Safety measures in place for weekend

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 17, 2008

VIDALIA — Miss-Lou residents may wonder if hot air balloon accidents around the country may be recreated in Natchez.

But there is a small army in place to make sure a tragedy doesn’t strike at the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race.

Along with four observers from the Federal Aviation Authority, the Natchez race has a weatherman who comes in and makes a call about whether or not the balloons can go up, Balloon Race Committee Executive Director Laura Godfrey said.

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“The weatherman is the one who really tells people if they can fly, and — if they can fly — where they can fly,” she said.

Things like wind speed are key in making decisions about whether or not the pilots fly because even adding a couple of miles per hour into the mix can add hazard factors where balloonists have to react more quickly than a balloon might allow, balloonmeister Bill Cunningham said.

“Our waiver tells us that we can’t fly in wind speeds over 10 mph,” Cunningham said. “Though it is not totally unsafe to fly, but you’re not going to put 60 balloons up in those kinds of conditions. One or two may be able to go up and have plenty of separation and room to move around, but any more might run a real risk of colliding with each other.”

And when the balloons go up, there is an airplane and a helicopter in the air to watch for balloons in distress, while boats are below on the river and chase teams follow them on the ground.

“A plane might spot a potential accident sooner or fly in a little lower to see if everyone is alright after a hard landing,” Cunningham said. “The boats are there on the river and able to go into one of the low-lying areas like Anna’s Bottom if someone lands in a swampy area.”

But even before they go up in the air, a pilot does a number of safety checks.

The first is to check the gas burner in the basket for leaks, which the flame could in turn ignite and cause an onboard fire.

“An onboard fire is normally uncontrollable,” Pilot Relations Coordinator Stephen Guido said. “If you have an onboard fire and you can’t jump out of the basket, you’re probably going to die.”

With an onboard fire, it is unlikely someone will be close enough to the ground to safely jump because uncontrolled heat will cause the balloon to ascend quickly — even as it is burning, Guido said.

The next step pilots take is to make sure everything is hooked to the basket properly.

“If you go to inflate the balloon and it’s not hooked up properly, the envelope will take off without the basket and break the (gas) hose, and then you’ll have another uncontrolled fire,” Guido said.

Next, pilots fill the envelope with cold air using a large fan and inspect it. Once everything is cleared, they fill the balloon with hot air and are ready to fly.

But they still have to do some weight and balance calculations, including what the outside temperature is and what the people who are going to be flying weigh. That way, they can figure out how much heat will be needed to lift the balloon with its occupants, or even if all of the occupants will be allowed to fly.

“If you put too much heat in it, you can cause the fabric of the envelope to rip,” Guido said. “That doesn’t usually happen, but too much heat will lessen the life of the fabric.”

After that, pilots need to do a “vent check,” where they make sure they aren’t losing heat out of an unclosed vent at the top of the balloon.

“A few years ago, we had a guy who didn’t do that, and he had a false lift, but once he got into the air he started going down, and eventually the power company was rescuing him from an oak tree,” Guido said.

Once in the air, pilots need to be aware of where they are and what obstacles might be coming up.

“As a rule of thumb, it takes 20 seconds for a balloon to react after the pilot puts heat in it,” Guido said. “They need to actually fly the balloon at ‘where do I want to be in a quarter mile?’”

With landing, it’s just a matter of knowing where they are going to put down.

“You don’t want to land anywhere behind a locked gate or in the middle of someone’s crops where you’re going to damage the surface,” Guido said.

All pilots are licensed by the FAA and are aware of what they need to do to have a safe flight, Guido said.

“Overall, it’s a safe sport.”