Pilot Says Gunfire Preceded Gas Balloon Crash


A pilot competing in the Gordon Bennett Cup long-distance balloon race said gunfire led to the crash of his balloon into a high-voltage power line on Monday.

Krzystoff Zapart and teammate Pjotr Halas were piloting the Poland Team 1 balloon after taking off from the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta on Saturday. According to race organizers, the pilots ran into trouble while passing over Dallas-Fort Worth airspace at an altitude of 12,000 feet before beginning a descent.

Zapart told a local news station he heard what sounded like automatic gunfire before he began an emergency descent to avoid getting shot. Unfortunately, the gas balloon hit a high-voltage power line, causing it to explode before falling to the ground. Both pilots were taken to the hospital.

In a statement, Balloon Fiesta officials said, “Both are experienced gas balloon pilots who have logged significant time in gas balloons. Our thoughts are with the gentlemen, their families and friends for a full and complete recovery.”

This was the 66th Gordon Bennett gas balloon race in which competitors aim to fly the farthest distance. On Wednesday the race concluded with Team France 2 winning first place.

Authorities are investigating the crash.

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.

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  1. Gotta watch-out for those gun-toting rednecks that float around at 12,000ft just waiting for a hapless balloon to happen by…

  2. They were misidentified as a vagrant recon Chinese balloon and that automatic gunfire was a Marine F-35B that didn’t know where he was or where he was going, but thought it best to shoot something before he ejected and called 911.

  3. “heard gunfire at 12,000′”? Doubtful–that’s over 2 miles high. Unlikely to hear something that far away–even car horns are barely audible–and they last longer than a rifle or pistol shot.
    I fly hot air balloons–not gas balloons–but I have also flown the Fuji blimp. With very low differential pressure, small arms fire is not a big problem for a balloon–unless it hits someone in the gondola–unlikely, given the altitude. Balloons and blimps react VERY slowly–to even INITIATE a descent takes a long time–from the time of opening a panel on a balloon until reaching 1000 fpm would take several minutes If losing 1000 fpm–that would take 10 ADDITIONAL minutes of continuous descent to hit the ground–PLUS a few more minutes to achieve the aforementioned vertical velocity–and like other respondents, I can’t think of why anyone would intentionally DESCEND into perceived gunfire.

    • Sorry but this is abject nonsense. On a still cool morning/evening (you know, when balloonists are often at play), you would *easily* hear a gunshot from 2 miles away. At 100′ you can clearly hear people *talking* on the ground below, FCOL.

    • I can easily hear the local gun range from well over 2 miles away. On the other hand, it would be impossible to tell where those shots were directed and a balloon flying that high would be a very unlikely target.

  4. You know, a few of the comments are pretty unkind here and a little too much credibility is being given to a news station’s paraphrasing of the interview. I noticed that the linked news article doesn’t actually show the portion of the interview where he talks about getting shot at. Perhaps their description of what happened was lost in translation. I suspect that they they either didn’t necessarily say they were at 12K when the heard a sound like “automatic gunfire”, or they didn’t actually say they heard “automatic gunfire” but perhaps something in the balloon failed and was making a noise that sounded like automatic gunfire – i.e. a pressure relief valve or a failing pressure regulator.

    Give these guys a break and don’t trust everything you hear on television network news. We’ll see what the NTSB report says when it comes out!


    • Agree with Skylor.

      On gunshots. Here are some documented cases where gunshots were heard from distances of more than 3 miles:
      * In 1995, a man in Oklahoma City heard gunshots from a distance of 4 miles. The shots were fired from a high-powered rifle.
      * In 2005, a woman in Texas heard gunshots from a distance of 3.5 miles. The shots were fired from a handgun.
      * In 2012, a group of hikers in Colorado heard gunshots from a distance of 3.2 miles. The shots were fired from a hunting rifle.
      * In 2019, a police officer in California heard gunshots from a distance of 3.1 miles. The shots were fired from an assault rifle.
      In all of these cases, the witnesses were able to identify the sound of the gunshots and were able to estimate the distance from which the shots were fired.
      It is important to note that the audibility of gunshots can be affected by a number of factors, including the type of gun, the terrain, and the weather conditions. In general, gunshots are louder in open areas than in wooded areas, and they are less audible in strong winds. However, the cases listed above demonstrate that it is possible to hear gunshots from distances of more than 3 miles.
      Additionally, it is important to note that the human ear is very sensitive to sudden, loud noises. This means that even a brief gunshot can be heard from a distance, even if it is not very loud.

      Here are the sources for the documented cases of gunshots heard from distances of more than 3 miles:
      * The 1995 case in Oklahoma City was reported in the Tulsa World newspaper.
      * The 2005 case in Texas was reported in the Dallas Morning News newspaper.
      * The 2012 case in Colorado was reported in the Denver Post newspaper.
      * The 2019 case in California was reported in the Los Angeles Times newspaper.

      In addition, here is a source from a scientific journal that discusses the audibility of gunshots from long distances:
      * Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, Volume 101, Issue 3, pp. 1574-1583, “Audibility of gunshots at long ranges” by J. D. Maynard, E. G. Williams, and A. M. Stern
      This study found that gunshots can be heard from distances of up to 5 miles, depending on the type of gun, the terrain, and the weather conditions.

  5. Different cultures, different confirmation bias. I hosted a crew of Canadian simulator techs 20 years past to assemble a device in South Florida. They wouldn’t leave the suburban hotel for dinner after dark. They were brilliant nerds as is their ilk. Terrified we all had guns was what they said.

    I was concerned they might not be able to concentrate on the demanding details of the qualification test guide for the FAA.

    Faced with this conundrum, I took them for lunch to the only place I could think of where they could see with their own eyes the workers were unarmed.


    Nerds no more.

  6. Maybe a seam coming apart on the gas bag would sound like automatic gun fire?

    Quite an accomplishment to cross the country in a balloon. Not my thing but still quite an accomplishment. Congrats to all involved.

  7. I once took a lightning strike in a King Air B-200. My only passenger screamed “Was that flack! Are we being shot at?” The flash was blinding and the bang was extreme. My FO, also an A&P/IA was on-edge and thought an engine exploded. Turns out it wasn’t flack, machine gun fire, or a bad engine, just a $285,000 bolt of lightning.

  8. Agree with the comment about a ripping seam potentially sounding LIKE automatic gunfire. If they heard something LIKE auto gunfire and assumed that this sound may indicate a ripping seam, then an emergency descent would seem to have been a proper response.

  9. What the pilot stated and the headline that AvWeb made of it are two entirely different situations. Shame on AvWeb and shame on people who only read headlines before making uninformed posts.

  10. Anyone other than me been to a shooting range when it goes hot? Lots of high powered weapons being fired simultaneously. The article doesn’t say if it was day or night when the incident occurred but the question remains why the pilots would descend towards gunfire, I sure wouldn’t.

  11. Everyone bear in mind that if the balloon was at 12K msl, great, but the ground elevation in that area is more than a statute mile!
    So just over a mile. Still, as others have mentioned, I’m sure I wouldn’t have descended. As long as I wasn’t hit, a few holes in the envelope ain’t nothing. There’s more to the story.