RUTHER GLEN, Va. – A federal report determined that the hot-air balloon crash in May 2014 which killed a pilot and two University of Richmond staffers at the inaugural Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival was the pilot’s fault.
The probable cause report released by the National Transportation Safety Board stated that the pilot’s inadequate approach and his failure to maintain clearance from power lines resulted in a subsequent fire.
On May 9, 2014 UR staffers Ginny Doyle and Natalie Lewis took one of the first voyages of the festival, traveling with pilot Daniel Kirk, who had over 30 years of experience and 660 hours of flight time.
Three balloons left Meadow Event Park headed for the same destination, and Kirk’s was the last to make attempt landing.
Witnesses to the accident reported observing the balloon approaching the landing zone from the south where another balloon had just landed, the NTSB report stated.
"A video obtained from one of the witnesses showed that, as the balloon descended and approached the landing site, the pilot engaged the burner; however, shortly after, the balloon struck power lines, which resulted in a spark," the report stated. "Subsequently, the basket and a section of the balloon’s envelope caught fire."
"The balloon then began an accelerated climb and drifted out of the camera’s view. The wreckage was found about six miles north of the power lines. Examination of the wreckage revealed no preexisting mechanical anomalies with the balloon."
According to the probable cause report, the Federal Aviation Administration guidance on balloon flying states that, if there is an obstacle between the balloon and the landing site, the pilot should either give the obstacle appropriate clearance and drop in from altitude; reject the landing and look for another landing site; or fly a low approach to the obstacle, fly over the obstacle allowing plenty of room, and then land.
“It is likely that the pilot identified the power lines late in the approach and ignited the burner to climb but that insufficient time remained to clear the power lines,” the report concluded.
Beth Dyakon, who lives across the street from the crash scene, remembers the evening of May 9th, 2014 well.
“I stopped at the end of the driveway and just watched them,” Dyakon said.
She was heading out to grab dinner at Outback Steakhouse when she spotted several hot air balloons in the sky.
“I looked over and there was one kinda really low coming this way, and I was like he shouldn’t be that low, maybe they’re landing,” Dyakon said.
Inside of that balloon basket were Kirk, Doyle and Lewis.
Dyakon said just a few short minutes after she drove away, that balloon hit some power lines right across from her house and caught on fire.
“It was just awful, just thinking about how they must have felt,” Dyakon said.
Dyakon said even after hearing the NTSB’s findings, she doesn’t blame Kirk.
“I don’t think it was his error, but who knows, only God knows that,” Dyakon said.