By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
By New Times
Commercial balloonists say it was common knowledge that Sherman took drugs and seemed physically incapable of flying his large balloon.
In a recent deposition, balloonist Richard Lane noted, "It was known that Mr. Sherman was taking prescription painkillers, pain medication that was on the FAA list of disqualifiers. That was fairly well known throughout the ballooning community. . . ."
Lane said he had no respect for Sherman because he took his pills then said, "'I can still fly, it's no biggy.'"
Balloonist Bill Heck said in a recent affidavit: "I would not hire Jeffrey Sherman or refer him business even before the September 1996 accident. Sherman had an undesirable personality. . . . Even aside from Sherman's personality, I would not refer him business, because I did not believe he was physically capable of landing a balloon in adverse weather or windy conditions. I did not trust his piloting abilities as a result. He also made no secret of the fact that he took medications for some chronic condition which he claimed was cancer."
Fred Ferguson said in a deposition that Sherman was disdained by many in the ballooning industry because he was considered "an accident waiting to happen."
". . . nobody was very friendly towards him because we all knew that if he had an accident, it's going to reflect on ballooning in general, which is going to cut into our business, and we just felt it was a matter of time before he had one," Ferguson said.
Some balloonists won't even talk about Sherman. Fred Gorrell, a well-known Valley balloonist, explains why he would prefer not to comment for this story: "Every time this crap comes up, it hurts my business, okay?" he says.
"I don't want my name in the same paper with Sherman's."
Pilot contentions that everyone in the ballooning company knew about Sherman raise questions about why Randy Long's company, Hot Air Expeditions, hired Sherman to fly the Phoenician guests in the first place.
Was he desperate to accommodate the A.T. Kearney group and keep the Phoenician account?
Or did Long genuinely believe Sherman was a safe pilot?
Sherman himself says in an interview that he had informed Long of his use of methadone.
Ferguson, the expert witness, contends in a deposition that Long had sat in Ferguson's kitchen and heard other pilots voice concerns about Sherman's safety as a pilot. (Long denies the allegation.)
Chuck Herbert, a balloonist who worked for Long at the time of the September accident, says he questioned Long about hiring Sherman to fly the Phoenician guests.
"Prior to the accident, I learned that Jeff Sherman was scheduled to fly some of the passengers from the Phoenician. This concerned me because Sherman was well known in the ballooning community to have significant problems," says Herbert in an affidavit.
"I went to Randy Long, the president of Hot Air Expeditions, and asked him if Jeff Sherman was really going to fly passengers from the Phoenician. Although I do not recall his exact words, the gist of his response was that he did not want Sherman to fly, either, but he needed to use Sherman to accommodate the large number of passengers."
Through his attorney, Long would not comment for this story, citing the pending lawsuit.
But in a deposition, Long said that he had never seen or heard anything that would lead him to believe that Sherman was anything other than a competent pilot.
Long said he, Long, was the owner of a company that had taken 12,000 people aloft without a single accident, and that he was diligent about checking out Sherman's capabilities. He noted that he had recently flown with Sherman in the big balloon and Sherman had piloted the craft well. He said Sherman's company was one of the "oldest and largest ballooning companies in the Valley," with good insurance. He noted that Sherman had won ballooning awards.
He did not know Sherman was drawing disability checks. He did not know Sherman's license had been suspended just days before the crash.
A Phoenician employee, Colleen Horan, recalled in a deposition that just after the September 27 crash, Long told her that he knew that Sherman was taking "some type of medication."
"I said 'Randy, what the heck happened?'" Horan testified. "And he said that he knew the pilot, and that he was a good pilot, and that he knew he didn't have the greatest personality but that he had won awards for hot air ballooning and that he'd had some problems with cancer and he was on some type of medication, but he said he was a good pilot."
The Phoenician's attorney, Jim Kloss, maintains that Long ran and still runs one of the safest, largest ballooning companies in the Valley. But he's also quick to add that Long hired Sherman, not the Phoenician. The Phoenician, he says more than once, had nothing to do with Sherman.
And the hotel continued to do business with Long's company as late as October 1998, when Horan gave her deposition.
Does the Phoenician still use Long's company to fly its guests?
Kloss says he doesn't know and he won't find out.
"There is no evidence that Hot Air is an unsafe company or an evil company," he says.