Egypt balloon tragedy

Luxor tragedy puts safety of hot-air balloons in doubt

Before the Egyptian disaster that claimed the lives of 19 tourists, hot-air ballooning had enjoyed a romantic image of adventure

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 March, 2013, 5:14am

Until tragedy struck in Luxor, hot-air balloons were most famously associated with the film version of Jules Verne's classic novel Around the World in 80 Days, or the exploits of English billionaire adventurer Richard Branson.

Although a journey by balloon has become one of the images most strongly associated with the film, this iconic symbol was never deployed in the book by Verne himself - the idea is briefly raised but dismissed, as it "would have been highly risky and, in any case, impossible".

However, in the popular 1956 movie adaptation starring David Niven the balloon idea is used, and it has now become a part of the story's mythology.

Hot-air balloons can fly very long distances at extremely high altitudes. On January 15, 1991, one carrying Branson and Sweden's Per Lindstrand flew from Japan to northern Canada, completing 7,671.91 kilometres.

This record was shattered on March 21, 1999, when the Breitling Orbiter 3 touched down in Egypt, having circumnavigated the globe and set records for duration (19 days, 21 hours and 55 minutes) and distance (46,759 kilometres).

Essentially the balloon is a nylon bag - known as an envelope - filled with hot air, which is created by burning liquid propane in a steel burner. More heat makes the balloon rise, less makes it descend. It flies in the direction of the wind.

Hot-air ballooning, described as "man's first form of flight", was pioneered by the Montgolfier brothers in France in 1783. It has since been developed for sport and used by the military. Today, hot-air balloons are mostly used to give tourists a spectacular view of surrounding landscape.

Since piloting a balloon requires some effort - securing the licence and buying the equipment - many people opt to pay for a flight from a company offering balloon rides. These are available in many locations around the world and are especially popular in tourist areas such as Luxor. Balloon festivals are also a great way to see hot-air balloons close up.

But, with 19 people killed in Tuesday's accident - including nine tourists from Hong Kong - serious questions are being asked about how safe hot-air balloons are.

Until the latest incident, the deadliest accident in recent memory happened in 1989, when 13 people were killed as two hot-air balloons collided in Australia.

As the scale of the Egyptian disaster sinks in, the biggest hot-air balloon club in mainland China is calling on the government to take action against illegal balloon manufacturing and flight businesses in China.

While the number of hot-air balloon clubs on the mainland totalled almost 100, only four or five were licensed to train pilots and organise flights, according to the Tianjin -based club, a joint venture between China Aviation Group and the Beijing Foreign Enterprise Human Resource Service.

Some of the balloons in use were produced by illegal manufacturing plants that ignored safety standards, it said.