Despite horror of Egyptian crash, ballooning remains safe

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WALLA WALLA — As a longtime hot-air balloon pilot, I and my friends who fly hot-air balloons were deeply saddened to learn of the tragic accident in Egypt and the accompanying loss of life.

Nineteen people were killed Tuesday when a balloon carrying tourists crashed in Luxor.

My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. This accident is far and away the worst in the history and sport of ballooning.

Hot-air ballooning is man’s oldest form of flight and is an activity enjoyed safely by thousands of people of all ages and walks of life around the world.

As in any form of transportation, it is impossible to eliminate all risk. Sadly one such instance occurred in Egypt.

There are thousands of balloon flights daily around the world and you never hear about the ones that are good.

Unlike some foreign countries, the United States has an independent and effective agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, that oversees sport pilots and commercial-ride operators with regular maintenance and pilot safety standards.

Hot-air balloons in the U.S. are governed by the FAA’s rules and regulations, just like other forms of aviation. These regulations set the requirements for pilot training and safety inspections of our aircraft, and include:

All hot-air balloons operated in the U.S. must be inspected annually or every 100 hours of flight time by a qualified FAA approved inspector. Inspection includes basket, fabric, burners, propane tanks, hoses, etc.

Last week our balloon underwent a comprehensive annual inspection in Albany, Ore., which took over eight hours and three people doing the inspection.

Propane tanks are static tested along with propane lines inspected and periodically changed because of age and usage. Fabric is tested for strength and porosity.

Student pilot training includes appropriate emergency procedures, and a student must demonstrate proficiency in these procedures in order to earn a Lighter-than-Air pilot certificate from the FAA.

Pilots are required to successfully complete to a flight review, which includes review of emergency procedures, by a licensed ‘inspector’ pilot every two years.

Balloon manufacturers are certified and only FAA approved parts are allowed to be used during manufacture or replacement. Repairs are also highly regulated and must be done by certified repair stations.

Among balloonists, safety education and training is a constant priority. Each year, safety seminars occur across the United States and pilot participation is encouraged. The FAA also has its “Wings” program as a form of recurrent training.

The Walla Walla Balloon Stampede also sets additional requirements beyond FAA standards for balloonists who attend our community event.

These standards include logging an additional minimum 12-flight hours per year for familiarity, only pilots with commercial pilot certificates (licenses) are allowed to carry sponsored passengers, pilots need to own the balloon they fly for familiarity, etc.

I am confident the responsible investigatory agencies in Egypt will eventually determine the cause of this tragic accident and will share with the members of the ballooning community any information that might be discovered as it relates to the safe continued operations of hot air balloons in the United States.

Jerry Cummins is a local balloon pilot who has served as balloonmeister for the Walla Walla Balloon Stampede.

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