A few weeks ago in Virginia three people were killed when the hot-air balloon in which they were riding clipped a power line, causing the gondola to explode into flames.
The heat of the fire sent the balloon soaring higher until it, too, burst into flames, finally separating from the gondola, sending the fully-engulfed basket and its passengers crashing to the ground. Killed were the pilot and two members of the University of Richmond women’s basketball program.
Cause of the crash? Pilot error, the National Traffic Safety Board has ruled. As the pilot brought the balloon in for a landing, the NTSB said, he tried to avoid oncoming power lines by making a quick ascent. Unfortunately, it was not quick enough.
The pilot’s friends and family were stunned that such a thing could happen with him in control of the balloon.
The truth, though, is that no pilot truly has control of his or her balloon. Sometimes, the balloon controls itself and there is little even the best pilot can do. I learned this firsthand.
Although I laugh about my experience now, stories like the one above remind me just how close I may have come to a similar fate.
Each July the grounds of Kent State University’s Stark County campus play host to the Balloon Classic, held in conjunction with other festivities. The Canton paper gives a lot of play to the event and I volunteered to go up in a balloon and write about something I’d never experienced. The thought of drifting silently over miles of countryside on a idyllic summer afternoon was appealing. I never once gave a thought to the possibility of trouble, not even when I had to sign a waiver before I could go aloft.
The balloon I was assigned to ride was the world’s largest hot-air balloon, the Energizer bunny. I don’t recall exactly how big it was, but it was at least three times taller than anything else there. Imagine an eraser on the end of a pencil. Now imagine that eraser below a huge helium balloon like you can buy for a birthday. That’s how tiny the gondola was in relation to the balloon.
Before I climbed aboard, our pilot explained that wind is the key to directing the balloon. All pilots check the latest wind speed, direction and weather prior to their flight. If the weather isn’t almost perfect, they won’t launch.
On this day, the weather was perfect. It was time to go. I got into the basket with two college students who were in touch with a team of trackers in a van below. Getting into the gondola was harder than you’d think. There was no ladder; instead our pilot pulled the basket on its side so that we were able to clamber in.
Once aboard, I began to quiz the pilot for my story. His response was drowned out by a sudden, deafening roar that gave me a virtual heart attack. It was the propane-fueled burner igniting, so that heat from the flames would keep the balloon inflated until we were ready to cast off.
“How often does this come on?” I shouted at my host.
“Quite a bit of the time” he yelled back. “With a balloon this big, you’ve got to keep that fire going” All thoughts of a quiet, peaceful trip vanished immediately.
At last it was time to ascend. All moorings were removed and the balloon shot immediately into the air, rocking the gondola with so much force as it straightened beneath the inflatable that I feared I might be tossed out.
We soared over the Belden Village Mall near Canton and, as I got used to the roar of the burner, I began to enjoy the view from on high. I was amazed by the amount of water on the roofs of buildings, mostly condensation from air conditioners straining to keep up with the heat.
Just as I was finally relaxed, the pilot shouted, “We’ve got to find a place to put down, NOW!” The urgency in his voice was unmistakable. Still, I thought he was joking. “You’re kidding, right?” I asked hopefully. “We only took off five minutes ago”
“I’m not kidding” he said. “Our balloon is in a different stratosphere than the rest and the winds aren’t blowing the way they were supposed to. We’re way off course and heading in the wrong direction. This thing is huge and the places we can put it down are limited. We have to find a wide open space and soon”
“We have plenty of fuel, don’t we?” I asked. “And if we run out, we just float gently down, right?”
“Wrong, wrong” he yelled. “I didn’t expect us to have to travel far, so we don’t have a whole lot of propane. And when we run out, down we come, bang”
We headed south and crossed U.S. 30. Our guide spotted an open field and yelled that he was setting us down quick, that we needed to hang on because the landing was going to be rough.
As we descended, a row of power lines came into view. “If we hit those, we’ve had it” said our pilot, who seemed to know the exact words to calm all our fears.
We heard him swear and we all looked in fear as the wires seemed to loom inches away. In reality we missed them by five feet -- at most. Then the basket slammed into the ground, rocked back and forth and settled still. Everyone jumped out immediately in case the balloon itself, which was still descending, settled on the wires. The huge inflatable slowly drooped to the ground as the hot air escaped and fluttered safely onto the field, away from the power lines.
We were on the ground and alive.
The only difference between our balloon and the one that burned and crashed in Virginia was a few feet.
And instead of a tragedy, I wound up with a great story to tell.
I only wish the people in Virginia had been able to tell us their tale as well.