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On April 13, 2007, at 0800 Pacific daylight time, an ARBC Inc Lindstrand 150A balloon, N156LB, collided with power lines while landing in a field approximately 7 miles southwest of Mecca, California. Balloon Above the Desert, Inc., operated the balloon under the provisions of 14 CFR Part 91. One passenger was fatally injured and one passenger was seriously injured; the commercial pilot and three other passengers were not injured. The balloon envelope was not damaged. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan had been filed. The flight originated in Indio, California, about 0730.
The pilot reported to the National Transportation Safety Board investigator that they took off about 0730, from the intersection of 54th and Monroe in Indio, and winds were 4 to 6 mph at the time. The pilot stated to an Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspector that he had given the passengers a safety brief before the flight, at which time the passengers sign the "Assumption of Risk" form. They were airborne for about 20 minutes when he noticed that the surface winds were picking up, and he decided to land the balloon. He brought the balloon down to about 50 feet to see what the winds were close to the ground. He determined that landing was not possible, and took the balloon up to 200 feet. He identified another landing zone and brought the balloon down to 100 feet. The pilot reported that the winds at this time were from 340 degrees at 10 knots with gusts between 15 and 20 knots. Approximately 800 feet from the landing zone, he prepared the passengers for a faster than normal landing. During the landing approach, the balloon started to descend rapidly, and the pilot saw the power lines crossing the balloon's path. He turned off the fuel to the burners, started to deflate the balloon envelope, and told the passengers to duck down and brace for landing. The balloon collided with the power lines, swung free, and then the basket contacted the ground, bounced up about 5 feet, recontacted the ground, ejecting two of the passengers out of the basket. The basket continued to drag along the ground for another 15 feet. The basket came to a stop and the balloon deflated. The pilot exited the basket and went to aid the two ejected passengers. Finding one of the ejected passengers not breathing he started CPR and called for emergency medical assistance. Paramedics arrived shortly, rendered assistance, and transported the seriously injured passengers to the hospital. The ground crew arrived and packed up the balloon envelope.
Passenger statements from conversations with the Safety Board investigator and statements documented in the Riverside County Sheriff's report are relatively consistent. The five passengers, pilot, and ground crew arrived at the initial balloon launching location around 0610. The advertised duration of the balloon ride was 1 hour. The pilot was concerned about the winds and released a number of small test balloons to observe the winds effects. The crew packed up the balloon and everyone went to a secondary launch location in hopes that the winds would be better there. The secondary field was also windy but slightly protected by a row of trees. The pilot released some test balloons but was observed to be looking for additional test balloons, which he never located. The pilot pointed out to the passengers a treetop that he uses to gage the wind. The balloon was inflated and the passengers loaded into the basket. The passengers do not recall the pilot giving them a preflight safety briefing. The balloon took off at 0730, the pilot gave some commentary about the scenery, and took a photograph of each passenger. They appeared to be traveling fairly fast over the ground. About 20 minutes into the flight, the pilot stated that they were approaching the landing site and gave instructions to prepare them for landing by holding on to the basket, crouching down, and bending their knees. He pointed out the primary landing field and then the secondary that would be used if they did not make the first site. The attempt to land at the primary location was aborted and the pilot increased the balloons altitude. The pilot then made an approach into the secondary landing field. As the balloon made its approach it became clear that the balloon was not going to clear a row of electrical power pole transmission lines, and the pilot started to frantically pull on a rope (the deflation line) and told everyone to get down. The basket upright structure contacted the electrical transmission lines in the vicinity of the burner, there were sparks, the basket tipped a bit as it struck the power lines, and then power transmission lines gave away. The balloon descended rapidly and hit the ground hard, bounced up, hit the ground a second time, at an angle, ejecting two of the passengers out ahead of the basket. One of the ejected passengers hung on to the outside of the basket as it came down for a third time and then disappeared. The basket was drug along the ground and then came to a stop on its side. The two passengers who had been ejected were about 25 feet from the final resting location of the basket. The passengers rushed to the victims and started to render aid. One victim was not responsive and CPR was begun. The other victim was semi responsive. The pilot made the initial 911 help call, and then continued to walk about the accident scene talking on his cell phone for most of the period after the accident. The ground crew arrived and packed up the balloon envelope. Two public water utility workers arrived about 20 minutes after the landing and assisted in the ongoing CPR actions. The emergency responders arrived about 45 minutes after the landing having had difficulty in locating the accident site.
