x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Crashed balloon pilot: 'I did my best'

Piotr Gorny is confident his actions on the day his hot air balloon was brought down by high winds near Al Ain, killing two passengers, actually saved lives.

Piotr Gorny discusses the day, April 25, when his balloon crashed in Nahel, near Al Ain, killing two of his 11 passengers.
Piotr Gorny discusses the day, April 25, when his balloon crashed in Nahel, near Al Ain, killing two of his 11 passengers.

DUBAI // For days after the hot air balloon he was piloting crashed killing two passengers, Piotr Gorny was jolted awake by memories of the fateful day.

The 45-year-old pilot from Poland had nightmares in which he could hear his passengers' screams and see the ones who died. He replayed the incident over and over in his mind. Three months on from the April 25 crash, he has been cleared by the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) and the Al Ain Appeals Courts of any wrongdoing. He has pored over the crash, the moments leading up to it and the aftermath, and each time has come to the same conclusion.

"There is nothing I could have done differently that could have prevented the accident from happening," Mr Gorny said yesterday during an interview with The National. "If I hadn't acted the way I did, many more, including myself, could have been killed. I did the best anyone could do when suddenly met with the unexpected weather conditions, conditions unlike any I had ever seen in 16 years as a hot air balloon pilot and instructor."

It was almost two years ago, when the Polish pilot was working in Germany, that he shared a flight with Peter Kollar, a partner in Al Ain's Balloon Adventures Emirates who hired him to come work in the UAE. Strong winds were blowing three months ago when Mr Gorny, his crew member Hilary Mtui, 27, from Tanzania, and 11 passengers arrived in Nahel, about 50km from Al Ain, for the pre-dawn flight. Concerned about the conditions, Mr Gorny decided to wait and see what would happen with the weather.

"We waited for between 30 minutes and an hour for the winds to die down," he said. "When I received permission to take off, wind speeds were at 0.7kph, which is within the balloon manufacturer's recommendations for take-off. I had taken off in similar conditions dozens of times before in the past year-and-a-half without incident. "I am not suicidal. I have a wife and three daughters. If conditions were dangerous to fly in, I would not have flown, knowing that if it's dangerous for me to fly then it's dangerous for my passengers as well."

As the balloon rose above the sand dunes of Nahel, reaching an altitude of 2,500ft, its GPS recorded wind speeds of 70kph. The GCAA permitted the balloon to fly only in a specific area, a "green zone", as Mr Gorny called it. He soon knew he would over-shoot it. "The balloon ride was supposed to last 45 minutes to an hour," he said. "At that speed we would be out of the green zone within a few minutes, so I decided to reduce my altitude down to 1,500ft, where wind speeds were at 45kph. We flew at that altitude for 20 minutes when the wind speed suddenly began to increase. No matter how low I flew, the winds got faster and faster."

He realised that if he did not go down soon, the landing would happen at a disastrous 70kph. "As we came to land at 45kph, I flew over some power lines and saw a clearing on the desert floor between two sand dunes," he said. "I brought the balloon down between them and was going to use one of the sand dunes as a brake to bring the balloon to a rest against." As the balloon came in to land, Mr Gorny opened the "smart vent" to release all the hot air from the balloon, thereby collapsing it, preventing it from taking off again.

"The landing was perfect, with the gondola upright and the balloon coming to rest atop the sand dune," he said. Mr Gorny told everyone to stay in the balloon, including the two men who would soon be dead: Jean-Pierre Chamignon, 53, a tourist from France, and Mukesh Shah, 56, who was visiting from India with his wife and his daughter. "Within a couple of seconds, the wind caught the balloon, and turned it into a sail, pulling the gondola up above the seven-metre sand dune and back down, dragging it at 15 to 20kph for 300 metres, on its side."

When the balloon stopped, Mr Gorny saw that two had died and that Mr Mtui had suffered a broken neck. He remains at Tawam Hospital, partially paralysed, awaiting surgery. Within an hour, emergency services and a helicopter arrived to ferry the injured. At the hospital Mr Gorny was treated for minor injuries and taken to Al Jimi Police Station, under arrest. The next day he was transferred to the Al Ain prison.

Soon after, he appeared in front of an Al Ain Criminal Court judge, who found him guilty of negligence and sentenced him to a year in jail. Ten weeks after the crash, an appeals court judge allowed him out of prison provided he surrender his passport as bail. On July 11, after the GCAA crash report cleared him of wrongdoing, all charges against him were dropped. Adventure Balloons Emirates is waiting for the GCAA to reinstate its licence and hopes to start flying again in October, when the new season begins. Mr Gorny is confident that will happen, and when it does, he plans to pilot once more.

"Ballooning is my life," he said. He still thinks of the accident every day, his thoughts mostly with the families of those who died. "It's too soon now for me to try to explain to them that what happened was not my fault, because I know they think it was my fault, it's normal," he said. "One day when the time is right, I will reach out to them, but this is something I will have to live with forever."

@Email:ealghalib@thenational.ae