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Hot Air Balloon Losses

Hot Air Balloon Losses

Background

A hot air balloon is certainly a serene and peaceful way to enjoy a bird's eye view of nature at its best. There are many factors, however, that can contribute to a less than tranquil ride. A skilled balloon pilot who understands the meteorological and geographic variables will improve the chances of a trouble free landing.

Balloon pilots must be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) since the aircraft pose a risk to general aviation and commercial airplanes if operated improperly.

Being non-powered, there is little steering capability for these craft, leaving them almost entirely at the mercy of winds. A balloon is an "aerostat," meaning that it is static in the air mass in which it floats. The only way a pilot can steer is by controlling the altitude to try and find an air mass moving in a different direction. That weakness explains the occasional collisions with buildings, trees, and most unfortunately, high tension electrical lines. Any of these can kill or injure, but electrical transmission lines are the most troubling, since some carry voltages up to 750,000 volts - capable of traveling down even good insulating materials like fabric balloon envelopes, support lines, and baskets.

Because thermal and wind conditions are generally calmer near dawn and dusk, most balloons usually fly within 2-3 hours of sunrise or sunset. In the northern hemisphere, the prevailing wind direction is from the west. This can make spotting obstructions (especially smaller power lines) during a morning landing very difficult since the balloonist will be looking directly into the sun.

In addition, as balloon festivals have become more common, traffic and collisions are more likely. A balloon has the right of way over any other aircraft (except a distressed aircraft) and in the company of other balloons, the right of way belongs to the lower balloon since its pilot cannot see a balloon above it.

The hot air in balloons is generated from a burner powered by liquefied propane gas (LPG.) Thus fire and explosions are a concern as are severe freezes (LPG's boiling temperature is -44F.)

Balloon Incidents

For the period from 1993 through 1997, the United States NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) recorded a total of 99 balloon accidents, 7 of which resulted in fatalities. Examples of some of these incidents are summarized below:
  • 12/6/97 - Gallup, NM: fatal accident when ground crew member hung onto basket during an unintentional ascent, then falling from a 40 foot height
  • 10/10/97 - Albuquerque, NM: passenger fractured ankle during hard landing
  • 9/1/94 - Storm Lake, IA: downdraft from thunderstorm caused very hard landing
  • 3/3/96 - Vidalia, LA: crewmember seriously injured when a handline became entangled in the inflation fan
  • 6/9/96 - San Angelo, TX: basket struck a tree on landing, breaking pilot's foot
  • 4/13/97 - San Diego, CA: pilot descended rapidly to avoid power lines, striking ground hard and ejecting all occupants from basket

For a similar 5 year period, the NTSB reported a total of 9,417 accidents for general aviation (fixed wing aircraft,) 1,763 of which included fatalities.

Besides the above, for the same period of time, there were 23 balloon "incidents" reported to the FAA, contrasted to a total of 73,341 for all aircraft. These are generally far less serious than those investigated by the NTSB (above). The incidents summarized below are typical:
  1. Colorado - gusty winds caused minor impact with a house.
  2. New Mexico - balloon draped over powerline while landing causing minor electrical shocks to the passengers and crew
  3. Las Vegas - balloon struck wall and house. Student pilot was practicing landing
  4. Hot air balloon had helium filled bladders to increase lift. At altitude, one or more burst, reducing lift and causing a gradual descent with minor injuries.
  5. Florida - rain shower put out the pilot light, which could not be reignited. Balloon descended to a riverbank with minor injuries to one passenger.

Based on the above, it might appear that balloons are a much safer recreational pursuit than fixed wing aircraft. An annual average of 20 balloon accidents compared to almost 1,900 general aviation aircraft accidents makes it difficult to reach another conclusion. Difficult, that is, until one compares usage. Not surprisingly, balloons are used far less than general aircraft. From 1996 to 1997 the NTSB reports the following:

General Aviation
Year# of Accidents# of FatalitiesFlight HoursAccidents per 100,000 Hours
19971,85164125,464,0007.27
19961,90963224,881,0007.67
Total3,7601,27350,345,0007.47

Balloons
Year# of Accidents# of FatalitiesFlight HoursAccidents per 100,000 Hours
199717248,70034.90
199622268,00032.37
Total394116,70033.62

Although the number of balloon accidents is much lower, the rate per flight hour is over four times that for general aviation aircraft. Granted, this may not be indicative of an inherent frequency problem with balloon accidents, but it does help put into perspective the low annual number of incidents relative to other aircraft. Balloons are certainly not as trouble free as they appear.

From a severity standpoint, given the low number of balloon accidents and fatalities, any statistical analysis would not be meaningful, but descriptions of several large balloon losses appear below.

