Balloon, Paraglider Collision Analyzed
Photo credit: Jon Pelletier/Verde Independent
The collision between a hot-air balloon and a powered paraglider at the Cottonwood, Arizona, airport on October 16 captured the attention of the aviation world and the general public. The collision between two of the slowest aircraft unfolded in front of numerous cameras and spectators at the Cottonwood Airfest. Fortunately the entangled craft descended slowly enough so that injuries to the occupants, though serious, weren’t fatal. Read more
About a dozen balloons had launched early in the morning and were joined by two powered paragliders. There were also other aircraft in the airport area. One of the ultralights apparently inadvertently flew into the path of a balloon rising from below. It penetrated the envelope, and fortunately for the pilot, became entangled with the balloon. Otherwise, he would have possibly fallen to his death. The entangled aircraft descended slowly at first and then began to speed up as air escaped from the balloon. The accident occurred about 2000 feet above the surface according to a statement by the balloon pilot. Some reports stated they “plummeted to the ground,” but an attendee estimated the descent took 45 seconds. You can judge for yourself the serious potential of the “slow plummet” from this video taken from some distance. One can only guess as to any conversation between the participants during the descent. The balloon impacted a fence in a parking lot next to the airport. Three people in the balloon suffered minor injuries and the paraglider pilot was evacuated with head and spinal injuries.
Pilots of all powered aircraft understand that free balloons have the right of way and that we must try to see and avoid other aircraft. We won’t know the cause of the accident until the investigation is completed, but absent any reports of mechanical problems, pilot error will be blamed. We should try to understand how the ultralight pilot found himself in this situation and learn from it. A discussion by Roy Beisswenger and Jeff Goin on the challenges of see-and-avoid and the importance of maintaining your visual scan can be heard on the archives of Powered Sport Flying Radio. Distraction and blind spots can make it possible for a pilot to miss seeing something as large as a hot-air balloon. Jeff Goin has more discussion of the accident and a video simulation on his website www.FootFlyer.com. His video shows that very slight turns while flying in traffic can greatly improve your chance of seeing other aircraft.
Subsequent news reports and a recently released preliminary NTSB report add more information but still don’t provide any answers. Some witnesses stated the paraglider was circling the balloon, but he could have been above the balloon and unaware of its presence. The balloon pilot reported he called out to the paraglider pilot when he saw the craft maneuvering close to the balloon. Most powered pilots wear earplugs for hearing protection, so it wouldn’t have been heard. The powered paraglider pilot stated he was taking photos at the time of the accident. Paragliders are typically steered with hand controls, so there is the possibility of a delayed control input or a failure to correctly judge the flight path. Whatever the reason, it’s bad publicity for ultralights and aviation that might have been prevented by more diligence and more conservative airmanship. We are all lucky the outcome wasn’t more serious.