Michele On February - 26 - 2013

I read a horrific headline today-”18 killed as hot air balloon explodes“.

That’s just awful for sure; and although I don’t know with 100% certainty, but in my experience I think this was probably avoidable.

My guess, and it is only a guess, is that the fitting on top of one of the tanks had a leak. Someone in the balloon was smoking during the flight. They put their cigarette close to the tank not knowing it had a leak and BOOM! Sadly, as you read in the article, this wasn’t the first accident that company was involved in.

Back in the olden days (pre-kiddos) I was a member of a balloon club.  Twenty of us co-opped the price of a balloon. Then at a once a month meeting everyone chose the time they wanted to fly. Other members who weren’t flying that day would act as your ground crew. It was affordable and safe –as long as you used common sense.

Even when I was up a mile to qualify for my commercial pilot’s license I felt safe.

When I was training, safety was the most important thing. In fact it was the only thing.

I was taught how to check NOAA for the weather conditions before you inflated, safely fill the tanks and the balloon envelope, how to avoid power lines while flying, (should be common sense you’d think) and how to land.

That’s pretty much it.

It’s not rocket science.

So how do the accidents happen? Almost always it’s pilot error– fatal mistakes in judgement or just carelessness.

I was at the balloonport one afternoon waiting to fill my tanks. The pilot before me had the valve to the big storage tank of propane wide open while filling their tanks. Then, without thinking, he picked up a wrench and was about to tighten one the fittings

Big mistake. Stupid mistake. Coulda been a fatal mistake.

One tiny spark from that wrench and we’d all gone up in a flash. (Needless to say there was much screaming at him lest that wrench actually be used at that moment.) It was definitely a “WTF ARE YOU DOING?!” moment.

The only other time I came close to an accident was when I was supposed to fly with a pilot I didn’t know very well. I’d met her at the National Championships earlier that year. Her family came from money–lotsa, lotsa money.

The morning before she had me meet her at her parents house one morning for breakfast. The drive to their front door was almost half a mile long. Then when I got to the front door which was 8′ tall, I noticed the handles were actually elephant tusks. The butler who opened the door ushered me to the dining room where a maid actually served us breakfast– serve from the left clear from the right; or was it the other way?

I can’t remember now; but needless to say I was felt quite underdressed, especially since I sitting there in rattyish jeans, a T shirt and hiking boots– normal attire for ballooning.

Anyway, I was truly impressed by all the opulence; and in the process made an assumption that coulda cost me my life. I was supposed to fly with her the next morning.  Lucky for me I got a call the night before to go in and help get a magazine finished and ready to go to the printer by 5pm the next day. So I called my new friend and told her I wouldn’t be able to fly with her.

That art job saved my life.

The next morning when I was getting ready to leave my apartment, I got a call from another pilot saying that a balloon had gone down. (Steve worked in the control room of a local TV station and called me because he knew I lived close to the balloonport. I knew about the crash even before they put it on the air.)

I raced to the scene and was there before the fire department arrived.

It was horrific. I got out of the car and went running towards the flames. A sheriffs deputy stopped me, which actually was probably a good thing.

My friend and her father both died at the scene. Her sister in law was severely burned; and sadly it was all preventable.

Here’s what happened:

Apparently since I couldn’t go she decided to take her family instead. (Her dad was deathly afraid of heights.) At takeoff she didn’t hit the burner long enough and the her father’s arm was scratched on a tree branch as they were ascending. Flustered after being distracted by her father, she wasn’t paying attention and their balloon descended, almost landing in the middle of Hwy 290 right during rush hour traffic. She hit the burner and the balloon started to ascend but it was too late and before they ascended the wind pushed them into the power lines running beside the highway.

That was the end of that.

It came to light later that she’d actually “bought” her license without all the hours of flight time and testing required to legally pilot a balloon–another example of lotsa money not always equalling lotsa smarts.

The accident was tragic; and so preventable.

There’d been thousands of flights from the balloonport, all without incident.

I’d told my mom that I was going to flying that morning so she thought I’d gone down in a fiery crash. I actually had to go stand in front of her to show her I was alive.

