The hot air balloon is the oldest form of flight technology, going up for its maiden loaded flight in France during the autumn of 1783 with animals as its first passengers. Made out of paper and cloth, and inflated by burning a combination of straw, chopped wool and dried horse manure underneath the balloon, the original design launched successfully and landed safely after some 8 minutes.
Since then, hot air ballooning has gained popularity around the world and is a preferred option for people to enjoy awe-inspiring scenery from above, usually at the break of dawn. It is not without its share of tragedies and fatalities, however.
In 1989, two balloons collided over Alice Springs, Australia’s Northern Territory, costing the lives of 13 passengers after one vessel crashed to the ground. Another incident in Carterton, New Zealand, in January 2012, saw all 13 people on board killed after a collision with a power line resulted in a fire and crash. And last August in Ljubljana, Slovenia, a balloon attempting to land during a sudden thunderstorm crashed and caught fire, killing four onsite and hurting 28, of whom two later succumbed to their injuries.
Last month’s incident near Luxor, Egypt, was by far the deadliest in the history of ballooning. Nineteen people perished after a suspected gas leak from a cable entangled with a gas cylinder caused an explosion in mid-air; only one Scottish tourist and the pilot survived the ordeal.
Human errors almost always to blame
Still, operators around the world are adamant that ballooning is one of the safest tourism activities. Maurice Otin, chief pilot and founder of Ciel d’Afrique, a hot air balloon operator based in Marrakech, Morocco, rated the activity nine out of a possible 10 for safety. “I can’t give 10 because no one human activity is totally safe,” the Frenchman said, noting the recent Egyptian disaster underscored this point.
“It is necessary to consider how many flights are done every day in the world, and how many accidents there [are],” he added.
According to Otin, most ballooning accidents are a result of human errors. Other than pilot misjudgment and poor equipment maintenance, taking a chance with weather conditions to earn more money was another “risky scenario”.
Ron Broderick, a commercial hot air balloon pilot since 1992 and sole pilot of U.S.-based Friendship Hot Air Balloon Company, concurred. Pilot decision making and weather changes such as wind are the two main causes of balloon accidents, said Broderick, who similarly gave a safety rating of ‘9’ for the activity.
Both industry experts noted that experience is a big factor in astute decision-making by pilots. Ciel d’Afrique’s Otin added that one of the traits he looks for when hiring a pilot is a stable personality.
“A good pilot is a careful pilot. I don’t want in my company the best pilot able to [fly over] a power line very low….” he explained. “I want a safe pilot, responsible about what he does.
“I prefer to have somebody who respects his passenger and considers that a balloon ride is an exceptional lifetime moment, not a show where he can demonstrate his dexterity.”
Ballooning is also subjected to stringent checks and regulations from each country’s civil authorities and is monitored on a constant basis. Otin opined: “A lot of persons think balloon companies are only managed by ‘wonderful flying fools’. They don’t know that we are companies working under control of the aviation authorities and that we have the same safety rules [as] every airline company.”
Over in ballooning hotspot New Zealand, “adventure aviation” operators have to be certificated in much the same way as air transport operators who use helicopters and small aeroplanes, said Mike Richards, corporate communications manager at the Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand. This means that they have systems, structures and operating procedures in compliance with the relevant safety standards, qualified and trained employees with key personnel in good form to carry out their responsibilities, and appropriate equipment that are properly maintained.
Enthusiasm dampened, not quelled
The 26th February incident is not without repercussions on the tourism industry at large. All hot air balloon flights in Egyptian have been banned by the government until investigations into the accident are complete, resulting in hundreds of workers out of work and an average daily loss of about US$60,000.
Consumer reactions to ballooning appear to be mixed. Lynnette Lim, who was on a balloon flight in Luxor two weeks before the tragedy, told Quotient that she was unlikely to ever go on another hot air balloon. Recounting her personal experience, the professional in her mid-thirties pointed out that the short briefing conducted prior to takeoff involved teaching participants the correct landing position — similar to squatting — and practising the position twice after getting into the basket.
Student Cheryl Lee, however, said in spite of the risks she would still opt to take a hot air balloon ride “because it’s really beautiful and larger than life”.
Operators are preparing for cancellations or a temporary dip in demand for services, but remain optimistic that the benefits of balloon flying will still attract participants.
“There [were] human errors in that [Luxor] accident. It doesn’t mean there is a safety problem of balloons,” said Mahmut Uluer, general manager and instructor pilot of Uluer Group from Cappadocia, Turkey.
We continue our business with professionalism as always we do. And we believe that it will not affect our part in the sector.”