You have probably seen hot air balloons drifting through wine country lately; right now is peak season for the activity. In fact, Napa and Sonoma counties have the highest concentrations of commercial hot air balloon operators in the country because of great weather nearly all year-round.
The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit decided to examine the safety record of the hot air balloon industry in the United States to find out how frequently problems happen in the air, why accidents happen and where passengers are most likely to get into them.
National Transportation Safety Board records show that 1,350 people have been hurt hot air ballooning since 1964. According to the same data, 73 people nationally and seven people in California have died in hot air balloon accidents. Four of those accidents happened in the greater Bay Area. Morgan Hill saw two fatalities, and Davis and Yountville each saw one fatality. Pilots say that the number of accidents is low relative to the number of passengers they take up in the air.
“On average, I would say about 200 to 250 people a day,” said Jim Kimball, pilot with the company Napa Valley Aloft. According to NTSB data, in the past three decades there have been more than seven times the number of skydiving accidents than hot air balloon accidents.
The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit found that the wind was the cause or contributing factor in more than half of all accidents or incidents investigated by the NTSB in California.
Pilot Scott Van Der Horst of Wine Country Balloons made an emergency landing that injured 15 passengers in Windsor when an abrupt change in the weather caused him to land in 30 mile per hour wind gusts.
“Those are situations that are pretty extreme,” Van Der Horst said. Each manufacturer sets up operating limitations for each aircraft, though most balloons operate best in winds no stronger than 10 miles per hour. According to NTSB accident investigations, pilot error or bad judgment was the most common reason accidents happened in California.
Pilot error was the reason Marcie Cook got into an accident in 2002 in the Texas countryside. She told NBC Bay Area that the moments leading up to the accident were “unbelievable—just something you never experienced before. It’s so quiet, so beautiful.”
But Cook was seriously hurt when the pilot flew into a power line. “I guess I was the last one to duck and I was just the sitting duck there for the power lines to hit,” Cook said.
“My life has forever changed.” She developed cataracts as a result of the accident, has a hard time walking and must take medication the rest of her life.
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the accident was the pilot’s “improper planning of the approach and failure to maintain clearance with the power lines.”
Cook says she will never take a hot air balloon ride again because pilots don’t have enough control over their aircrafts. “He doesn’t have brakes and pedals,” she said.
“He is operating on the whim of the wind. That’s all he has.”
The Federal Aviation Administration oversees hot air balloon pilots. Pilots performing commercial balloon operations must pass rigid FAA test standards, including proficiency in flight planning, reviewing weather information, maneuvering the balloon, handling emergencies and many other factors related to safe flight, according to the FAA.
Commercial pilots must have their equipment inspected every 100 hours of flight time and fix any violations before flying again.
According to FAA enforcement records there were 59 violations against pilots nationally since 2000. The violations ranged from maintenance problems to problems in flight operations.
Glen Moyer with the Balloon Federation of America—a national organization made up of commercial and sport pilots—says the industry is “pretty well regulated as it is” because pilots are restricted to where they can fly, what altitudes they can reach and which areas they can fly in and out of.
“We are regulated far more than similar sports—hang-gliding, parachutes, things of that nature,” he said. “I don’t think we need more regulation. We have a lot of operating procedures we have to follow. It is tough in some cases for ballooning to grow because we are so regulated.”
Moyer says that while the industry is safe, not all hot air balloon companies are created equal. He says the best things to do when searching for a commercial balloon company to fly with is to check with the Better Business Bureau about the company, ask for pilot references, inquire about the age of the equipment and when it was last inspected and ask about insurance.
He says most ride operators require passengers to sign a waiver, which validates the company’s insurance.
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