flying lessons. At age 22, Perry was one of only 57 women in the country to hold a commercial transport license, piling up hundreds of hours in the air. Although she graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music, it was flying that was her real love. Perry managed to convert that passion into a career when her husband, Winthrop Perry – a fellow pilot she met at the airport – invented a wing-mounted camera. Soon the photos she took in the air were being developed down in her basement and the couple’s aerial photography company was in business. She’d eventually donate some 43,000 photo negatives to the Milford Historical Society.
So while Perry did not know the man who stood on her doorstep in 1984, she was curious about his hot air balloon scheme. After all, Perry was always up for an adventure – whether it was landing planes with nearly empty gas tanks in her youth to picking the worst blizzards as the best time for a drive in later years. Soon “Perry Field,” (also known as Bernice's back and side yard) was annually filled with balloons of every type, in what would become the Hot Air for High Hopes Balloon Festival. Before the Pumpkin Festival, this was the Milford event. The hot air balloons drew some 30,000 visitors each year and raised plenty of money for kids with serious illnesses (Perry would donate hundreds of thousands more upon her death). Through the years, Bernice would stand on her porch loving all the commotion: kite-flying, helicopters, skydivers, model rockets, wire walkers – and in her mid-80s, she was still going up in balloons with her old friend Dale. As an original fly girl, she no doubt felt right at home.