A review of FAA airman records revealed that the pilot held a commercial pilot certificate issued on July 2, 2002, with a rating for lighter-than-air-free-balloon, limited to hot air balloons with airborne heater. The pilot reported that he had 912.4 total hours in lighter-than-air aircraft and 45 hours in the ARBC Lindstrand 150A.
The pilot did not hold a medical certificate, nor is one required to pilot a hot air balloon under the provisions of 14 CFR Part 61.23 (Medical Certificates: Requirement and Duration).
The balloon was an ARBC Inc Lindstrand, model 150A, serial number 5168, and the basket/gondola had a capacity for six people, including the pilot. It uses propane stored in cylinders and a burner to heat the air that provides lift. A review of the maintenance logbook revealed that the balloon had 645.95 hours at the time of the accident, and had undergone a 100-hour inspection on March 28, 2007, at a total time of 640.95 hours.
The Lindstrand Balloon Flight Manual states in Section1, Operational Limitations, paragraph 1.1.6, "The balloon should not be flown in meteorological conditions that give rise to erratic and gusty winds, which could cause an increase of 10 knots above the mean wind speed. The maximum surface wind speed for takeoff and landing is 15 knots."
The FAA Type Certificate Data Sheet (B82EU) for the Lindstrand Model 150A Hot Air Balloon does not specify any passenger restraint system be installed, or be equipped with helmets for the occupants.
Meteorological data for the period surrounding the accident flight was gathered from Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport (KTRM), Thermal, California, the terminal area forecast (TAF), and the flight service weather brief that was provided to the pilot. Thermal is approximately 7 miles north of the accident location and is the nearest weather observation facility to the accident site. Weather data from the Palm Springs Regional Airport (KPSP), Palm Springs, California, which is 20 miles northwest of the balloon launch location, was also conveyed to the pilot during his Flight Service Station weather brief.
The automated weather recording station at Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport (KTRM), Thermal, reported at 0752, winds were from 290 degrees at 4 knots. At 0852, winds were from 330 digress at 13 gusting to 21 knots. The terminal area forecast (TAF) for Cochran Airport from 0500 to 0900 was: winds from 340 degrees at 13 knots; prevailing visibility 6 statute miles; and clear skies. At 0904, an amended TAF read: from 0900 to 1100, winds from 330 degrees at 13 knots gusting to 23 knots; prevailing visibility of 6 statute miles; and clear skies.
AIRMET Tango (update 2) for moderate turbulence below flight level 18 (18,000 feet msl) was valid until 0800 (1500 UTC). At 0745, update 3 extended the valid time through 1400 (2100 UTC).
The pilot telephoned Flight Service and requested a standard weather brief at 0538. A review of the recorded conversation between the pilot and weather briefer revealed that the pilot acknowledged information regarding the AIRMET for turbulence, was told the current wind conditions at Thermal were 310 at 11 (knots), and winds were getting gusty at Palm Springs, 310 (degrees), 12 knots with gusts up to 18 knots. The forecast for the area had occasionally gusty surface winds up to 25 knots. Thermal forecast winds were 340 at 13 knots through 0900, then 340 at 5 knots through 1300. Palm Springs forecast winds were 320 at 13 knots through 0700, then 320 at 5 through 1300. The pilot also received winds aloft information up to 9,000 feet over San Diego, Blythe, and Ontario. These winds were generally from the north between 15 and 29 knots.
MEDICAL AND PATHOLOGICAL INFORMATION
The Riverside County Coroner performed an autopsy on the passenger. The coroner reported that the injuries to the passenger fatality were from blunt force trauma to the chest.
Balloon Above the Desert - Operations Manual
The balloon operator, Balloon Above the Desert, Inc., has a General Operations Manual that gives written guidance to their employees and pilots. Some of the main topics covered by the operations manual include Chief Pilot Responsibilities, Pilot-in-Command (PIC) responsibilities, Proficiency, Manipulation of Flight Controls, Fatigue, Use of Medications, Flight Crew Qualifications, Preflight & Post Flight procedures, and Crew Responsibilities.
Section 2 under Flight Operations, and PIC Responsibilities, it states that the PIC is ultimately responsible for the passengers, crewmembers, and aircraft, the PIC must be familiar with Operations Manual, FAA regulations, and flight manuals, and will give safety instructions prior to takeoff and again within 5 minutes of landing.
Electrical Power Transmission Poles
The electrical power transmission wires were suspended approximately 40 feet above the ground.
**This report was modified on December 6, 2007.**