Balloon pilots trained to avoid disaster

Published 11:43 pm Thursday, October 18, 2007

NATCHEZ — Floating above the earth in a hot air balloon, while beautiful, is no place for problems.

Two deadly accidents in recent months at balloon races across the country have brought attention to the sport that will take center stage in Natchez this weekend.

In New Mexico a woman fell to her death when the balloon she was riding in became entangled in a utility cable. And in British Columbia a woman and her daughter died when their balloon, engulfed in flames, plummeted to earth.

Email newsletter signup

Though ballooning is safe, accidents do happen.

Pilots must constantly be on the lookout for obstructions to the craft, malfunctioning equipment and freak weather occurrences.

Pilots of today are trained to use high-tech equipment to predict all weather possibilities.

“It’s called micro-meteorology,” pilot Brian Hoyle said.

Basically, pilots are trained to predict all weather possibilities within about a 10-mile radius for three hours into the future.

On the morning of any given event, Hoyle said he is up for several hours before liftoff studying the weather online.

And just before the race starts it’s time for the pi-ball.

A pi-ball is a balloon-like device that floats high into the air to give pilots and accurate wind reading.

“We don’t need any surprises up there,” he said.

Aside from weather, pilots must be constantly mindful of their equipment and surroundings.

An unseen power line or tree branch can be disastrous.

Allen Yost has been the safety supervisor for the Natchez balloon race for seven years, without a major incident.

“All of these pilots are highly trained by the Federal Aviation Administration. They know what they are doing,” Yost said.

One of the most important parts of any flight is the preflight inspection.

“If there is any problem, that’s when you want to see it,” he said.

In addition to inspecting the basket and burner, pilots also perform a cold air inflation.

A fan is used to fill the balloon while it is laid out on the ground. This allows the pilot and crew to inspect the balloon itself.

One preflight cold air inflation, pilot Karen Kent spotted a previously unforeseen tear in her balloon.

Kent said the foot-long tear had gone unnoticed from her previous landing.

“It was an easy fix, but I’m glad I caught it,” Kent said.

Yost also said it’s extremely important for pilots to have full command of their passengers, and passengers must mind their pilot.

“When the pilot speaks, listen,” Yost said.

Sally Durkin, crew and pilot coordinator for the race, said safety is at the top of her list of priorities.

“We have an EMT on standby, a highly trained staff and an ambulance on site, plus we’re highly insured,” she said.