Aftermath: Nothing Over My Head
In March 2012 in southern Georgia, a hot-air balloon was sucked into a thunderstorm. Carried to 17,000 feet in an updraft, battered by 1-inch hail, its fabric envelope tore open and collapsed. Only four days later did searchers finally locate it in a forested area miles from the launch point. Large clumps of compacted hail were still enfolded among the ruins of the envelope. Though the open wicker gondola was practically undamaged, the pilot in it was dead.
News media, as well as the balloonist’s many friends and admirers, adopted an heroic scenario in which the balloonist, who was carrying seven skydivers, climbed to an altitude from which he was certain they could jump safely, then told them to jump, sacrificing himself to save them.
The National Transportation Safety Board took a somewhat more dry-eyed view of the accident. The cause, it declared, was “the pilot’s intentional flight into adverse weather. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s failure to obtain a weather briefing and his failure to follow the balloon manufacturer’s published emergency procedure for weather deterioration during flight.” The manufacturer’s emergency procedure alluded to is colorfully phrased: “Land immediately rather than fly into severe atmospheric turmoil.”
Neither view, in my opinion, captures the nuances of this accident.
The “hero saves parachutists, sacrifices self” version doesn’t make much sense. The standard minimum altitude for deploying a sport parachute is 2,000 feet. The first group of three jumpers left the gondola at above 5,000 feet, the rest above 6,000. The jumpers were never in danger. Clearly, if it had been purely a matter of ensuring everyone’s safety, the pilot could have sent them out much earlier or could simply have aborted the mission when it became apparent that a thunderstorm was building nearby and the balloon was heading toward it.
The NTSB’s finding that the pilot failed to obtain a weather briefing is probably misleading. To begin with, balloons are flown only in a very limited range of conditions, light surface winds being a basic requirement for getting inflated and airborne in the first place. Furthermore, a balloon flight with skydivers is not like a cross-country flight in an airplane. The balloonist is concerned with weather in his immediate vicinity — in other words, with what he can see with his own eyes.
The information that the NTSB apparently supposes the pilot overlooked or ignored was a convective sigmet covering a long, narrow quadrilateral with the launch site in the acute angle of its extreme southwest corner. But a sigmet merely warns of possible conditions over a large region; one frequently flies through sigmet areas, circumnavigating isolated storms. The pilot had already made several previous flights that day and was quite aware of the local conditions.
As practitioners of extreme sports often do, the seven skydivers had brought along their video cameras, and the entire final flight, until the departure of the last jumper, was covered with a thoroughness that would have done credit to Cecil B. DeMille. Some of the footage, edited into a tribute to the late pilot, may be found on YouTube in the video below.