Updated: Balloon Crash Kills Four


Four people died, including the pilot, and one is critically injured after a hot-air balloon crash in Eloy, Arizona, about halfway between Tucson and Phoenix, on Sunday. The balloon, identified on Monday by the National Transportation Safety Board as a Czech Republic-made Kubicek BB 85, took off with 13 people in the basket, including eight skydivers. After the skydivers jumped “something catastrophic occurred with the balloon, causing it to crash to the ground,” said Eloy Police Chief Byron Gwaltney at a news conference. It would appear the skydivers’ departure was planned and not in response to problems with the balloon.

Eloy Mayor Micah Powell told reporters witnesses said the canopy was deflated and the basket hit hard on the desert. The five people left in the basket included four passengers and the pilot. According to the Kubicek website, the BB 85Z has a volume of 300,000 cubic feet and can carry 12 to 16 passengers in addition to the pilot, identified by police as 37-year-old Cornelius Van Der Walt, founder and owner of Droplyne Hot Air Balloon Rides.

(A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the make and model of the balloon based on a since-corrected early NTSB statement.)

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.


  1. Did one of the divers somehow snag the “rip cord” (not the right name for the line that deflates the envelope, i know) on the way out?

    • No. The balloon envelope maneuvering vent line (“rip cord”) is not in the way of the jumpers. The picture attached to this story is probably just a stock photo of a hot air balloon. Was a 23 year skydiver and hot air balloons have been jumped often for years. As a retired A&P my bet is that too much burner may have weakened the envelope or there was a problem with the propane fuel system but hopefully the critically injured occupant will survive and be able to shed some light on this tragedy.

  2. Like many aircraft accidents too many scenarios to speculate requiring further investigation. Assuming a planned departure of at least 8 skydivers, an important factor will be how the PIC set up for their departure. The departure of that many skydivers would make the balloon very buoyant if already stabilized at a fixed altitude. Did the skydivers depart one after another or in mass? Did the PIC put the balloon into a decent anticipating the added buoyancy with each skydiver’s departure. Did the PIC vent the balloon with each skydivers departure to maintain constant bouyancy? One of the most hazardous of scenarios would be if the balloon was stabilized at a level altitude and all the skydivers all departed at the same time. The balloon would become very buoyant causing it to ascent rapidly. In this situation the envelope would mushroom possibly effecting the integrity of the deflation port or open up a weakened section of the envelope. Once the deflation port is dislodged or the envelope is ripped there are very few options for a safe recovery. in another scenario the PIC may have vented the balloon with each skydivers departure. If the PIC over vented the balloon it would descend. To arrest this decent would require more heat from the burners. If the burners failed, the pilot would be unable to arrest the decent. I had a total burner failure when my pilot lights went out due to contaminated propane. Fortunately at tree level in preparation for landing and settled on the treetops until I was able to hand light the burners. This would be a more harrowing situation at higher altitude. Although a fire has not been mentioned, that is also a big consideration with its own set of variables. A very sad day for the tight knit community of skydivers and balloonists.

    • Thanks for your perspective. My only experience was as a skydiver. In my random sample of one balloon jump, the pilot took us to altitude, then allowed the balloon to cool and start descending before giving us the jump signal. He said it was to compensate for the four of us “self-loading ballast” exiting at once.

    • Many years ago I did a balloon jump at Eloy. The balloon had a capacity for at least 10 persons. We had 8 skydivers on board. The pilot was adamant that no one jumped until he was ready and no more than 2 at a time. All the things that Mr Elves mentions about balloon configuration are things the pilot briefed us on prior to loading. It will be interesting to find out what happened on this flight. RIP and speedy recovery to those involved.

    • Just wondering as I don’t know the rules for balloon’s, but in fixed wing aircraft all on board Have to be wearing a parachute when they are doing Skydiving. Were the others on board just not able to get out in time??

      • Only on planes that have that requirement in the stc used (C180, 182, 185, P206). C208 does not have a requirement for everyone to wear a rig even though not jumping in the POH.

    • Those are some really good points. If all the skydivers left at once it would just go up very quickly. Will be interesting to see if the survivor can add anything to it.

  3. Not being a balloon “sailor” but I think Robert Elves nailed it. A mass jump from the basket would shoot the envelope upwards, deforming it like a sudden released toy balloon, spilling its hot air.
    But we will see the final report in many months. Tragic anyhow.

    • On a rapid ascent in a round balloon can have heated air escape from the bottom of the envelop (the balloon shaped part) but this air is quickly replaced as the balloon regains shape and the burner is activated to heat that new air. Racing balloons are streamlined football shaped instead of round to minimize air loss with rapid ascents and decents required in finding favorable winds for shorter flight times, longer distances, and in targeting landing zones.

  4. Accidents cause regulation. Predict individual or basket BRS chute requirement for jump flights like this will be next.

    • In a way a hot air balloon is its own BRS acting as a large parachute which is very draggy. The basket portion is built to cushion landing impacts. Even with a rip in the envelope (the balloon portion) a safe landing can still be made by constantly running the burners to replace and heat the escaping air.

  5. As a former skydiver and present owner of 2 balloons, I have dropped skydivers. Common advice for balloon pilots is to “let the envelope cool before the drop, to the point where you are flying level–THEN drop the skydivers”–the thought being that the balloon will ascend when the skydivers leave. That’s TRUE–but you are left with a cold envelope–then balloon ascends with the loss of the weight, and when it does start descending, the air coming up from below in the descent causes the bottom of the envelope to narrow–making it difficult to fire the burner without burning the throat of the balloon.

    I let the balloon stabilize first, then fired the burner to keep the temperature up in the envelope AND to maintain the shape of the throat of the balloon–from there, it was a normal descent. Yes, I gained several hundred feet, but never had an issue of the throat of the balloon closing as air rushed up from below.