Friday 1 March 2013

Hot  Air  Balloon  Disasters  (Part I)

The only time I was ever in a hot air balloon was many years ago when the balloon I was in was tethered to the ground and only went up about 500 feet.  However, I imagine that it would be a lot more fun for many of us if we went up a couple thousand feet looking down at the landscape.

Unfortunately, there have been some rather tragic accidents that shouldn’t have happened but did happen. Here are some of the ones I have found in my research beginning with one that took place in February 2013.


Twenty tourists from France, Belgium, Hungary, Japan and Hong Kong were enjoying their climb at sunrise just outside of the town of Luxor on Tuesday, February 26, 2013 and once in the air, they saw in the distance the huge ancient temple of Karnak, in the foreground the Valley of the Kings, and below them, the river Nile.      

Unfortunately, they had a problem when the balloon was returning to earth. The balloon’s pilot, Moman Mourad, had reported a problem with the gas cylinder to the ground controller and tried to land before the accident. When the basket carrying the tourists and their pilot was approximately 15 metres (49 feet) from the ground and the balloon was in the process of landing, a snagged landing cable got caught around a tube which then ruptured it.  Suddenly a jet of fuel from a dislodged gas pipe caught fire when it hit the wicker cradle that was already alight and within seconds, the balloon was soaring back into the air. Another balloon pilot who was nearby said he thought the feeder gas pipe was dislodged as the ground crew tried to tether the balloon while pulling its rope tight. 

Official sources in Egypt's aviation sector have said that an initial investigation pointed to human error and said the pilot should have locked the gas valve just before landing. Because he didn’t do this, that was the reason why the gas hose caught fire. The report said that he jumped from the balloon instead of locking the gas valve after the jet of fuel caught fire. If he had locked the valve before the hose was ruptured, the balloon would have landed safely. A tourist was apparently blown by the explosion from the gondola. He wasn’t seriously injured. The pilot however was burned quite badly before he leaped from the gondola.

Now as we all know, when heat forms just below the opened end of the balloon, it causes the balloon to rise. The last thing anyone in that gondola below the ball0on wanted to occur was for the balloon to suddenly surge upward again.  Because when that would happen, the balloon would be out of control and if it catches fire when it is high in the sky, anyone still in the basket would be doomed.

I am convinced that the pilot yelled for everyone to jump out of the basket. Other than the pilot and one of the tourists who also leaped out of the basket, the others remained in the basket while the basket was soaring upward. I have no idea why the other tourists didn’t immediately leap out of the basket like the pilot and the one surviving tourist did. Admittedly, the drop would be no different that jumping from a five story building but if they did jump out of the basket at that height, they may very well have survived like the pilot and the other tourist did.

With the two men having left the balloon, it became lighter and with the enormous fire immediately below the opening of the balloon, it shot upwards at a fairly fast clip and when it reached 100 metres (328 feet) from the ground, eight passengers who were on fire, jumped from the basket. I think that they knew that they wouldn’t survive from falling that distance from the ground. An instant death on impact with the ground is far preferable to slowly burning to death although one of them lived a few moments after he hit the ground but he died shortly after that. I also believe that the remaining passengers in the basket were either dead by then and if they were almost dead, they wouldn’t have been able to climb over the side of the gondola.   

Meanwhile, the balloon continued to rise and when it reached 1,500 feet, (300 metres) a hydrogen gas tank exploded and then smoke ebbed up around the balloon, gradually enveloping it, before it collapsed and fell to earth.

It took 40 seconds to reach the ground. When it almost reached the ground, a huge fire could suddenly be seen in the area of the basket and seconds later, the balloon, the basket, the tanks and the bodies struck the ground. There were four hydrogen tanks on board. One exploded in the air, the other three after it hit the ground. It landed in a field of unripe wheat nearby, where its remaining three hydrogen canisters exploded, ending any hope of survival for those who still remained inside.                                                        

Apparently, the balloon was in an appalling condition before take-off and should never have been permitted to leave the ground according to General Mamdough Khaled, director of security for Luxor. It could be because of the wear and tear due to poor maintenance. According to the investigating teams, the company that operates the balloon rides, Sky Cruise, had passed a routine inspection by the Civil Aviation Ministry on February 13-15.

This raises an interesting question. If the balloon was in appalling condition, then how come it passed the inspection?  Egypt’s civil authorities, led by the local governor and the ministry of civil aviation, which licenses balloons, ordered an inquiry amid claims by tourist officials that inspection standards had lapsed since the revolution two years ago.

Egyptian authorities have banned all hot-air balloon flights indefinitely and Prime Minister Hisham Qandil ordered an investigation into the tragedy.

This wasn’t the only accident involving a hot air balloon in Egypt.  Sunrise balloon trips over the Karnak and Luxor temples and nearby Valley of the Kings, home to the tomb of King Tutenkhamun, are popular with visitors but have prompted safety concerns before.
The hot air balloon industry in Luxor has a chequered safety record, with a number of accidents in recent years. In April 2009, 16 people were hurt when a balloon crashed after hitting a cellphone transmission tower near the banks of the Nile. After the accident, balloon flights over the Valley of the Kings were suspended for six months while safety measures were tightened up. At least four other non-fatal crashes later that year involved tourists, including three on one day, and there were also crashes in 2007 and 2008.  
Balloon rides were halted in 2009 and 2010 while safety procedures were tightened. Obviously, they weren’t strengthened enough. The head of Luxor’s Chamber of Tourism, Mohammed Osman, accused the ministry of civil aviation, which is responsible for granting licences, of letting standards slip since 2010 and particularly since the revolution.                                          
I am glad that when my wife and I visited Luxor in 1995, we didn’t visit those sites by flying in an air balloon. We were given a private tour by an Egyptologist who took us to the sites via an air-conditioned van. Although ancient sites look fantastic from the air, they also look fantastic from the ground—where the viewing of the sites are done with less risk. 

No comments: