Would You Like To Fly In My Beautiful Balloon?

Jeffrey Sherman's commercial ballooning company was called "Naturally High." As it turns out, he wasn't.

The pilotless balloon shot skyward again.
"The next thing I recall," A.T. Kearney employee Paul Laudicina later said in a deposition, "is that we were up some distance in the air and there was a dead silence. . . . I inquired . . . during this eerie silence as to where the pilot was, and they [passengers] pointed down below to Mr. Sherman who was spread-eagled on the other side of the cement block wall."

If Jim Harvey hadn't come to his senses and taken action, the passengers might not have survived.

As the giant runaway balloon caught an eight-knot wind and lurched along, Harvey feared it would crash-land into the junkyard, which was littered with old cars and machinery.

Although he'd never been in a balloon before, he ignited the propane burners. The balloon soared upward. The passengers found themselves floating 100 feet above Interstate 17. Harvey told himself if he got the balloon up high enough, airline pilots would notice the balloon and send for help.

Next, Harvey radioed the ground crew, which instructed him to land by turning off the propane gas burners and then, once on the ground, to pull the emergency cord that would release air from the top of the balloon and prevent it from bouncing into the heavens again.

But the emergency cord had caught fire and melted. Part of the balloon envelope had also melted. Drops of it fell on Jim Harvey's shirt as he spoke to the ground crew, which offered no further advice.

Harvey decided to take the balloon down anyway. As soon as he found a safe spot, he turned off the propane.

Seven passengers scrambled out of the basket when the balloon finally touched down.

Without their weight in the gondola, the balloon shot upward again.
"The speed at which the balloon went back up in the air was amazing," Harvey recalls. "It seemed to take one split second from it being on the ground to going 15 to 20 feet in the air."

Peer Riis, an executive with A.T. Kearney's Denmark branch, had been trying to climb out of the balloon when it soared aloft again. He clutched the basket, dangling from the side of the balloon. Several passengers pulled him back into the gondola.

The giant balloon veered toward a power line and a gas station. To avoid becoming entangled in the power line or crashing into the gas station, Harvey ignited the propane burners yet another time. Up went the balloon.

From time to time, the passengers yelled to onlookers below that they were pilotless and needed help.

But Harvey now knew there would be no help; he had to rely on his wits. When the balloon meandered over an open field, he vowed to bring the balloon down one last time. He extinguished the propane, the basket hit the dirt, skidded along the desert floor. The envelope snagged on some large shrubs, tethering the gondola. It stopped. The ordeal was over.

All 13 passengers were injured, some more seriously than others. Among the injuries: broken bones, whiplash, black eyes, lacerations and sprains.

All the passengers were at once shaken and joyous to have survived the ordeal.

When paramedics found pilot Jeffrey Sherman, he was still spread-eagle on the desert floor. An anonymous witness told Phoenix police that upon hitting the ground, Sherman had removed a vial from his pocket and tossed it into the desert. Police recovered the vial, which contained 480 milligrams of cocaine. A urine sample taken from Sherman that day showed he had cocaine in his system.

In 1998, after Sherman learned that his former secretary would testify to his drug use at an upcoming criminal trial, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor--piloting a balloon under the influence of legal and illegal drugs--and one count each of felony assault and endangerment. All of the charges were in connection with the ballooning debacle. Despite several letters of support from former customers who said they'd flown with Sherman and had never seen him under the influence of drugs, Sherman was sentenced to a year in Maricopa County Jail.

The A.T. Kearney passengers were outraged when they learned that their pilot had been high on drugs.

So was Sherman's insurance company, National Union, which canceled Sherman's policy.

So was the FAA, which belatedly revoked Sherman's license.
In late 1997, the passengers sued the Phoenician, Long and Sherman and their companies in Maricopa County Superior Court. The case is scheduled to go before a jury in August. In the lawsuit, the passengers allege that the defendants were negligent for their roles in the ballooning debacle.

The Phoenician and Long have denied negligence.
Sherman did not respond to the lawsuit.
He was in jail.

Most ballooning companies in the Valley tout the fact that their pilots are FAA certified.

But the FAA rules are lax, largely because the agency considers commercial ballooning a "sport." For instance, it allows 16-year-olds to be commercial balloon pilots.

And the FAA does not require applicants to demonstrate that they are sufficiently healthy or strong to pilot a balloon. Unlike commercial airline pilots, who must undergo routine physicals every six months to retain their FAA licenses, commercial balloon pilots do not need any medical certification.

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