The point of all telling you this is that I don’t want anyone freaked out about getting in a balloon. They’re safe, really safe; so safe in fact that when we were in Lake Tahoe we had Brett and Amanda go on a flight–taking off and landing a boat in the middle of the Lake Tahoe.

Just be sure to really check out your pilot, their experience and their safety record. I didn’t once, and it coulda cost me my life.

 

 

 

 

 

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18 Responses so far.

  1. Patti Winker says:

    I’m reading this and can hardly believe my eyes. What a tragic thing to happen to your friend, her family, and you. And to think that your Mom thought you had gone down… just breaks my heart. And to think that there are people out there who are selling pilot licenses is truly beyond horrible.

    Apart from the criminal aspect, there is the common sense, as you mentioned. Smoking on a hot air balloon? In what world does that make sense?! I saw a guy once pumping gas with a cigarette in his hand… the one holding the gas nozzle. I did NOT fill up at that gas station – I drove away… quickly.

    It’s heartbreaking to think about how one senseless move can affect so many lives. With a purchased ‘license’ and no flight time, this was no accident; it was a crime. I’m so sorry you had to suffer.
    Patti Winker recently posted..Standing Naked And Getting The Once Over – My Life My MolesMy Profile

    • Michele says:

      Hi Patti. It was a horrific sight to come upon for sure and gave me bad dreams for awhile; but my suffering was nothing compared to her poor sister in law who had months if not years of rehab for the burns. I never heard if the guy who sold her the license was prosecuted. I hope he was.

  2. Aleta Woods says:

    Such a tragedy. When we lived in Rio Rancho, NM , we went to the Balloon Festival every year-over 800 balloonists. Safety was constantly preached. In fact, Gary was on a chase crew for one of the balloons. Several of our friends were referees (or whatever they are called). It is really a safe sport, but like you said, know the people involved. We would love to go back in October for the balloon festival.
    It is so neat to know you were almost a pilot. Thanks for reminding us all to be careful.

    • Michele says:

      You know I passed both FAA tests for private and commercial aircraft. All I have left to do is solo. Maybe someday when we can afford an Ecofab Arts jet I’ll do just that.:)

  3. Susan says:

    Horrifying. Thank God for that art job…although the circumstances might have been different if you’d been there. It sounds like a cop-out but that was their awful karma. What a shame. Chilling post. XO

  4. Michele says:

    You know Susan it really didn’t sink in about just how close I’d come til a few days down the road. Then just thinking about it gave me goosebumps. It did make me a more careful person after that though.

  5. Cheryl P. says:

    Wow, what a horrible story…actually stories. The 18 lives lost and your friend and her family. Tragic.

    Pretty impressive that you have that experience though. My husband used to balloon a bit with friends but I have never been in one. During the time I had the chance I had crutches because of a leg injury.
    Cheryl P. recently posted..You Want Me to Do What??My Profile

    • Michele says:

      You should go up sometime young one. It’s really quite beautiful. Especially when you fly over people playing slap n tickle in the great outdoors thinking they’re all alone with no one to see them.

  6. fishducky says:

    I’ve been in a hot air balloon a couple of times & I loved it. I have a fear of heights which didn’t bother me at all during the flights!!
    fishducky recently posted..AT LAST—A SOLUTION TO MY PROBLEM!My Profile

  7. TRACK says:

    M, You are so full of adventure! I’m afraid of heights n stairs. This is sad, cause someone didn’t get the training, and sorry is not good enough…

  8. Michele says:

    Hi TRACK. After spending a week in NYC, I became afraid of stairs too. Next time I come there, I’m gonna have a sherpa carry me around- at least for all the stairs. And you’re right, that whole incident was tragic.

  9. JENN says:

    I saw this in the news…just sad.
    JENN recently posted..Justin Bieber Ruined My Friday!My Profile

  10. Michele says:

    It really was, and being so preventable makes it just that much worse.

  11. I’m too terrified of heights to even consider a balloon ride but that’s so cool that you flew them! I love seeing them in the sky!
    Padded Cell Princess recently posted..Mucus, Divas, and Black Eyed ChildrenMy Profile

    • Michele says:

      They are cool indeed young one. You never really notice you’re going up. It’s more like everything else is just falling away…

  12. Martin says:

    Always scared of balloons for exactly that reason.
    Martin recently posted..get free laptops nowMy Profile

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