HISTORY OF FLIGHT Use your browsers 'back' function to return to synopsisReturn to Query Page
On September 27, 1996, at 0807 hours mountain standard time, a Thunder & Colt Ltd. Airborne America, Colt 240A, N434TC, made a hard landing near the Deer Valley Municipal Airport, Phoenix, Arizona. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan was filed for the 14 CFR Part 91 aerial sightseeing passenger flight. Upon departure the basket (gondola) contained 1 commercial pilot and 13 fare-paying passengers. Following the first hard touchdown in the accident sequence, the pilot fell out of the basket and was seriously injured. By the time the balloon came to rest, about three additional hard touchdowns had ensued. The balloon sustained minor impact and fire damage. One passenger was seriously injured, and 12 passengers sustained minor injuries. The flight originated at 0630 from a launch site about 6.4 nautical miles north-northeast (026 degrees magnetic) of the Deer Valley Airport (DVT).
The launch site's global positioning satellite (GPS) coordinates are about 33 degrees 46.3 minutes north latitude, by 112 degrees 00.1 minute west longitude. The site's estimated elevation is 1,800 feet mean sea level (msl).
The National Transportation Safety Board interviewed Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) air traffic personnel in DVT's control tower. According to the personnel, they first observed the balloon in their Class D airspace when it was within 1.5 miles northeast of the airport between 1,000 and 1,500 feet above ground level. (DVT's elevation is 1,476 feet msl. The recommended single engine traffic pattern altitude is 2,501 feet msl, or 1,025 feet above ground level.) The personnel indicated that the balloon descended from its location in the traffic pattern and appeared to touch down within 0.25 to 0.5 mile northwest of the airport. Thereafter, the balloon drifted in a southwesterly direction near ground level and appeared to touch down several additional times. Finally, the balloon drifted across the final approach course for active runway 07, and came to rest within 2 miles southwest of the airport.
Ground based witnesses and balloon passengers provided statements regarding the accident flight, summarized as follows: When the pilot attempted to land in the open dirt field west of DVT, the basket impacted the hard ground and eventually collided with a 6-foot-high cement block wall located adjacent to an automobile storage (junk) yard. None reported the pilot had begun envelope deflation during the landing sequence, or that he had turned off the burners' pilot lights. The pilot was ejected from the basket following impact with the block wall. Thereafter, the balloon's flight continued with the passengers at the controls. None of the passengers were balloon pilots. It was further reported that the balloon drifted over power lines and past a gasoline service station, and it eventually came to rest in a brush covered field where a small ground fire started.
Several passengers provided written statements while others made verbal reports regarding specific aspects of the flight. The passengers generally reported that the balloon had descended at a rapid rate, and one passenger opined that the balloon descended "very rapidly." The touchdown was described as being either "hard" or "very hard."
One passenger reported that as the balloon neared the ground the pilot "began firing the burners continuously in an attempt to arrest [the] rapid descent. At the last second, he told us to brace ourselves because we were going to hit hard. The force of the landing threw all of us in [sic] the bottom of the basket." The basket then dragged along the ground while the pilot continued firing the burners. The balloon lifted off the ground and drifted toward a concrete wall. The balloon hit the wall and the pilot fell out of the basket.
The passengers further reported that with the increased buoyancy, the balloon gained altitude and continued drifting. When it next descended near a trailer park, one passenger jumped out of the basket from about 30 feet above ground level, and the balloon continued drifting.
When the balloon next contacted the ground seven passengers jumped out, the balloon gained altitude, and it drifted across Interstate Highway 17. Several passengers attempted to control the burners, and the balloon's skirt ignited. The balloon drifted past a gasoline service station and over power lines, and it finally landed in a brush covered field where the remaining five passengers exited. The touchdowns which occurred after the pilot had been ejected from the basket were considerably less hard than the initial impact with the pilot handling the controls.
According to the FAA, the pilot was issued a Student Pilot Certificate in August 1981. The following month he was issued a Private Pilot Certificate, and in October, 1981, he was issued a Commercial Pilot Certificate with the following ratings and limitations: Lighter Than Air Free Balloon, Limited to Hot Air. On the FAA Airman Certificate application form the pilot made the following statement: "I certify I have no known medical defects that would affect my ability to pilot a free balloon." No FAA medical examination was required of the applicant pilot.
