Thursday, February 28, 2013

Yuma pilots assure balloon safety record

With a recent deadly hot air balloon accident in Egypt, local pilot Colin Graham has been getting calls from people concerned with the safety of the aircraft.

“We haven't had cancellations yet, but we've been asked about the safety of hot air balloons,” said Graham, a pilot and owner of Balloons Over Yuma.

Nineteen tourists died Tuesday in Luxor in possibly the deadliest hot air ballooning accident on record. According to initial reports, fire erupted on the balloon as the pilot prepared to land, causing it to shoot up into the sky and then plummet about 1,000 feet to Earth.

Graham wants to put people's fears to rest: “Balloons, statistically speaking, are the safest form of aviation in the world.”

Jerry Paulin, another Yuma pilot who flies Wound Up, a balloon that holds 77,000 cubic feet of hot air, also pointed out that balloons are among the safest modes of transportation.

“I consider it a very safe sport. I fly as much as I can. Unfortunately, once in awhile accidents do happen. There are a few accidents every year, but it's much safer than driving to work.”

USA Today, after researching records from the National Transportation Safety Board, reported 762 hot air balloon accidents since 1964, most without fatalities.

In addition, Paulin noted that Egypt's industry “is a different form of ballooning.” In Yuma, most balloons are smaller and carry a handful of passengers. His balloon carries two to three passengers plus the operator.

Graham agreed, pointing out that the Egypt balloon industry uses mostly “huge” aircraft, with upward of 500,000 cubic feet of hot air, that accommodate close to 30 people. His balloons contain 150,000 cubic feet of hot air.

There's another difference, the pilots noted.

“In the U.S., (Federal Aviation Administration) licensing and training is required for all pilots and equipment is inspected annually,” Paulin said.

On the other hand, the Egypt industry lacks proper regulation, and the company involved in the latest accident has had problems in the past, according to reports.

“The pilots in that company for the most part are inexperienced, with low flying hours,” said Graham, a pilot with 15 years of flying experience. He has completed 2,000 flights in 31 states and five countries.

In the U.S., hot air balloonists are strictly monitored by the FAA with annual inspections, and pilots are checked every two years on a flight review.

“If you have routine problems, the FAA will pull your license, and they don't have that over there (in Egypt),” Graham said.

“We are fully insured operators, with the same policy we've had for 13 years. Our aircraft are late model, low mile, fully inspected and registered with the FAA.”

In addition, in the U.S. all pilots must be commercially certified. Graham noted that the way a hot air balloon works is a “pretty simple process, you heat the globe and it goes up. That's why it's so safe.

“But it's not so simple to fly. You have to be better than an airplane pilot to fly. We have to have the same license as an airplane pilot.”

Graham suggests questioning a company about its safety record. He suggests asking: Are your pilots certified? Is your company insured? What is your safety record?

“If someone avoids answering, then you've got a problem,” he said.

He noted that another good resource is the Balloon Federation of America (, which is working on a system to ensure every member is in good standing.

One accident should not dissuade people from experiencing hot air ballooning, Paulin said, adding that if a bus wrecks in Egypt, people don't question the safety of all buses.

“Everything has a risk, but the risk in ballooning is very low,” he reiterated.

Paulin has been flying about four years. “I'm the rookie in the family,” he said at a balloon festival, noting that his son first became a pilot and has been around hot air ballooning for more than 20 years.

“They say your first ride is your cheapest ... because then you have to buy one,” he quipped.

His business, The Filter Factory, sponsored a balloon, but he wanted to be more than a passenger and got his pilot's license.

“It's very calm, very peaceful. The Earth moves away from you. It puts a smile on your face.”

Questions to ask operators:

• How long have they been in business?
• Do they run their own tours or outsource them to others?
• What is the average group size (there are regulations on the amount of people you can have in the basket at one time)?
• Do they own their own equipment or rent it?
• Have you ever had an accident?
• Also ask for referrals, and find out about deposit and cancellation policies.


No comments:

Post a Comment