NTSB Identification: ERA12LA231
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Friday, March 16, 2012 in Fitzgerald, GA
Probable Cause Approval Date: 01/15/2013
Aircraft: FIREFLY BALLOONS INC FIREFLY 8, registration: N14643
Injuries: 1 Fatal,7 Uninjured.
NTSB investigators may not have traveled in support of this investigation and used data provided by various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.
The balloon pilot conducted multiple sport parachute flights throughout the day without obtaining a weather briefing. A SIGMET for severe thunderstorms, hail, and cloud tops to 45,000 feet was in effect for the area surrounding the takeoff and accident sites. Shortly after the balloon lifted off on the accident flight, the ground crew was advised of a severe storm warning for the area and observed the storm on radar via their cellular telephones. The crew contacted the pilot by radio to advise him that the storm was growing quickly. The pilot informed the ground crew that he would attempt to climb over the storm but shortly thereafter expressed doubts that the balloon would be able to rise over it.
The ground crew watched the balloon disappear into the clouds but continued to receive altitude and weather updates from the pilot via radio. The pilot described being battered by wind and heavy hail, and the altitude updates came quickly as the balloon climbed in an updraft. Around 12,000 feet, the pilot repeated, "I don't think I'm going to get over this thing." About 17,000 feet, the pilot advised that the balloon was descending and stated, "I got nothing over my head." In his last transmission to the crew, at an altitude of 2,000 feet, the pilot advised that he had the ground in sight. The crew dialed 911 and drove the chase vehicle in the direction where they thought the balloon would land. As they pursued the balloon through the storm, they experienced hard rain and hail "the size of golf balls." All major components of the balloon were recovered and a detailed examination indicated multiple envelope tears, including a few small puncture holes consistent with contact with trees. Several lines of the outer sheath had burned away, but the lines were intact with no evidence of fraying or wear.
Video footage taken by parachutists during the balloon's ascent on the accident flight captured audio of the pilot's conversation with the ground crew and provided visual evidence of the developing storm as the balloon entered the base of the clouds. The footage then showed parachutists exit from the basket well after the balloon had entered the clouds and visual contact with the ground had been lost. According to the balloon manufacturer's emergency procedure for weather deterioration during flight, pilots should "land immediately rather than fly into severe atmospheric turmoil…Severe atmospheric forces are capable of taking over and exposing the flight to the hazards of immense envelope stresses and uncontrollable contact with the ground…"
The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be: The pilot's intentional flight into adverse weather. Contributing to the accident was the pilot's failure to obtain a weather briefing and his failure to follow the balloon manufacturer's published emergency procedure for weather deterioration during flight. Full narrative available
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