Politics & Government

Hot-air balloon pilot got too close to power lines, investigators say

WASHINGTON — An experienced balloon pilot's "failure to maintain clearance from power lines" led to an April 18 accident near Tracy, federal investigators have concluded.

Pilot David V. Lester escaped without injury in the previously unpublicized accident. His female passenger, though, fractured two vertebrae in her lower back during the early morning mishap.

Hot-air balloon accidents are relatively uncommon, in California and nationwide. The Tracy incident was only the fourth balloon accident investigated this year by the National Transportation Safety Board, and it was the first of its kind in California since January 2007.

The safety board's accident report quietly made public Monday reveals a flight that seemed routine right up until the final moments. The wind was light, the temperature was in the mid-50s and the skies were clear when Lester took off from near Tracy Airport at 7:30 that Saturday morning.

Lester is a 56-year-old Tracy resident who has logged more than 90 hours of balloon flight time, 60 of them as the pilot in command. His sole passenger on April 18 was a Stockton resident in her early 30s.

There is at least one hot-air balloon company offering recreational flights out of Tracy Airport, but Lester is a non-commercial pilot who owns his own balloon.

After flying for about 45 minutes, Lester was steering his 731-pound balloon down toward an open field for landing. He subsequently told a safety board investigator that the balloon suddenly slowed down when it was about 220 feet above the ground.

"About five seconds later, he noticed power line wires were traveling down the side of the balloon's envelope and had trapped the passenger against the basket," the safety board reported.

Neither Austin nor Lester had seen the power lines prior to getting entangled, they said. The passenger was able to free herself from the wires and Lester kicked them away from the basket.

"The balloon subsequently ascended 200 feet, and (Lester) proceeded to initiate a landing in the nearest open field without further incident," the safety board stated.

The 10-page safety board report does not clarify whether Lester's passenger suffered the "serious" injury to her back when the balloon ascended suddenly or during the landing or some other time during the flight.

Neither Lester nor the passenger could be reached to comment Tuesday.

Around airports and within the blogosphere, though, the relative safety of hot-air balloons compared to airplanes can spark ongoing debate. Balloons account for only a small percentage of the roughly 1,600 general aviation accidents reported to federal investigators annually. But when they occur, they can be deadly.

In September, for instance, a pilot in rural Pennsylvania was landing a commercial balloon packed with seven passengers when disaster struck.

"The basket contacted the ground, 'bounced and skipped across the ground,' and temporarily stopped in an upright position," the safety board subsequently reported. "It then rolled to the right, returned to the upright position, and then rolled over onto its' left side. Passengers reported feeling and seeing the flames coming from the area of the basket."

The pilot was killed, four passengers were seriously injured and three passengers suffered minor injuries in the Pennsylvania accident.