CEN09LA009
CEN09LA009

On October 10, 2008 at 0753 mountain daylight time, a Sproul 72K-TET, N72KX, piloted by a commercial pilot, was destroyed when it struck power lines and impacted terrain in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed at the time of the accident. The personal flight was being conducted under the provisions of Title 14 CFR Part 91 without a flight plan. The pilot was seriously injured, and his pilot-rated passenger was fatally injured. The local flight originated in Albuquerque approximately 0700.

The pilot and his pilot-rated passenger were participating in the Albuquerque International Balloon Festival. The pilot's injuries precluded him from submitting an accident report until March 5, 2009. According to his report, he had no memory of the accident. In a telephone interview, he said he allowed the pilot-rated passenger to fly the balloon so he could acquire more experience in flying this type of experimental balloon. He indicated that the passenger had flown the balloon on four different occasions, including the accident flight, and had acquired 4 hours of flight time.

Twelve witness statements were collected by various law enforcement agencies. One witness stated the balloon was traveling northeast between 15 and 20 knots. The wind was gusting between 20 and 25 knots. "As the balloon proceeded towards me...I noticed that there was no heat given to the envelope. [As the balloon flew over a ditch/slope, it] encountered an updraft from the low level winds causing this accident."

Another witness, who noted the balloon fiesta was conducting a mass ascension of “Special Shape balloons,” was critical of balloon fiesta officials for allowing pilots to take off in the wind conditions that existed. He said that since he was a “contract balloon, [he] felt an obligation to fly as part of the fiesta. He said that at 0615, there was a pilot briefing that included a “detailed weather briefing.” At that time, surface winds were less than 10 knot but “winds aloft were expected to increase during the day.” He took off at 0725 and flew at 6,800 feet on a heading approximately 340 to 350 degrees. As he flew over Rio Rancho, he observed other balloons making “drag landings (dragging to a stop) of approximately 20 to 30 feet.” Surface winds were easterly, between 080 and 090 degrees. He observed another balloon approximately 1 mile in front of him make a landing that was “not affected by the high surface winds.” He landed between Santa Ana Casino and Jackalope on Highway 550, about a mile from the site of the fatal accident.

This witness wrote: "Once the special shape balloons had left balloon fiesta park, the competition would begin for the other 600+ registered balloons. I could not believe that the balloon fiesta officials had not cancelled their competition. The surface winds that would be encountered during the landing phase of the flight were obviously in excess of the FAA waiver. It is my opinion that the officials of the balloon fiesta acted in a reckless manner in knowingly allowing balloons to fly when the surface winds were at a dangerous speed within the landing areas. It is further my opinion that the balloon fiesta officials knowingly caused the destruction of property and life."

The following winds were recorded at Albuquerque International Sunport:

At 0556 local, 130 degrees at 6 knots
At 0656 local, 120 degrees at 4 knots
At 0756 local, 130 degrees at 4 knots
At 0856 local, 180 degrees at 7 knots

Photographs taken by witnesses showed the balloon approaching the power lines. Neither pilot had their hands on the burner. When the balloon struck the power lines, the suspension cables were partially severed. The fuel line was completely severed and began spewing liquid propane. The basket caught fire and the occupants fell to the ground, as did part of the basket. The envelope drifted off and was later recovered some 7 miles away.

Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) 91.3, "Responsibility and authority of the pilot in command," states (in part): (a) The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft." FAR 91.103, "Preflight action." states (in part): "Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight." FAR 91.13, "Careless or reckless operation," states (in part): "(a) Aircraft operations for the purpose of air navigation. No person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another."

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