Beware the Hot Air… Balloons

Courtesy Flickr/brianfit.

518 riders. 91 serious injuries. 5 fatalities.

It sounds like a train wreck, a bus crash, a miscalculated plane landing.

In fact, it’s twelve years of hot air balloon tours.

The author was unable to find stats on how many people ride hot air balloons per year.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board and as reported by Johns Hopkins University, between 2000 and 2011, there were 78 crashed hot-air balloon tours.  (More surprising: there were more than 78 hot air balloon tours last year?)

81% of these crashed during landing.  Collisions with trees, buildings, or power lines made up 50% of serious injuries and all the fatalities.

You’d think this wasn’t at the top of the “data to be analyzed” list but this wasn’t actually the first such study. In 1994, Johns Hopkins analyzed similar statistics from 1984-1988. They found that of the 480 people who hopped a ride, 123 were seriously injured and 6 died (making today’s data sound much more positive). Unfortunately, Johns Hopkins concluded pilots were the culprit – all five student pilots flying solo landed with serious injuries and 88% of all crashes were attributed to pilots while only 11% were caused by equipment malfunctions.

Courtesy Flickr/danfri

Courtesy Flickr/danfri

It’s sturdy equipment for being invented and popularized so recently – just since the 1960’s.  Perhaps incongruous with the sentimental images of brightly-colored balloons drifting through blue skies (“Enjoy our in flight music and marvel at the awesome views as your hot air balloon ride floats along the gentle winds” proclaims High 5 Ballooning of New Hampshire), these rides are sophisticated machines.

Hot air balloons have been used for both recreation and research studies. Whether measuring particles in the atmosphere or wi-fi signals, balloons have proven surprisingly agile at taking human instruments and human bodies up into the air. In 1967, it was even proposed that hot air balloons retrieve objects falling from space (where the incredible energy of the falling object actually inflates the balloon and assists its descent).

Courtesy Flickr/comedy_nose

Courtesy Flickr/comedy_nose

While hot air keeps the balloon up, it’s a lack that brings it down. Early landing techniques had the pilot descending to about 100 feet before leveling off and landing at a pre-selected site. Unfortunately, it was hard to time the turning off of the burner with the distance from landing site and according to an early patent for a maneuvering valve (crica 1964), “it became the practice to make a number of landing attempts prior to reaching the desired landing spot or in some cases, the landing field was overshot.”

These rapid descents are the biggest danger – “gondola dragging, tipping, bouncing and occupant ejections” were all noted by Johns Hopkins’ recent study. (And in Buzzfeed style, there are lists on the internet of the worst accidents in recent memory.)  While both studies agree that more communication should be made to the public of the danger, I much prefer their earlier reports’ phrasing:

“Attention should be given to delethalizing balloon crashes.”

Hear, hear.

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