x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Safety overhaul for balloon operators

For the first time since a fatal crash five months ago, passengers take to the sky in a hot air balloon with new safety features.

Hot air balloon pilot Peter Kollar, of Balloon Adventures Emirates, fills a balloon with hot air in the early morning desert light yesterday.
Hot air balloon pilot Peter Kollar, of Balloon Adventures Emirates, fills a balloon with hot air in the early morning desert light yesterday.

AL AIN // Passengers took to the sky above Al Ain in a hot air balloon yesterday for the first time since a fatal crash five months ago.

New safety features have been introduced since two tourists died, a crew member was paralysed and nine other people were injured when a balloon operated by Balloon Adventures Emirates crashed in high winds on April 25.

The General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) suspended the company’s licence immediately after the accident, but it was cleared of any wrongdoing by the GCAA and courts and the permit was restored last month.

The GCAA imposed new rules on balloon operators after the fatal crash.

They 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.

They must also fit balloons with three-dimensional GPS data recorders, to measure the craft’s path and speed.

There is also a small but significant loosening of the rules. Balloons were previously allowed to take off and land at only designated sites. In an emergency they may now land anywhere necessary to save lives or property. The rules about take-offs remain.

Yesterday’s flight started in a gentle breeze, with a wind speed of about 4kph. The balloon climbed to 4,000 feet, travelling at an average speed of 14kph, and 65 minutes later it touched down safely.

Among the passengers were RP Venkatesh and his wife, Seetha Nandhini, both business owners from India, who had been looking forward to it.

“It’s been very special and unique,” Mr Venkatesh said. “I felt very close to nature and 100 per cent safe.”

Mrs Nandhini said: “A balloon flight was one thing that was lacking from my list of adventures. I have done base and bungee jumping, flown in a microlite and now have flown in a hot air balloon.”

Canadian newlyweds Kevin and Ally Manson, who came to Dubai as part of their honeymoon, also enjoyed the flight.

“It was a little hot under the burner, but we enjoyed being over the desert,” Mr Manson said. The Mansons were unaware of the crash five months ago. “There are chances in everything you do in life,” Mrs Manson said.

“We are happy we did it; we had a wonderful time.”

Balloon Adventures says it has not only spent about Dh400,000 on bringing its operation up to the new standards, it has gone further, with a safety harness system that it believes will make its balloons the safest in the world.

“The seat belts are not a GCAA requirement but we have purchased them for Dh100,000 and will be installing them within days,” said Peter Kollar, the company’s co-owner.

“We are going above and beyond what is required to ensure passenger safety. Balloon Adventures Emirates will be the only ballooning company in the world to have them.”

The fatal crash happened when a balloon being flown by the Polish pilot Piotr Gorny, 45, came in for an emergency landing in unexpectedly high winds. As it hit the ground, the gondola tipped on its side and was dragged 300 metres.

Passengers Mukesh Shah and Jean-Pierre Chamignon were killed, and Hilary Mtui, a crewman, was seriously injured. It is not known if the three tried to jump to safety or were ejected by the force of the impact. All three were crushed by the two-tonne, 24-passenger gondola, one of the largest in the world.

Mr Gorny was arrested after the crash and an Al Ain criminal court sentenced him to a year in prison, fined him Dh20,000 and ordered him to pay Dh200,000 in blood money to the families of each man killed.

But when the GCAA inquiry found that neither Mr Gorny nor Balloon Adventures had been negligent, an appeals court judge ordered his release. He had spent two and a half months in prison.

With the company and pilot cleared, and the new rules in place, at 6am yesterday balloon Bravo Alpha Delta left the ground near Nahel, 50km outside Al Ain, with three pilots – including Mr Gorny – and 11 passengers on board.

Although the memory of that day still haunts him, Mr Gorny was pleased to be flying again.

“Ballooning is my life,” he said.

However, Mr Kollar was the pilot in charge yesterday.

ealghalib@thenational.ae