HOLMBERG: Causes of death in balloon crash typical of these disasters

Posted at 12:57 AM, May 14, 2014
and last updated 2014-05-14 07:51:39-04

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) - Virginia’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner released the causes of death in Friday’s hot air balloon crash in Caroline County:

Natalie Lewis:
CAUSE: acute thermal injury
MANNER: accident

Virginia Doyle
CAUSE: blunt force trauma to the neck and torso
MANNER: accident

Daniel Kirk
CAUSE: blunt force trauma to the head, torso and extremities
MANNER: accident

Historically, most hot air balloon fatalities involve falls, hard landings and fires and explosions.

Only a fraction of HAB accidents involve deaths. You can look at page after page of National Transportation Safety Board reports without seeing a fatality.

You can read the details, including causes,  of nearly all balloon accidents that have occurred in this country for 50 years by typing in “balloon” in the “aircraft” type search box on this site:

Based on this NTSB data, it appears the “probable cause”  report on the Caroline County disaster will be finished in three months to a year.

Like nearly all crashes, the incident was likely caused by sudden changes in weather and/or pilot error. Equipment failures are rare.

This crash is among the worst in US history. The worst on record is a six-fatality crash in Colorado in 1993 when a balloon hit a power line that severed the lines connecting the basket to the balloon.

Here’s that report. By reading it you can get an idea of how the one hear will  be presented.


On August 8, 1993, at 0800 mountain daylight time, a Cameron Balloons US N-145, N4141D, collided with the static line on a power transmission span near Woody Creek, Colorado. The pilot and the five passengers on board received fatal injuries and the balloon was destroyed. The flight was a commercial operation conducting a sight seeing tour. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed and no flight plan was filed. The flight departed Snowmass Village, Colorado, at approximately 0645.

According to witnesses, the balloon drifted west down the Aspen valley, to a point approximately 5 miles from the Aspen airport, where it encountered a rapid change in wind direction and velocity. The balloon then drifted east at low level and struck the static line.

A video tape of the accident sequence was taken from another balloon at a distance of approximately one half mile. The tape does not show the basket, but does show a flash at the impact site, and shows the balloon drifting and climbing with the basket missing.

Another witness said she saw the balloon drifting east just above the trees and saw the burner emitting periodic short bursts as the balloon proceeded laterally at high speed. The witness statement is attached.


According to available information, the pilot had flown balloons in the local area for at least two years and had flown numerous flights in the Aspen valley.


Recorded weather at the Aspen airport at 0745 local time was 6,000 feet scattered clouds, 7,000 feet broken clouds, 20 miles visibility, temperature 50 degrees Fahrenheit, dew point 44 degrees Fahrenheit, wind calm, and an altimeter setting of 30.00 Hg. Witnesses at the airport provided information that the wind at the airport often does not accurately reflect the winds in the center of the valley due to the airport being shielded by a hill from the wind which was reported by witnesses in the center of the valley where the balloon was operating.

Other weather given to the pilot, during the weather brief by Grand Junction Flight Service, is depicted in this document under WEATHER INFORMATION.

In addition to the above discussed video tape, another tape was taken from the ground. These tapes provide a depiction of the wind in the area at the time of the accident. They show the wind to be from the west with an increasing cloud cover. Witnesses estimated the wind to be approximately 30 miles per hour.


According to physical evidence observed, and metallurgical examination of components on the balloon cables and static line, impact with the static line separated the balloon from the basket and the basket fell to the ground. The balloon drifted further to the east and was recovered approximately 5 miles from the accident site.

The power line complex, which the balloon collided with, spans a gully approximately 240 feet wide and 70 feet deep. From a horizontal view, only the top transmission line and static line are visible due to trees. By measurement, the static line is 108 feet above the gully floor at the point of impact and the static line is 16 feet above the top transmission line.

An abrasion mark on the static line was found directly above where the basket impacted the gully floor. The attached metallurgical report examination of the 16 sheared cables, which attached the basket to the envelope, revealed fracture features typical of tensile overstress breaks with no indications of significant preexisting wear or corrosion.

The metallurgist stated that "two of the cables displayed metal transfer and analysis of the deposited material provided information that the material was primarily zinc which is used as a galvanization coating on the static line."

Examination of the basket revealed a crushed fuel tank cap, buckling and fractures of the frame, and deformation of the basket. There was no evidence of electrical arcing, and the power company automatic monitoring equipment did not record any shorts in the line.


The wreckage was released to the owner on 08/09/93. Retained parts are listed on the Release of Aircraft Wreckage form and are being returned to the owner's representative.

Watch the video with this report to get an idea of how safe balloons are compared with other types of travel. “Here’s a site dedicated to balloon safety and problems:

Roughly 4,000 pedestrians are struck and killed in the US every year. About 35,000 motorists die in that same average year.

And, on average, roughly two balloonists.

But far less miles are traveled by balloon. Computing the injury and fatality rate per mile, hour and trip travelled isn’t easy. But it appears ballooning is four to five times more deadly than fixed wing air travel.

But still safer than driving.