In a bizarre series of crashes that may have been caused by unforecast winds, multiple passengers were injured in the crash of three hot balloons in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, on Monday. At least one of the victims was airlifted to a hospital in nearby Idaho Falls, according to The Associated Press. Other victims sustained a range of injuries after all three balloons were dragged by high winds during landings.
The balloons were operated by the same company, the Wyoming Balloon Company, and were carrying about 38 passengers in three aircraft. The president of the company, Andrew Breffeilh, told The New York Times that the forecast called for light winds, but that gusts were “outside the forecast.” He said the balloon pilots made high-wind landings in response to the gusts. “High-wind landings happen every day,” he told the Times Monday night.
Although balloons normally skid and bounce during such landings, the winds were strong enough to drag the balloons as far as 300 feet during the landings. “That’s a pretty long drag,” Breffeilh said. A spokesman for the FAA, Allen Kenitzer, said, “each balloon landed hard under unknown circumstances in Teton Village” shortly before 8 a.m. Monday. The local sheriff estimated that all three balloons touched down in an area about a third of a mile long.
It’s not yet known how many were injured in the crashes. Passenger Clinton Phillips, who was aboard one of the balloons with his family, said they rolled out of the balloon basket after touchdown and that everyone in his family was limping. He said his son thought he had a concussion and his wife’s ribs were broken. Both the FAA and the NTSB are investigating the incident.
I own and fly balloons, as well as high-performance aircraf, seaplanes, gliders, and helicopters. Every form of aviation has its benefits and dangers–and high winds are a potential danger for balloonists. There is no “Plan B” for high winds for balloonists–the only option is “don’t launch.”
That said, since balloons can’t “go to an alternate landing site”–there are only two options–a good landing site directly downwind, or DO NOT LAUNCH. It appears that there WAS an excellent landing site downwind in the photo (though it doesn’t say how long the balloons were up)–the rest of the surrounding terrain is unlandable, so perhaps the pilots figured that into their decision to launch.
300 feet is NOT “a long drag.” Here in the Midwest, where it is OFTEN windy, it can be the norm. Landing in high winds, balloons normally intentionally land vertically hard to minimize drag, and pull the deflation panels to stay down. Most people have no idea of the inertia of balloons–even lighter ones weigh several hundred pounds, plus the weight of the passengers and fuel (see below). Try to stop a pickup truck weighing that much at 10 mph. The air INSIDE the envelope ALSO has “weight”–that air is moving at the speed of the balloon. In our much smaller balloons with 78,000 cubic feet of volume, that air weighs about 6300 pounds–the combined weight of the air, basket, and envelope would be in excess of 7100 pounds–WiTHOUT the weight of the passengers! Stopping that much weight takes a long time and distance! Not knowing the exact model of envelope, I’ll use the largest I’ve encountered (due to the large number of passengers–below)–280,000 cubic feet. That translates to 22,600 pounds of air!
Was it “unforecast high winds”? It’s hard to know, without reviewing the forecast–the story doesn’t mention the forecast–HOWEVER–look at the glassy water on the ponds in the photo–not a breath of wind–but we don’t know how long afterward the aerial photo was taken. It couldn’t have been VERY long afterward, however, as the balloons were still in the field, and there are still cars parked there. The fact that the pilots not only agreed to launch, but were ABLE to launch (balloons are difficult to launch in high winds–most pilots use 8 knots as the limit–I tell student pilots “If you can HEAR the wind, that is 8 knots–do not launch.”) 8 knots is easily landable for balloons. All of this would support the claim of unforecast winds–they certainly were not that high when they tried to inflate and launch. Let’s not be like the common Press, and blame the pilots before the facts are known.
A big (but unmentioned) part of the story–38 PASSENGERS (they don’t say if that included the 3 pilots) in 3 balloons! Twelve to Fourteen people in each balloon–That’s far too many people to put in baskets, unrestrained. That’s too many for a pilot to supervise–they are unrestrained–and on landing, passengers are often thrown about–or have parts of their bodies sticking out of the basket. Some balloon baskets have dividing walls to help restrain the crush of bodies during landings–but that isn’t totally effective. I believe that there should be a limit on the number of passengers above a certain number (perhaps 6, including the pilot)–just as there are different regulations concerning the number of passenger seats and equipment on commuter aircraft and airliners.
