A hot air balloon drifts past a mountain peak north of Phoenix Feb. 14. / Charlie Riedel, AP
The National Transportation Safety Board has investigated 760 hot air balloon accidents in the U.S. and two overseas since 1964, but most of the accidents haven't been fatal, records show.
When a hot air balloon carrying tourists over Luxor, Egypt's city of pyramids, caught fire and crashed Tuesday, killing at least 19 people, it became one of the world's deadliest balloon accidents. Witnesses say some people leaped 1,000 feet to their deaths from the balloon's burning basket.
"People have been flying hot air balloons safely, since 1783 to be exact, long before the Wright Brother's first successful powered flight in 1903," air safety expert Carl Holden of Australia said after a hot air balloon accident last year in New Zealand killed 11 people.
Of the 760 U.S. accidents, 67 have been fatal, NTSB records show.
The FAA regulates hot air balloons as it regulates any other aircraft, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor says.
Hot air balloon pilots must be certified and the balloons must have an air worthiness certificate, he said. The FAA inspects the balloons used for commercial ventures after 100 hours of flight time or at least once a year, he said.
"We have some pretty robust regulations in place to ensure aircraft operations are safe," Gregor said.
It is unclear whether Egypt subjects balloon companies to similar regulations, but Thomas Cook, a travel agency that promoted the excursion and had four of its customers on the ill-fated ride, called the company that operated the balloon "reputable."
"Ballooning is normally a very safe, routine activity," said Glen Moyer, editor of Ballooning magazine, the in-house publication of the 2,200-member Balloon Federation of America. "It's an activity that thousands of people participate in all the time and do so safely."
In the United States, hot air balloons, which use propane gas to heat the air that rises into the balloon and lifts it, are built to standards approved by the FAA, Moyer said. Pilots must demonstrate proficiency in emergency skills as well as ability to operate the balloon to get a license and then go through a flight review every two years, he said.
The last accident in the U.S. occurred Oct. 10 in Albuquerque when an Aerostar International balloon landed in high winds during the International Balloon Fiesta, records show. The balloon hit a fence. The impact damaged the balloon's basket and two passengers had minor injuries, the NTSB said in its report.
The last two fatal accidents also involved poor weather.
In March 2012, a balloon pilot died after his balloon was unable to climb over a fast-developing hail storm and crashed into the woods in Fitzgerald, Ga. The pilot for Firefly Balloons had taken seven passengers on a sport parachute flight.
Shortly after the flight took off, the ground crew learned of a severe storm in the area and contacted the pilot by radio. The pilot had the passengers parachute out of the balloon but told the ground crew he would try to get over the storm. The balloon caught an updraft and crashed, the report said.
Another fatal accident investigated by the NTSB involved a U.S.-owned hot air balloon that crashed into the Adriatic Sea in international waters off the coast of Italy in 2010, killing the pilot and co-pilot, a renowned, champion balloon racing crew. The balloon, owned by Peak Express Balloon of Albuquerque, had entered the Coupe Aeronautique Gordon Bennett 2010 International Gas Balloon Race.
The balloon, which took off from Bristol, England on Sept., 25, 2010, disappeared from Italian air-traffic control on Sept. 29, 2010, while over the Adriatic Sea, the report said. The pilot reported thunder and lightening shortly before air-traffic controllers tracked the balloon descending too quickly.
The investigation revealed that a meteorologist consulted the night before the flight had warned them of the bad weather and suggested another route. The balloon appeared to have been struck by lightning, records show.
Fishermen in a commercial fishing boat found the bodies of the pilot and co-pilot and the destroyed balloon on Dec. 6, 2010.
Contributing: Laura Bly
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