Saturday, October 12, 2013

Questionable hot air balloon landings cause concern

Balloon landings no gamble, owner says

The newest hot air balloon in Saskatoon is lighting a fire under some residents.

People in College Park East say they were alarmed Thursday evening when a new slot machine-shaped balloon, owned by the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority, landed behind a suburban crescent next to some railway tracks.

"It was pretty scary. We were kind of worried that he was going to hit the power lines," said resident Jim Reimer.

The president of Sundance Balloons, which operates the SIGA balloon, said the landing was planned. He said he doesn't understand what the fuss is about.

"They had a good flight. There were no issues," Barry McGonigle said Friday from Ontario.

Perceptions can be deceiving, McGonigle said. A balloon that looks like it's nearly touching down from one angle can still be safely clearing structures on the ground, he said.

"I know that we were not close to having any accidents," McGonigle said. Some people don't see it that way. Reimer said he thought the balloon was going to hit a major power line above his Brandon Place home. He called to his wife and they ran out of the house.

"We didn't know what the balloon would do if it knocked those power lines down," Reimer said.

The balloon touched down about a block away, he said.

Reimer's neighbor, Donna Seidel, said she was out for the evening when her daughter called her, agitated.

"They damn near took off the top of Owen's house," the daughter told the mother, referring to their next-door neighbor.

"I don't like to see somebody get killed just for riding around in a balloon," Seidel said.

Another resident called police, reporting that a hotair balloon had "crashed" behind her property, Saskatoon police spokeswoman Alyson Edwards said. Another caller told police the balloon had gone through his backyard and missed the power line by "inches."

"From our perspective, anytime a balloon is making an unplanned or emergency landing in a populated area, there is concern for people in that balloon and on the ground," Edwards said.

Nothing was damaged during Thursday's landing.

It was the second time police have been called to a landing of the SIGA balloon this month. On Oct. 3, officers were called to a "safe, but unplanned" landing at Queen Elizabeth School park on Taylor Street, Edwards said, adding the pilot told police there was not enough wind to make it to the planned landing site.

Hot air balloon flight is regulated by Transport Canada. The federal agency did not immediately respond to a request for information Friday afternoon. John Koempner, owner and operator of Okanagan Ballooning in B.C., said pilots have leeway on how close they can come to objects on the ground when taking off and landing. When up in the air, balloons must be at least 500 feet away from structures, said Koempner, who has about 18 years of flying experience.

If the wind stops, and a pilot can't maintain the planned route, balloons are allowed to land on a street or schoolyard, Koempner said - it's safer than waiting for the balloon to fall. Depending on the weather, landing somewhere not originally planned can happen between 10 and 15 per cent of the time, he said.

Sundance has been flying balloons safely in Saskatchewan for about 20 years, McGonigle said. The pilot at the helm of the airborne slot machine is one of the most experienced in the country, and one of 25 who work for Sundance across North America, he said, adding the pilots are all licensed and frequently complete additional training. The slot machine is the only "special shape" hot air balloon currently operating in Canada, and the only balloon of that shape in the world, McGonigle said.

"It's illogical to me why there's a flurry of activity," he said of the attention.

A press release on SIGA's website dated Sept. 19 announced the balloon's launch.

It will fly all over Saskatchewan between April and October, and take passengers on flights that last 45 to 90 minutes at sunrise and sunset.

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