Aftermath: Nothing Over My Head

A hot-air balloon pilot goes missing in a thunderstorm.

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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.

The storm that would swallow the balloon is glimpsed at the start of the video as a gleaming tower of white cumulus against the background of a benign blue sky. In the jolly chaos of launching in a freshening breeze, its portentous presence is seemingly ignored. The red, white and black balloon, 67 feet high and levitated by 105,000 cubic feet of heated air, then rises obliquely toward the cloud.

Between the drift of the balloon and the expansion of the storm, by the time the balloon had reached 5,380 feet it was floating close beneath a shelf of gray cloud. The pilot was aware of the nearby storm; a warning had been relayed to him by the ground crew. Besides, it looked somewhat menacing: In the video, one helmet camera repeatedly swings aside to settle for a moment upon gray columns of rain and shadow. Though the altitude is lower than originally planned, a cameraman pushes off on his back, facing the gondola, followed by two jumpers. A moment later the pilot is heard asking his ground crew whether the storm is building or dissipating; they tell him it is growing rapidly.

The balloon continues to ascend. Two more jumpers go out at 6,280 feet, now in cloud. On footage recorded by the camera of one of the last two jumpers, the pilot is seen gesturing impatiently; he seems to be telling them to go without further delay. That is the last we see of the pilot and the gondola.

All of the jumpers reach the landing zone safely. One says to another, “It was choppy up there, huh?” “Yeah,” the other replies. “That was sick. In a storm.”

“Sick” means “great” when you’ve gotten tired of saying “awesome.”

According to the crew chief, while the balloon was still visible from the ground the pilot radioed that he would try to climb above the storm, whose size and power he clearly underestimated; its towering core was hidden from his view. After the balloon disappeared into the cloud base, the ground crew headed in the general direction that the storm was moving while receiving continuous updates from the pilot.

Attempting to top the storm, the pilot reported from 8,000 feet that the winds were strong and swirling and “this [is] not going to be good.” At 12,000 feet he had given up hope of climbing over. He was in heavy hail and rising rapidly in an updraft. “He went from 15,000 to 17,000 much quicker,” the crew chief later reported, “than he had been calling out 1,000-foot increments.”

Then the pilot’s voice altered. The balloon had collapsed and was falling now, and again and again, as he called out his altitude, he said, “I’ve got nothing over my head.” He did not release the transmit key. The crew chief listened helplessly to the litany of diminishing altitudes until at last the pilot said, “I am at 2,000 feet I see trees I’m in the trees I am at 1,000 feet I am not gonna make it I’m sorry.”

Desperately pursuing the balloon through torrents of rain and hail, the chase car crashed into a ditch. Four inches of hailstones the size of walnuts accumulated on the ground in two minutes. In the half-hour bracketing the accident, meteorological recording equipment tallied over 1,000 lighting strikes beneath the storm, which rapidly reached Level 5 or 6 intensity — severe to extreme — with tops at 37,000 feet. The storm then dissipated just as quickly.

There is nothing in the video to suggest that the jumpers had any inkling that their flight would put the pilot at risk. The pilot, evidently reluctant to disappoint his excited passengers, kept the knowledge of the danger to himself. The risk was all his. He did not deliberately sacrifice himself to save them; he optimistically and generously miscalculated the risk he was running in providing them with the jumps they had anticipated.

The image of a single man in an open wicker basket at 17,000 feet in a thunderstorm is hard to get out of one’s mind. It is the quintessence of tragic solitude, like a sailor lost overboard in a raging sea or a space explorer marooned on a receding asteroid. No longer merely a man, he is a metaphor for our worst fears of defeat and abandonment. There is an epic grandeur in that, but still — poor guy!

This article is based on the NTSB’s report of the accident and is intended to bring the issues raised to our readers’ attention. It is not intended to judge or to reach any definitive conclusions about the ability or capacity of any person, living or dead, or any aircraft or accessory.

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