On July 30, 2016, sixteen people lost their lives in central Texas due to a tragic incident involving a hot air balloon that may have been caused by the balloon colliding with power lines. This incident happened about 30 miles south of Austin, the state capital. According to an NBC news article published online on July 30, 2016, at least one witness said that after she heard a loud “pop,” she looked up and saw a giant “fireball” forming.
The owner of the hot air balloon company, Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, has said that the pilot was experienced at this type of work. However, questions are now being raised about his past troubles with drunk driving and other questionable behaviors.
How Exactly Does a Hot Air Balloon Stay in the Air & Who Invented This Form of Travel?
Once a hot air balloon has been filled with air – a process that involves burning liquid propane in the balloon “basket’s” steel burner – it will start to rise. The more heat that is generated in the burner, the higher the balloon will ascend. To fly lower, the pilot must lower the heat being burned.
Since the French invented this unique aircraft back in the late 18th century, hot air balloons have been popular all around the globe. They’re used for sporting and tourist activities – and they’ve been used for limited military purposes in the past.
Have There Been a Large Number of Past Accidents Involving Numerous Fatalities?
Unfortunately, far too many hot air balloon tragedies have occurred during recent decades. Here’s a list of just a few of them, noted with their locations.
Three people died in a hot air balloon accident in eastern Virginia. Just one month earlier, the National Traffic Safety Board had recommended tighter regulations for this dangerous form of travel. Sadly, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) then rejected that proposal;
2013. Nineteen (19) individuals perished in an Egypt hot air balloon disaster;
2012. A fatal event in New Zealand took the lives of eleven (11) people. That balloon apparently made wire contact;
1988. Thirteen (13) people died in a balloon accident in Australia.
While this list may not be fully comprehensive, it clearly indicates that hot air balloon enthusiasts must do all they can to protect themselves. Surely stricter safety guidelines are also needed since all of these losses are just unacceptable.
Many other incidents have occurred, although they have often “only” involved various injury levels and not deaths. In fact, back in 2009 in Egypt, 16 tourists were injured when a balloon hit a cell phone transmission tower.
How Can Hot Air Balloon Fans Better Protect Themselves in the Future?
Carefully research each company’s safety track record. Early reports indicate that the recent deadly crash in Texas involved a company with a D+ rating with the local Better Business Bureau. Always take such ratings seriously – never brush aside excuses provided for such poor ratings;
Learn all you can about the one or more pilots employed by the company. According to a CBS News report and another story published in the Chicago Tribune, this Texas pilot had served two prison terms in the past. He had also been repeatedly convicted (four times) of drunk driving. It’s not too far a stretch to wonder if he was fully sober at the time of this tragic loss of 15 customers’ lives – along with his life. Only fly with a pilot who has many years of hot air balloon flight experience that you can personally verify;
Inquire about the number of power lines and cell phone transmission towers in the flight path. Only book a flight if you are fully convinced that these are few in number and the person piloting the balloon ride convinces you that s/he has passed a recent criminal background check — and has no recent convictions for DUI or illegal drug use;
Only ride in pristine, clear weather. Also, be sure there’s enough daylight so a pilot can easily see power and transmission lines. Dawn and dusk flights are probably much more dangerous due to lower visibility;
Given the significant risks involved, it may be wise to avoid taking children or those unsteady on their feet with you. While it’s always tragic to lose any adult in a hot air balloon disaster, it’s probably best to just ride with those who won’t need any help staying on their feet during the ride. You want each person to have a chance to fully protect themselves should an accident start to unfold;
Inquire as to how high the balloon will be traveling – and about any known landscape obstacles. If there are considerable hills or other parts of the landscape that must be avoided, think twice about traveling across a flatter area somewhere else;
Find out when the balloon was last fully inspected. Also, ask how often the company that owns the balloon ride company performs routine maintenance work on each balloon.