Not looking to add condemnation on the pilots or the sport–just to add context.
Thanks for those details, and also for highlighting what caught my eye as well – 38 passengers! It reminded me of the July 2016 balloon crash that killed all 16 people in the ONE balloon. While I don’t like the idea of more regulation, it’s a thing that makes you go “hmmm…” (as the old song goes).
In automotive terms, what’s the difference between a minivan and a school bus? For cars, the dividing line was placed at 15 passengers. Any more and you need a CDL. For balloons, as I understand it, there’s no dividing line. While you need a commercial license to charge for the flight, a 2-passenger balloon is the same as a 20-passenger balloon. Or is it? Is there a balloon-equivalent of the 12,500lb rule?
Jim, thanks for enlightening us on balloons. I wish I had not read your post as I am now convinced that staying in the dark may be a better thing. I’ll never go back into those things again. 300 ft drag??
They existed before airplanes. Everything Beneficial has a risk. Wrap yourself in bubble wrap and be safe, yet look stupid and never have fun. :.)
As my aviation mentor once said: “The weather forecaster can never be better than 50% accurate – either Right, or Wrong.” They can’t see a nanosecond into the future and it’s unreasonable to expect it. Weather is a powerful illustration of the concept that anything can happen.
Raf–a 300′ drag is long–but not all that unusual. Click on the photo and enlarge it–look at the size of the near balloon, vs the blue more “standard size” balloon behind it. The larger the balloon, the greater the gross weight–the greater the weight and momentum of the air inside the envelope. Except in the lightest of breezes, (and that’s no fun, as the balloon doesn’t GO anywhere!) the balloon cannot be held from drifting by ground crew members–see again the weight of the vehicle. The ONLY way it can be stopped is by venting air from the envelope–or the drag of the basket.
I question just how high the winds were–again, look at the glassy water on the ponds. The drag on the ground wouldn’t have been unusual for a normal landing of a big balloon of that weight–what likely caused any injuries is hitting the drainage ditch and spilling the unrestrained passengers FORWARD into the ditch and in the path of the gondola. Avoid big balloons and big gondolas.
UPdate: I enlarged the photo in the article. It shows 2 balloons–one regular and one huge. Looking at the basket in the huge one stopped by a ditch (presumably spilling out the passengers as it overturned) I see that it IS compartmented. The question is–if one of the balloons was small (6 passengers), how in the world could you get a total of 38 passengers (including crew or not?) in the air? Subtracting 6 passengers max in the small balloon from 38, that would mean 32 in the other two balloons. Further enhancing the Photo of the balloon by the ditch shows what appears to be 8 compartments in the gondola–unbelievable!
Ballooning is safe, IF these things are taken into account. Unfortunately, big balloons (as used in commercial ride operations) require HUGE ground crews to operate safely–and the ability of the pilot to say “sorry, it’s too dangerous to operate in these conditions.” Personally, the largest balloon I will fly is a maximum of 5 people–including myself–or 78,000 cubic feet. In the industry, those would be called an AX-6 or AX-7 class. Though many balloons have a single propane heater, I would insist on “multi-engine redundancy” of a second heater of the same size. Yes, flameouts DO happen–and pilots must be trained in relights–and they have happened to me several times. With a second burner, it’s not a problem–take all the time needed to diagnose the problem with the first one. Another reason for a second burner is the ability to use BOTH of them to avoid an obstacle (like unseen power lines). Due to the latency between heat application and start of climb, the extra “power” gets you climbing much faster. Hit both burners, and your next problem is managing the descent from several hundred feet!
I was awaiting takeoff clearance on RWY 01 about the time of this accident. I saw balloons down southwest of the airport which is common on calm clear mornings. However on Monday convective activity was apparent just northwest of the airport near the Grand Teton. I waited for about 10 minutes as the shifting winds caused the TWR controller to switch active between RWY 01 and 19 several times with the result that inbound traffic had to be rerouted. Jackson is on the lee side of the Tetons and the westerlies flowing over the top cause much turbulence and weather in the vicinity of the airport.