Aviation accidents

‘It went up like a big fireball’: witness heard popping sounds before hot air balloon crashed near power lines in Texas killing 16

The accident on a rural field in central Texas occurred about three years after 19 people, including nine Hongkongers, were killed in a hot-air balloon crash in Luxor, Egypt

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 July, 2016, 11:40am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 July, 2016, 11:23pm

A hot air balloon burst into flames over central Texas after apparently striking power lines and plunged into a field, killing all 16 people aboard in one of the deadliest such accidents on record, police and eyewitnesses said.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said the fiery crash occurred at about 7:40 a.m. Saturday near Lockhart, a town about 50km south of Austin, the Texas capital.

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The Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office said 16 people were believed to have been aboard the doomed craft and that no one survived. The Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed that 16 people were dead.

It was one of the deadliest hot air balloon crashes in US history and was the worst such accident since a 2013 balloon crash in Egypt killed 19, including nine Hongkongers.

A year earlier, a hot air balloon burst into flames and crashed in New Zealand, killing all 11 people on board.

I heard the popping, and then the next thing I knew is the fireball went up
Margaret Wylie

Emergency responders in Texas said the basket portion of the balloon, which carries the passenger and crew, caught fire. Aerial television footage from the aftermath of the accident showed remnants of the red, white and blue balloon, adorned with a large, yellow smiley face wearing sunglasses, lying flattened at the crash site.

The National Transportation Safety Board offered no details on what may have caused the accident, which occurred on a clear day. But a spokesman at the scene, Erik Grosof, said teams from that agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were being dispatched to determine how the crash unfolded.

FBI assistance is routine in cases of major accidents, Grosof said.

Margaret Wylie, an area resident, told reporters she believed that before the balloon crashed, it hit power transmission lines, which caused popping sounds like a gun going off.

“I didn’t see the balloon hit. I just heard the popping. And I heard the popping, and then the next thing I knew is the fireball went up,” she said.

Ariel photos showed an area of charred pasture near an electrical transmission tower.

Grosof said the balloon was believed to have been operated by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, a company that serves the Austin, Houston and San Antonio areas.

The sunglass-wearing smiley face and stars-and-stripes design of the fallen craft matched the pattern of a balloon featured in pictures posted on the company’s Facebook page, which carried messages of condolences.

Skip Nichols, identified by the company as its chief pilot, was reported by Austin station KVUE-TV, citing close friends, to have been at the controls of the balloon when it crashed.

The crash of the balloon was the deadliest on record in the Western Hemisphere, said Jeff Chatterton, a spokesman for the Balloon Federation of North America.

“There are thousands of balloons that go up every year,” he said. “This is unspeakably tragic but it is rather unique.”

Hot air balloon crashes are rare in the United States. The NTSB investigated 760 such accidents between 1964 and 2013. Of those, 67 were fatal.

More than 150 commercial hot air balloon companies operate in North America.

Three people died in May 2014 during an air balloon festival in Virginia when a balloon hit a power line and burst into flames while landing.

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Hot air balloons use propane gas to heat air that keeps them afloat. They are regulated by the FAA, which requires balloon pilots to be certified and for balloons to have air worthiness certificates.

The FAA inspects the balloons used for commercial ventures after 100 hours of flight time or at least once a year.

Warning about potential high-fatality accidents, safety investigators recommended two years ago that the FAA impose greater oversight on commercial hot air balloon operators, government documents show. The FAA rejected those recommendations.

In a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in April 2014, the National Transportation Safety Board urged the FAA to require tour companies to get agency permission to operate, and to make balloon operators subject to FAA safety inspections. The FAA’s Huerta responded that regulations were unnecessary because the risks were too low.

After Huerta’s reply, the NTSB classified the FAA’s response to the two balloon safety recommendations as “open-unacceptable,” which means the safety board was not satisfied with the FAA’s response.

Speaking just before leaving for Texas to lead the crash investigation, NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said he was studying the board’s recommendations from previous hot air balloon accidents.

“I think the fact that it is open-unacceptable pretty much speaks for itself,” he said.

He also noted that the team was still trying to gather basic information about the accident.

FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford said it’s difficult to say whether the Texas crash will cause the agency to reconsider NTSB’s recommendations “until we’ve had a chance to gather and examine the evidence in this particular case.”

Additional reporting by Associated Press