NTSB: Hot air balloon made contact with a utility wire

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CALDWELL COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — While the National Transportation Safety Board hasn’t determined what might have caused a hot air balloon to crash killing 16, initial information indicates the balloon did have contact with a utility transmission wire. NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt says there is physical evidence that some component of the balloon hit the wire itself and not the tower.

On Sunday, the NTSB’s Go Team arrived at the site of the wreckage to collect “perishable evidence” from the scene and then analyze that data to help determine what caused the crash and how to prevent similar incidents in the future, Sumwalt explained. In a news conference Sunday afternoon, Sumwalt said the investigation into Saturday’s crash near Lockhart will include a thorough look at the operator, the balloon and the environment. In particular, investigators will review the specific weather conditions and how it changed from take off until the incident.

“The weather report in the area showed a 500-foot ceiling. Not only the cloud cover, visibility and the winds, but we will also be looking at the temperature to see if the conditions might have created a density altitude,” said Sumwalt.

Sumwalt said the balloon, a Kubicek Model#BB85Z, was operated by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides. The passengers met the balloon operator at the Walmart in San Marcos at 5:45 a.m. Saturday and everyone rode together to Fentress Airpark in San Marcos where the balloon was scheduled to launch at sunrise. “The planned launch time was sunrise, which was 6:49 a.m. but for some reason they didn’t launch exactly at this time. It was delayed by as much as 20 minutes,” said Sumwalt. Less than one hour into the flight and about 8 miles from where the balloon took off, the first power line trip was reported by the utility company at 7:42 a.m. Approximately one minute later, a 911 call came in reporting a possible crash. Sumwalt says the envelope of the balloon was located about 3/4 of a mile northeast of the gondola.

In order to help investigators piece together what happened, they will be interviewing the balloon crew as well as look at the balloon’s maintenance records. Investigators have recovered 14 personal electronic devices (cellphones, one iPad and three cameras) from the wreckage. While the cameras appear to be destroyed, Sumwalt says the evidence will be turned over to the FBI to see if any information can still be extracted from the equipment.

If you witnessed or took any video/photographs of the balloon Saturday morning, you are asked to contact NTSB at witness@ntsb.gov.

The NTSB is expected to release a preliminary report within 10 days but the investigation will likely take several months before a final, factual finding report is made available.

“We’re not here to solve the accident at this time,” said Sumwalt. “We’re not going to speculate on the accident.”

Caldwell County State Representative John Cyrier, who is also an avid pilot, flew over the crash site Sunday afternoon and has his own theory on why the pilot was so low.

“I would assume he was coming in for a landing. I’ve seen that balloon land in that area, in that general vicinity before,” said Cyrier. He thinks the bad weather was also a key factor that morning. “Even here at this airport in Lockhart, there was several people that were going to go up for lessons and have flight instruction and they cancelled their flights… because of the low ceiling, the low cloud.”

What we know about the pilot/crew

The pilot at the time of the crash was Alfred “Skip” Nichols, 49, who was also the owner and operator of Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides. The NTSB says Nichols had a commercial pilot certificate with a balloon rating.

While the pilot was in the balloon, he did have a chase crew following him on the ground and they would communicate via cellphone. The NTSB said the pilot used his iPad to navigate. The company’s website states the flights usually take about an hour and the company takes off with two hours of fuel plus a 30-minute reserve of fuel.

Sumwalt said the Kubicek model involved in the crash had three propane tanks and three burners.

Vic Krusi, general manager of Skydive San Marcos, which also operates out of Fentress Airpark, says he’s familiar with the hot air balloon company. “They have been operating here for probably about two years.” said Krusi, who just missed Saturday’s launch when he showed up for work.

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