x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Ballooning in UAE 'safer than ever' after regulations overhaul

As the UAE hot air ballooning season gets under way, operators say the adventure activity is safer now than it ever has been, thanks to lessons learnt.

Balloon operators in the UAE are now required to adhere new safety regulations after a crash in Al Ain in 2010 killed two people and paralysed another.
Balloon operators in the UAE are now required to adhere new safety regulations after a crash in Al Ain in 2010 killed two people and paralysed another.

Hot-air balloon operators are assuring adventurers the activity is safer than ever – because lessons have been learnt from previous accidents.

They spoke out as the UAE winter ballooning season launches and as the national team heads for the Tannheimer Tal ballooning festival in the Austrian Alps next week, the only Arab team to attend.

Two tourists were killed and one man paralysed when a craft crashed in April 2010 in Al Ain. The injured man died a year later.

The incident prompted the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) to enforce new safety regulations that year to ensure such a tragedy would not happen again.

Operators are now required to install a weather station at each take-off site, which must be checked by two pilots before a flight and must store data for two years.

Balloons must be fitted with three-dimensional GPS data recorders to measure the craft’s path and speed.

The balloon operator involved in the accident, Emirates Balloon Adventures, has recently added a new attraction to its fleet – a 500,000-cubic-metre balloon called BOB.

According to the company’s managing director, Peter Kollar, it is one of the world’s biggest and safest hot-air balloons.

The basket is more stable when in the air, he said, and was equipped with better protection for passengers if there was a heavy landing.

“It is built to extreme specification. We’re trying to learn from the accident to improve to the maximum,” said Mr Kollar, who has flown in the UAE since 2004.

BOB, like the rest of the company’s balloons, has safety belts.

These are not a requirement of the GCAA, which follows international standard guidelines, but Mr Kollar said they were good to have.

Safety belts may have helped in the Al Ain accident. The Polish pilot, Piotr Gorny, briefed the passengers twice to hold on to the safety ropes before the balloon made an emergency landing due to a sudden, strong wind, Mr Kollar said.

But a French and Indian passenger fell out of the basket after it landed and were crushed when it toppled over them. The man who died later was from Tanzania.

“With the safety harness, even if they wanted to, they can’t really escape,” Mr Kollar said.

But Ismaeil Mohammed Al Balooshi, executive director of GCAA’s Safety Affairs Sector, said restraining passengers may not always be the safest option.

“The conclusion of the scenario [in 2010] was that seat belts might have saved lives but, in other situations, we could be putting people more at risk if they are tied to the basket with a seat belt,” he said.

The accident prompted the GCAA to step up the number of audits for the UAE’s four operators – two of which are private – from none to at least two a year.

Mr Al Balooshi said they checked to see whether the balloons met “required equipment standards” and “monitors and follows a very accurate source of weather forecast”.

They also “make sure the operator is capable of operating the equipment”.

GCAA launched a public awareness campaign after the accident.

According to the only other commercial ballooning company in the country, Amigos Balloons, which was also the first, this is the most important aspect of safety.

The company’s chief pilot, captain Tariq Al Omari, said hot-air balloons were “very safe, but humans are not”.

“Technology has developed but we still have to account for human error,” he said.

Human error may have contributed to the crash, according to the accident report, as the pilot was found to be inexperienced flying in windy weather.

Mr Kollar said there was “no magical solution” to ensuring 100 per cent safety when flying balloons.

“It doesn’t matter how good the pilot is, and regulations only go so far – they can’t prevent an aircraft from being struck by lightning,” he said.

molson@thenational.ae