Villegas v. Aerostar International, Inc.
CA Napa
Incident Date:08/90
Trial Date: 08/92
Defense Verdict
Primary Injury: Knee Cartilage
General Liability: Products Liability
Specific Liability: Aircraft Design
A 41-year-old male hot air balloon pilot suffered a torn medial meniscus of the right knee, requiring three arthroscopic surgeries, with residual knee problems and possible future surgeries, when the hot air balloon that he was piloting, manufactured by the defendant balloon company, was forced by weather conditions to make an emergency landing, and a portion of the floor of the basket of the balloon broke away. The plaintiff contended that the basket was defectively designed with an overhang which caught on the ground and ripped the portion of the floor away, causing his leg to protrude and his knee to be injured. The defendant contended that the basket was not negligently or defectively designed, and that it had been tested and approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. The defendant further contended that the flooring of a basket had never separated or ripped before, and that the design was sufficient to withstand normal impact on landing. The defendant maintained that the plaintiff was negligent in attempting to fly the balloon in microburst weather conditions and that the plaintiff failed to follow emergency landing procedures recommended by the defendant.

Swanson; Langeness v. Geneva Chamber of Commerce; Schmidt; James
IL Kane
Incident Date:06/94
Filing Date: 05/95
Trial Date: 06/98
Plaintiff Verdict
Primary Injury: Lumbar Vertebra Fracture
Secondary Injury: Foot Fracture, Burns
General Liability: Business Negligence
Specific Liability: Inadequate Service
Compensatory Pain and Suffering Award: $1,500,000
Compensatory Past Medical Award: $230,000
Compensatory Past Wage Loss Award: $20,000
Future Wages: $35,000
Other Compensatory Award: $135,0000
Compensatory Award: $3,135,000
Total Verdict Award: $3,135,000
A 62-year-old male suffered an exploded vertebral fracture at L-1, a high impact left foot fracture and burns when he jumped from a hot air balloon, owned and piloted by the third named defendant, after it had accidentally flown into power lines. The incident took place at an undisclosed event run by the defendant. The plaintiff contended that the defendant negligently to utilize adequate safety measures in order to ensure the safety of the patrons at the event. The plaintiff further contended that the co-defendant, who was the organizer of the event, was negligent in hiring the third named defendant to pilot the balloon despite the fact that he had only fifty hours of experience. The defendants denied any negligence and contended that the accident was unavoidable due to an extremely strong gust of wind. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff and awarded compensatory damages in the amount of $3.135 million for past and future pain and suffering, medical expenses and lost wages. This case involved a second plaintiff who was also injured in the incident and who was awarded a total of $ 2.435 million by the jury.

Langeness; Swanson v. Geneva Chamber of Commerce; Schmidt; James
IL Kane
Incident Date:06/94
Filing Date: 05/95
Trial Date: 06/98
Plaintiff Verdict
Primary Injury: Leg Nerve Damage
Secondary Injury: Burn to Leg, Hip Fracture, Tibia Fracture, Wrist Fracture, Vertebra Fractures, Pelvic Fracture, Sacrum Fracture
General Liability: Business Negligence
Specific Liability: Inadequate Service
Compensatory Pain and Suffering Award: $1,100,000
Compensatory Past Medical Award: $275,000
Compensatory Past Wage Loss Award: $40,000
Future Wages: $70,000
Other Compensatory Award: $950,000
Compensatory Award: $2,435,000
Total Verdict Award: $2,435,000
A 54-year-old male suffered fractures of the left hip, right tibia, wrist, pelvis and sacrum, compression vertebral fractures of L-1 and L-4 and second and third degree burns of the leg requiring ten surgeries after he jumped from a hot air balloon, owned and piloted by the third named defendant, which had accidentally flown into power lines. The incident occurred during an event that was run by the defendant chamber of commerce. The plaintiff contended that the defendant negligently failed to utilize adequate safety measures in order to ensure the safety of its patrons. The plaintiff further contended that the co-defendant, who was the event's organizer, was negligent in hiring the third named defendant to pilot the hot air balloon despite the fact that he had only fifty hours of experience. The defendants denied any negligence and contended that the accident was unavoidable because the balloon was forced into the power lines by an extremely strong gust of wind. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff and awarded compensatory damages in the amount of $2.435 million for past and future pain and suffering, past and future medical expenses and past and future lost income. This case involved a second plaintiff who was injured in the accident and received a total of $3.135 million in compensatory damages from the jury.

McGrath, Estate of v. Purdy; Wohler; Goosey
MO Jackson
Incident Date:06/91
Filing Date: 10/92
Date Settled: 01/93
Death
General Liability: Personal Negligence
Specific Liability: Sports Activity
Nonverdict Award: $115,000
A male died when he fell from a hot air balloon. The plaintiff contended that the defendants failed to warn of the danger and failed to supervise the balloon flight properly. The decedent was survived by his wife.

 
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