Hot Air Balloon Goes Down West of Sonoma, No Injuries Reported

Captain says he's grateful for the training he received from the FAA for just a situation

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A hot air balloon crashed Thursday west of Sonoma, but no one was hurt thanks to a passenger's help and the captain's experience, instincts and training.

Thirteen people were on board the balloon when the burner used to power it detached, causing the balloon to go down.

A passenger on board helped the pilot, Jeff Spear, hold the 50-pound burner up while Spear worked to try to land the balloon safely.

"Luckily we had a volunteer firefighter, a real hero," Spear said. "He helped hold up the burner so I could add heat. We were able to hover."

Spear and the passenger were able to work together and bring the balloon down slowly and safely, landing without injuries in a Sonoma vineyard.

Spear, a pilot with Sonoma Ballooning who has more than 10 years experience and more than 2,500 flights, said he's grateful he had training mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration.

"I'm glad it was second-nature," Spear said. "Because there wasn't a lot of time to figure things out up there. Just instinct and training."

Spear added that the FAA is looking into what caused the burner to detach.

"I've never, ever seen a case where a burner came off of a frame," said Eliav Cohen, president of the American Ballooning Safety and Training Association. "I mean, that's a very, very rare situation."

According to the FAA, ballooning is one of the safest modes of air travel, but that's also because pilots usually only fly in good weather.

Sometimes changing conditions catch pilots by surprise. Back in 2019, Spear had a hard landing in a marsh near Vallejo when winds shifted. No one was injured, but a California Highway Patrol helicopter had to airlift all 11 people aboard to safety.

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