On September 27, 1996, at 2200 mountain standard time, the pilot was verbally requested to complete the required accident report. On October 17, 1996, the pilot, through his attorney, was requested in writing to complete the form. As of September 1, 1997, the Safety Board has not received the form. Based upon a review of entries made in the pilot's flight record logbook number 4, the pilot had a total of approximately 3,200 hours of flight time which included about 130 hours in the accident balloon.
The Safety Board was not able to determine the pilot's actual balloon flying experience, currency, or total experience in the accident balloon. The pilot's flight hours listed in this report are Safety Board estimates based upon available records. In the pilot's logbook, the most recent balloon flight was dated March 27, 1996.
A review of the Safety Board's files revealed that on January 30, 1993, the pilot experienced an accident while transporting seven passengers in another Thunder & Colt balloon. The pilot never reported the accident to the Safety Board. During that accident investigation, several attempts were undertaken to obtain the required accident form from the pilot. The pilot never responded. The Safety Board determined that the probable cause of the accident was "the pilot's failure to adequately evaluate the weather conditions and subsequent uncontrolled touchdown resulting in a hard landing." (See NTSB report number LAX93LA296 for additional details.)
History of Additional Recent Mishaps.
The FAA reported that during the past 4 years the pilot has been involved in the following five additional mishaps:
(1) A witness complained that in February 1993, the pilot flew low over a private residence. A nearby horse became spooked. Its rider was thrown and was seriously injured;
(2) In November 1994, the pilot was observed flying at low altitudes over occupied dwellings, and the FAA suspended his certificate on an emergency basis;
(3) In March 1996, the pilot entered the Class D airspace around the Chandler Airport, Arizona, without having received an air traffic clearance, and then allowed an individual to parachute off the balloon's basket. The FAA stated this action was careless and reckless and again initiated certificate suspension action;
(4) In February 1995, the pilot was again observed flying at low altitudes over a residential area, and the public filed complaints; and
(5) In July 1996, a couple of fair paying passengers experienced a hard landing and the balloon crashed into a tree. They subsequently filed a complaint with the FAA against the pilot. In their complaint, the passengers reported that the pilot had been abusive and insulting, the landing was terrifying, and the pilot did not seem to have control of the balloon.
The balloon was issued a FAA airworthiness certificate in the standard category in October 1992. The balloon was factory equipped with triple Colt MKIII, burners (engines), and three 20-gallon V40 fuel tanks. According to Thunder & Colt's Flight Manual and the balloon's Aircraft Log Book, the envelope has a volume of 240,000 cubic feet, and a maximum gross weight of 4,277 pounds (1,940 kgs.).
On October 3, 1996, the Safety Board examined balloon and pilot related documents. The balloon's logbook indicated that on January 8, 1996, N434TC received an annual inspection at a total time of 179.3 hours. No subsequent entries in the logbook were observed. The balloon's flight time and compliance with 100-hour inspection requirements could not be verified.
A passenger reported that "the location of the controls [in the balloon] necessitated [the pilot elevating his physical position by] standing on a plastic milk crate, which raised his center of gravity approximately 12 - 14 inches."
The balloon envelope was equipped with an operable vent in the crown area to be used for final deflation during landing. The vent is opened by pulling on a red colored rip line that has its termination end in the basket.
The Flight Manual indicates that the wind speed at the launch site and at the anticipated landing site should not exceed 10 knots. Immediately prior to touchdown, the pilot should turn off the pilot lights and fuel tank (cylinder) valves. Also, the vent opening (parachute) line should be pulled to achieve deflation.
According to the FAA, no evidence was found of the pilot having received a weather briefing on September 27, 1996. The Direct User Access Terminal System (DUAT) vendors of weather information similarly reported no evidence of any contacts with the pilot.
DVT is the closest facility which officially reported the prevailing weather conditions. It is located about 6.4 nm to the south-southwest of the balloon's departure point. During the time interval encompassing the accident flight, DVT reported its surface wind direction and speed, as follows:
Time Direction (from) Speed
0545 040 degrees 8 knots 0645 030 degrees 7 knots 0745 020 degrees 8 knots 0855 020 degrees 10 knots
The pilot did not indicate that he had used pibals to determine the wind direction and speed, or had contacted DVT to ascertain its weather conditions.
The FAA controllers stated that at no time during the balloon's approximate 15-minute-long flight in DVT's Class D airspace did they have radio contact with the pilot flying N434TC.
