Rattlesnakes in the sky…

By now, most of you have probably read about the tragic balloon accident in Albuquerque last weekend that claimed five lives. 

Many friends, who know I am a hot air balloon pilot, have asked me whether I knew the pilot and wondered what might have happened. I was familiar with the pilot, probably met him a time or two, but could not say we were friends. Yet, in the ballooning community, we are all close friends.

As far as I could tell, he was an experienced pilot. Somehow, despite his experience, a set of powerlines snuck up on him, or he experienced some kind of burner or mechanical failure which made it impossible for him to avoid the lines. We’ll know more as the NTSB investigation proceeds. It’s too early to speculate now.

In our balloon pilot training and in our frequent safety seminars, we are constantly reminded about the dangers of powerlines. In one seminar I attended, they were aptly branded as “Rattlesnakes in the sky.”

They’ve been my biggest fear in hot air ballooning. Luckily, I only had one incident early in my flying career where a powerline snuck up on me during a landing. It was a single strand of lines whose supporting poles were hidden by trees on both ends. I was also looking directly in the direction of the early morning sun, when spotting thin lines is much more difficult. When I spotted the line, my training kicked in and I made an immediate but safe and ugly landing before striking the line. Had I hit the line, it probably would have just snagged the top of the balloon envelope and resulted in some minor rips but no injuries. Nothing like what happened in Albuquerque on Saturday. 


Not much chance of hitting a powerline at this altitude, but I’m always on the watch.

So should we back away from hot air ballooning because of an tragic accident like this? 

I have a friend whose son was killed in a rock climbing accident. I have another friend whose son was partially paralyzed in a snowboarding accident. My long time best friend almost drowned in a river while he was enjoying the gentle art of fly fishing. 

Many individual and group outdoor pursuits are considered to be “risk exercise” activities. Scientists say when you end a successful day of skiing, rock climbing or hot air ballooning, you may be physically exhausted but the noodles in your brain let you know that you “cheated death or injury” and sends you a rush of a adrenalin. It’s why a celebratory beer or party always seems in order after such a day.

So no, we can’t stop being hot air balloon adventurers, skiers, rock climbers or even fly fishermen who wade into rushing waters to catch an elusive trout. 

We have to calculate risks versus rewards, like we do all through life. We can’t stop doing things that bring us and others enjoyment. 

Please pray for the families of those killed in the accident in Albuquerque and keep a proper perspective about what makes our lives fulfilling. 

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