Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Pilot received the all-clear just weeks before disaster

The 28-year-old pilot of the Sky Cruise hot-air balloon that exploded over Luxor had reportedly had his licence renewed only weeks earlier.

The head of the Civil Aviation Administration in Egypt, Mohammed Sherif, said at the scene of the crash that Moman Mourad's qualifications were checked in January and he had no violations.

"Each time we renew the license, we check up the balloon and we test the pilot," Sherif said.

Mohamed Youssef, a friend of Mourad, told the South China Morning Post yesterday that the Sky Cruise pilot had never been involved in a fatal accident before.

Mourad had been a balloon pilot for about six years, Youssef said, after graduating from a competing ballooning company called Sindbad Balloons in 2006.

Youssef, a balloon pilot since 2004, spoke to Mourad's mother when he visited the injured pilot in Luxor International Hospital on Tuesday before he was airlifted to Cairo. "I saw her in the hospital," Youssef said. "She was crying and I told her it will be OK."

Mourad's father died about five months ago, Youssef said.

One of Mourad's two younger sisters accompanied Mourad to a Cairo hospital where he is currently in intensive care.

Youssef said Sky Cruise was one of Luxor's oldest ballooning companies, established in 1989, and that it used to be affiliated with Britain's Virgin brand under the name Balloons over Egypt.

In the mid-1990s, Hod-hod Soliman Hot Air Balloon Rides opened, while Magic Horizon started in 2000. Five more companies were launched between 2006 and 2008, making competition tough.

"Now the tour companies don't look for quality or service; all of them look for the price, the cheaper price," Youssef said.

"This is how it works in Luxor for the past five or six years."

Tuesday's tragedy is believed to be the worst ballooning accident on record. The deadliest incident before this was in 1989, when 13 people died in Australia when their hot-air balloon collided with another balloon near the town of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory.

Nor is this the first time a ballooning accident in Luxor has disrupted the industry and raised safety concerns. In 2009, 16 tourists were injured when their balloon struck a cellphone transmission tower.

All flights were suspended for months while safety standards were tightened. Pilots were given more training and a landing spot was designated for balloons.

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