WRECKAGE AND IMPACT INFORMATION
The examination of the impacted cement block wall revealed it was located between the side of a storage yard and an open dirt field. The impacted area of the blocks was 15 feet long. The top blocks were observed displaced in a southerly direction approximately 0.5 feet.
The location was about 33 degrees 41.7 minutes north latitude, by 112 degrees 06.5 minutes west longitude. The site was about 1.3 nm west (274 degrees, magnetic) from DVT. In the open field to the north (upwind) of the block wall, two areas of ground scar were present. The northernmost area was located about 387 feet from the wall, and the second area was 96 feet from the wall (see photograph number 3). The ground scar was about 7 feet wide by 16 feet long.
The location where the balloon finally came to rest was about 33 degrees 40.9 minutes north latitude, by 112 degrees 06.9 minutes west longitude. The location was about 1.7 nm west-southwest (245 degrees magnetic) from DVT.
The distance and magnetic bearing between where the pilot was ejected from the balloon and where the balloon came to rest was about 0.8 nm and 196 degrees.
An examination of the envelop revealed its skirt was destroyed by fire. Also, the bottom 2- to 3-foot portion of seven panels adjacent to the skirt attachment area were destroyed by fire. Runners on the bottom of the basket showed evidence of abrasion wear damage.
The pilot was interviewed via telephone on September 27, 1996. The pilot did not indicate experiencing any mechanical malfunction with his balloon during the accident flight. The pilot reported that at the time of the accident, ample fuel remained in the fuel tanks which could have been used to continue the flight. However, he decided not to proceed.
MEDICAL AND PATHOLOGICAL INFORMATION
The passengers made various statements regarding their observations of the pilot's conduct before and during the flight. For example, one passenger reported that as the pilot drove the van transporting the group to the balloon launch site the pilot "seemed unusually talkative." Also, the pilot "could not seem to make up his mind about a launch site and drove from place to place, talking non-stop."
Another passenger reported that during the drive the pilot appeared to be in "strangely high spirits" and drove "very unsteadily," i.e., varied his speed between fast and slow. The pilot seemed "quite indecisive" about choosing a launch site.
During the flight, the pilot "constantly changed altitude." The pilot's behavior was described by another passenger as being "bizarre." (See attached exhibits for the complete statements.)
The Safety Board interviewed the pilot and he made the following statements: (1) I've had problems with depression and last year went into the hospital; (2) Yesterday (September 26, 1996) I was upset and called my doctor; (3) I have a bone disease called osteachondromatoses; (4) During the past 2.5 weeks my pain has been getting worse; (5) My tumors come in and are painful; (6) One of my arms is shorter than the other; (7) Yesterday I got stressed out so I took a full dose of my medication between 2:30 and 2:45 am; (8) I took 1/2 dose of all but three of my medications; and (9) The medications I take are Methadone, Ultram, Klonopin, and Vicadine.
Samples of the pilot's blood and urine were submitted for toxicological analysis. Cocaine was detected in the pilot's blood at a level of 47 ng/mL, and its metabolite was detected in his urine. Also, clonazepam and tramadol were found in the pilot's blood sample at 19 ng/mL and 132 ng/mL, respectively.
Balloon Ride Promotion and Pilot Background Checks
Representatives from The Phoenician (resort hotel) which is owned by ITT Sheraton reported that the hotel staff had arranged for the passenger's balloon rides. About 170 passengers and 20 balloons participated in the event which the hotel organized for an approximate cost of $18,000.
The hotel's prime balloon ride contractor was Hot Air Expositions, Scottsdale, Arizona. Hot Air subcontracted to the Naturally High Balloon Company. Hotel management reported that they were aware Hot Air was subcontracting with other firms. Hotel management did not perform or request performance of any background checks on the prospective pilots.
The Balloon Federation of America (BFA) publishes instructional material intended to aid balloonists in the operation of their aircraft. According to the BFA, during high wind landings a pilot can shorten the drag distance by using fast deflation techniques. The BFA states that "the most common technique is to initiate deflation 10 - 30 feet in the air." This technique requires "good height judgment on the part of the pilot."
The Thunder & Colt Flight Manual provides the following information regarding approach and landing procedures: "Immediately prior to touchdown turn off the pilot lights and tank valves, and vent fuel lines by operating burner valves (if time allows). Pull and hold the parachute line. The parachute can be opened fully at up to 20 ft [above ground level] for a fast landing, or after touchdown on a calm day."
All recovered balloon wreckage was verbally released to the Phoenix Police Department investigators on October 3, 1996.