AL AIN // Two people died when a hot-air balloon crashed in the desert during an emergency landing in high winds 50km north of Al Ain early yesterday. The balloon's gondola, with a pilot, one crew member and 12 passengers on board, was dragged through the desert for 300 metres after the initial impact. Two passengers were buried in sand inside the gondola, and had to be dug out by the survivors.
The two who died were thrown from the gondola on impact, along with a Tanzanian crewman who was on his first flight. He was seriously injured, and was in critical condition last night in the intensive-care unit of Tawam Hospital in Al Ain. The passengers who died were Mukesh Shah, who was visiting from India with his wife and daughter, and a French national who has not been named. Mr Shah had arrived in Dubai with his family a week ago, and took the balloon flight with his daughter. "We were all supposed to fly home tonight," his wife said. "We had been married for 29 years. It's going to be difficult to live without him."
The balloon was operated by Balloon Adventures Emirates (BAE), based in Dubai. The police and the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) are investigating the crash and BAE have suspended operations pending the outcome of the investigation. The pilot is in police custody. One of the passengers, a South African woman, said the gondola barely cleared some trees before it hit the ground. "We were coming in for a landing that I felt was too fast," she said. "The pilot told us to brace ourselves for a hard landing, and moments later we were tumbling end over end. Every one of us had some sort of injury - bumps, bruises, or cuts. We began counting the number of people that were there when someone noticed three figures in the sand 200 metres away.
"We ran over to check on them. It was obvious that two were dead. The third man, a member of the crew, was conscious but had terrible wounds to his head. We just sat there in shock and horror until help arrived." Peter Kollar, 48, the director of BAE, said last night: "My heart goes out to the victims' families and of course to our crew member who is in hospital. Losing people is always devastating, and this is the second time in my life I have been close to fatalities. It is like a nightmare, the worst possible circumstance."
Mr Kollar was twice convicted of breaching safety standards while running a ballooning company in New Zealand, including an incident in 1995 in which three tourists died. In an interview with The National last year, he said he had never denied or hidden his history and did not believe it was relevant to the GCAA's decision to authorise the company to operate commercial balloon flights or to give him a UAE commercial pilot's licence. "It's completely irrelevant," he said.
Last night other passengers described their ordeal. Christopher Bouwer, 25, from South Africa, said they had arrived about 4am for their scheduled flight, but that the pilot, a Polish man, was concerned about the wind speed. "After about 30 or 40 minutes of waiting, the pilot said it was safe to take off," Mr Bouwer said. "We flew for 30 minutes, and when we came to land, we were told to get in the landing stance. We were coming down way too fast.
"There was a huge impact with a sand embankment and we began tumbling in the basket for about 300 metres. Three people were flung out. Two were dead and one was severely injured. Two people were buried in the sand that entered the basket. We had to dig them out. We waited two hours for help to arrive." Nicole Bailey, 24, a personal assistant from South Africa, said: "I felt uneasy up in the air, and closed my eyes just before the landing. For 30 minutes after the crash, I didn't know what was happening around me because I hit my head so hard that I don't remember very much. It was an awful, awful experience."
The National Center for Meteorology and Seismology said it issued a weather warning yesterday - the lowest category of alert - aimed at people whose sports might be affected by bad weather. A spokesman for the centre, said that the monitoring station at Al Ain airport recorded a wind speed of 35kph at 7am yesterday. "The wind was north-westerly," the meteorology centre spokesman said. "It would have been quite fresh and maybe the beginning of strong winds."
The weather at this time of year is in a "transitional period", he added, as the season moves from the cooler winter months to hot summer. That can lead to "a lot of flux", he said. John Fenton, the chairman of the British Association of Balloon Operators, said all aircraft were susceptible to sudden changes in weather. The most crucial element to safe flight, he said, was to obtain an up-to-date meteorological report.
Although the investigation into the crash is ongoing, Mr Kollar confirmed that the pleasure flight had been forced down by high winds. "There was an extremely strong and unexpected gust of wind about 10 minutes into the flight and the pilot had to make an emergency landing," he said. "The fatalities occurred when the basket hit the ground at very fast speeds. The wind was too strong. We are completely at the mercy of the weather."
Mr Kollar added that he or his pilots check weather forecasts for Dubai and Al Ain every morning before flying and overnight for any changes. He said the pilot also assesses the conditions from the launch site. "Today the pilot waited for around 30 minutes for the wind to die down and then they had a normal take-off," he said. "If the winds were too strong the balloon would not have been able to take off. It is a 40-metre-high balloon, and if the force of winds on it are too much, it cannot inflate."
Overcast skies will not automatically affect balloon flight, he added. "[Yesterday's] flight was well within the range of taking off procedures; we've had much more difficult take offs than this," he said. "There are often clouds. We had no indication of the extreme conditions. I am shocked and very sad at what has happened." Saif al Suwaidi, director general of the GCAA, declined to speculate on what specifically might have caused the accident.
"It's too early to tell if this was human error or God's will," Mr al Suwaidi said. "I cannot predict the causes, it could be that there was a problem with the balloon, the weather, or pilot error." He said the investigation into the causes of the crash is entirely the responsibility of the GCAA, with no police involvement, and could not give details on when it would be completed. Balloon Adventures Emirates is licensed to operate such flights and no issues have been reported with the company, he added.
"If [the owner] has a valid licence from his country then he can obtain a licence here. We issue a licence based on the fact that he has a valid licence and don't go further than this," he said. "If you come to the Emirates and want a driving licence the traffic authority doesn't check their driving history, they just have to be qualified - it's the same with flying." The balloons used by the company are some of the largest in the world, and can accommodate up to 24 passengers. They weigh about 3,000kg, including the five 80-litre propane tanks needed for a one-hour flight. They can rise and fall at speeds of up to 600 feet per minute and travel at 10kph to 15kph under normal conditions. According to BAE's website, passengers pay Dh950 to watch the sun rise at an altitude of about 1,500 metres over the sand dunes of Al Ain.
"We have been operating for the past five years in the UAE with no previous accidents, our safety record is one of the best in the industry. We deeply regret the loss of life," said a spokesperson for BAE. email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org *With reporting by Loveday Morris, Charlie Hamilton and Suryatapa Bhattacharya