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On October 10, 1997, at 1822 hours Pacific daylight time, a Balloon Works, Inc., Firefly 11, N2585Z, operated by SkySurfer Balloon Company, Inc., in Del Mar, California, made a hard landing in Rancho Bernardo, California. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan was filed for the 14 CFR Part 91 aerial sightseeing passenger flight. The balloon sustained minor impact damage, and the commercial pilot was not injured. Of the 10 fare paying passengers onboard, 1 was seriously injured, 7 received minor injuries, and 2 passengers were not injured. The flight originated from Encinitas, California, at 1740.
At 1811, the pilot received a warning from another balloon pilot that the surface wind speed had increased to 12 knots. The pilot, however, reported he observed the wind speed was over 12 knots. The pilot advised his passengers to prepare for a rough landing. He provided specific cautionary information to his passengers regarding holding on, staying in the basket, and bending their knees during the landing sequence.
The pilot further reported that he turned off the pilot lights about 10 feet agl in preparation for the landing and commenced venting the envelope. After touchdown, the basket slid between 150 and 180 feet while remaining in an upright position before coming to a stop.
The pilot reported that the following events: while addressing the passengers and deflating the envelope a sudden strong gust of wind twisted the basket 90 degrees and tipped the basket end over end; some passengers fell out of the basket, and some jumped out causing the balloon to be light enough to continue sliding forward; it never left the ground; and additional passengers exited the basket which caused the balloon to continue to move further east. The pilot reported he continued pulling the vent line until the balloon was completely deflated. Thereafter, he assisted one passenger whose foot was caught under the basket, and he observed another passenger who was seriously injured.
The pilot did not report any mechanical malfunctions or emergencies during the flight.
Regarding the landing sequence, several passengers described the landing as being hard, with the basket bouncing between two and four times before coming to a stop. In summary, several passengers indicated that during the landing the basket swung around 90 degrees due to the wind. It twisted and tumbled, and then it rolled over dumping the passengers out.
The pilot reported that weather information was received at 1620 from the Federal Aviation Administration's Flight Service Station, and he launched piballs (helium filled balloons) to determine the local wind conditions. The wind at ground level was estimated at 280 degrees, 5 knots. The wind at 1,800 feet above ground level (agl) was estimated at 300 degrees, 5 knots. An additional piball was launched at 1702, and similar results were observed for its velocity.
The pilot further reported that upon takeoff the wind was from 280 degrees, between 5 and 6 knots. The pilot ascended to 3,000 feet agl, and he observed increasing clouds, decreasing temperatures, and increasing wind speed.
The two closest aviation weather reporting facilities to the point of takeoff (and the accident site) are the McClellan-Palomar Airport, and the NAS Miramar Airport. These facilities are located approximately 6 nautical miles (nm) north-northwest and 11 nm southeast of the takeoff site, respectively. According to the FAA, at 1646 the Palomar Airport's weather was, in pertinent part, as follows: wind from 240 degrees at 10 knots, with few clouds at 3,000 feet. At 1655, Miramar reported its surface wind was from 300 degrees at 10 knots, with few clouds at 3,000 feet. Also, there was an AIRMET for moderate turbulence below 20,000 feet, and an upper level trough was approaching the area.
Five of the passengers reported that during the flight the pilot ascended and then descended through clouds. One passenger estimated that the total time the balloon was in the clouds was 5 minutes. A couple of passengers reported hearing the sound of an airplane when they were in the clouds, and they became worried until the sound from the unseen airplane diminished. One passenger reported that champagne was served when the balloon was on top of the clouds.
According to information published in the FAA approved flight manual, when encountering weather deterioration during flight, the pilot should "land immediately rather than fly into severe atmospheric turmoil. Risk damage if necessary to land while the flight is still under control. 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 and/or dangerous obstacles."
The flight manual further indicates that the "maximum demonstrated wind speed at landing during certification tests was 7 knots."
The operator reported it currently utilizes 5 balloons and employs between 8 and 10 pilots and charges about $125 per passenger for balloon rides. Since 1995, over 17,000 passengers have been carried.