Balloon crash after fire over Virginia: Hot air flight serene but not without risk

Balloon crash:  Hot air balloon accidents are rarely fatal, but the last few years have seen several mishaps, including a crash in Virginia Friday evening that left two people dead, and another missing.

Matt Gade/The Tri-City Herald/AP
Balloons are inflated during the 40th Annual Balloon Stampede in Walla Walla, Wash., Thursday, May 8, 2014. On Friday night, a balloon caught fire and crashed in Virginia. Three people aboard are presumed dead.

[Updated 7 p.m. May 10]

Two people are dead and one other is presumed deceased after an explosive hot air balloon crash in Doswell, Va., Friday evening – one in a line of recent accidents involving the lighter-than-air technology that first carried man aloft in 1783.

The balloon was one of three that lifted off at around 8 p.m. Friday for a short “Friday Flights Happy Hour” cruise at the popular Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival in Caroline County, Va.

Two of the balloons landed safely at a designated landing area north of the takeoff spot, but the third balloon touched a utility wire on descent, catching fire. The added heat forced the balloon higher into the air as the occupants called for help and the pilot struggled to release the extra heat.

Officials said Saturday morning that they had recovered one body and continued searching for wreckage of the balloon and wicker basket. Conceding the severity of the accident, officials said they were “transitioning from rescue to recovery” as the search continued at daybreak Saturday. By 1 p.m. a second body had been recovered. The Federal Aviation Administration, which inspects balloons and certifies pilots, was on scene to investigate what happened.

A University of Richmond women's basketball team staff member was one of three occupants on a hot air balloon that crashed in Virginia, a family spokeswoman said Saturday afternoon.

The spokeswoman, Julie Snyder, told The Associated Press that Natalie Lewis' body has not been found. However, state police have described their search as an operation to recover remains. The remains of the pilot and the second passenger have been recovered after being found about 1,500 yards apart in densely wooded areas. They have not been identified.

Ballooning is normally a “very safe, routine activity," Glen Moyer, editor of Ballooning magazine, told USA Today last year. According to FAA statistics, only 67 out of 760 ballooning accidents in the US have been fatal, or about 8 percent.

But there have also been dramatic crashes in recent years. Last year, 19 people died when a balloon floating over Luxor, the Egyptian city of pyramids, caught fire and crashed. In 2012, a hot air balloon accident killed 11 people in New Zealand. In 2011, a balloon crashed after hitting high-tension wires in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but occupants received only minor injuries.

Witnesses at the Virginia balloon festival said the balloon-riders were yelling for help after the basket became engulfed in flames. The fire grew quickly and then witnesses noted an explosion, when the balloon became detached from the basket.

"As soon as we looked up, the thing blew up right there … it was like a match, poof, and then it was gone," local resident Debra Ferguson told the Free Lance-Star, of Fredericksburg.

Local officials said Saturday morning that they had discovered a small debris field from the explosion, but have not yet found the balloon or the basket. All or some of the flying machine may have burned up in the air, aviation experts say.

Shaken festival organizers said they have cancelled the rest of the weekend’s activities.

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