Would You Like To Fly In My Beautiful Balloon?
Mary and Jim Harvey looked forward to their trip to Arizona in September 1996. The Texas couple hoped to relax together at the elegant Phoenician resort for a rare few days away from their three children.
Mary Harvey arrived at the Phoenician on the afternoon of September 26. Jim, an executive with A.T. Kearney, an international management consulting firm, had checked into the hotel several days before to attend a company conference.
While Jim was in a meeting, Mary visited the activity booth set up by the Phoenician for the A.T. Kearney group. Hot air balloon rides were available the following morning.
The Harveys, then both 38, had never taken a balloon ride, so they signed up.
Jim had heard that the Valley was one of the nation's ballooning hot spots, and remembered seeing hot air balloons in Arizona tourism ads.
Early on the morning of September 27, balloon-company vans lined up in front of the Phoenician. The Harveys and 11 others climbed into what Mary described as a beat-up white van driven by a "little fuzzy head guy."
Their driver was Jeffrey Michael Sherman, a Phoenix commercial ballooning pilot who claimed to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA].
Sherman had been retained by Hot Air Expeditions, a Scottsdale commercial ballooning company, to help with the Phoenician gig. Hot Air Expeditions' owner, Randy Long, had contracted with the Phoenician to take the A.T. Kearney conventioneers on balloon rides. But Hot Air Expeditions was insured to fly only 55 people, and a total of 170 A.T. Kearney conventioneers had signed up. Long scrambled to find enough commercial balloonists who were able to accommodate the overflow. Long maintains he never heard or saw anything that would indicate that Sherman was an unsafe pilot.
Sherman, then 40, the owner of Naturally High Balloon Company, suffered from intermittent depression. He took heavy doses of prescription painkillers to combat chronic pain brought on by a congenital bone disease. The bone malady had weakened and shortened his right arm, had limited the range of motion in his left arm and had caused numerous tumors throughout his body. At the time, Sherman was drawing Social Security disability payments and his van bore license plates indicating that he was handicapped.
Despite his problems, Sherman piloted a sightseeing balloon that stood ten stories high--a 240,000 cubic foot monster known as a Thunder Colt 240.
Some pilots in the Phoenix ballooning community had heard that Sherman had been involved in previous ballooning mishaps and had long wondered if Sherman was mentally and physically capable of safely operating the craft.
Unbeknownst to the pilots, the FAA had known of Sherman's physical limitations and drug use as early as 1991, when it obtained his medical records.
On September 27, 1996, as Sherman and his ground crew inflated the massive Thunder Colt, each of the 13 Phoenician guests signed a form releasing Long's company from liability. Later, in depositions, several of the passengers would say they figured the forms were routine, that there was really nothing to worry about.
In a phone interview, Jim Harvey explains that he and other passengers simply trusted that the Phoenician would arrange for them to fly with safe balloonists who were as "high-class as the rooms."
As it turned out, Jeffrey Sherman was not naturally high at all.
It was only after they were breezing over the Sonoran Desert in the Thunder Colt's gondola that some passengers began noticing what they viewed as strange behavior from Jeffrey Sherman.
He talked too much. He bragged incessantly about his piloting abilities, and pointed out more than once that he was a former state ballooning champion. He berated other pilots and bellowed over the radio to his ground crew. He became inappropriately irritated with a passenger who called him "Skipper." And he repeatedly stepped up onto a box to reach the controls of the propane gas burners, which, when ignited, filled the balloon with heated air and propelled it skyward.
After perhaps 45 minutes of flying, Sherman chose to touch down in an empty field where other balloons had landed. The field was close to a junkyard near Deer Valley Road and Interstate 17.
The balloon descended fast, but the trusting passengers weren't worried.
Then it slammed into the ground.
The impact knocked all the passengers to the floor of the basket.
Then the balloon rebounded into the air again.
For reasons that have never been explained, Sherman did not pull the emergency landing cord, which would have caused the envelope, or top of the balloon, to deflate, preventing it from bouncing up. Maybe Sherman did not have enough strength to pull the cord. Maybe he was not tall enough to reach the cord. Maybe his judgment was impaired.
Instead of pulling the cord, Sherman instructed the passengers to prepare for an emergency landing--to stand facing the inside of the gondola.
As the passengers struggled to get up from the gondola floor, the basket plummeted to the ground a second time, then rose ten feet and careened toward a concrete wall.
Sherman did not see the wall coming, he was standing on his box looking in the opposite direction.
The gondola smashed into the wall, catapulting one of the occupants out and onto the ground. Most unfortunately, that occupant was Jeffrey Sherman.
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.
Lyle Alexander, aviation safety inspector for the FAA in Scottsdale, says commercial balloonists are on the "honor system."
"To fly a balloon or a glider you don't have to pass a physical exam and have a medical certificate," he says. "However, the rule goes on to say that you are in violation of the law if you fly when you don't have the physical ability to fly it.
"Basically the balloons and gliders are on a honor system."
Another FAA rule: Applicants are allowed to take their FAA check-out flights in a small balloon, which then qualify them to pilot giant commercial balloons that take considerably more strength and skill to fly.
"You can learn in what amounts to a Cessna, and the next day after you get your license you can fly a 747," says Fred Ferguson, a Valley balloonist who is also an expert witness in the passengers' lawsuit.
"This needs to be changed."
"The FAA doesn't know much about balloons," says Ferguson.
It was easy for Jeff Sherman to repeatedly get licensed by the FAA, even if he did have handicapped plates on his van.
The FAA did take brief notice of Sherman's physical problems in 1991, according to a document obtained by New Times. The medical records said Jeffrey Sherman suffered from a "foreshortened arm," that he had endured multiple bone surgeries, that his doctor worried about possible addiction to prescription painkillers.
When asked why the agency continued to let Sherman fly at the very time it had knowledge of his medical problems, William Shumann, spokesman for FAA's Western Pacific region, responds: "To fly a balloon or glider one does not need a medical certificate. . . . he had demonstrated he could fly a balloon."
Prior to the September 1996 accident, the FAA got another warning that Sherman might not be a safe pilot. Elonica Poggi, a Phoenix lawyer, says she warned the agency that Sherman was taking prescription drugs, including methadone.
But the agency did not immediately revoke Sherman's license or ask him to submit to drug tests.
It wasn't until a few days before the big crash during the Phoenician flight that the FAA suspended Sherman's license for 60 days. The suspension had nothing to do with drugs. It had to do with Sherman allowing a parachutist to jump out of his balloon in cloudy conditions in the flight path of the Chandler airport.
Even though his license was suspended, Sherman did the Phoenician gig anyway--in direct violation of FAA rules. Randy Long claims he did not know Sherman's license was suspended when he asked him to help pilot the Phoenician guests.
Of course not. The FAA doesn't publish the list of suspended pilots' licenses.
"Obviously we don't publish certificate actions against airmen," Shumann says.
"There's a volume of them."
Shumann says states don't publish lists of suspended drivers' licenses, either, and the FAA is in an "analogous" situation.
The FAA has no plans to strengthen requirements for licensing commercial balloon pilots, says Shumann.
"Frankly, we don't see the need," he says.
By at least 1993, there were clear signs that Jeffrey Sherman's mental and physical problems were intensifying.
In 1993, Sherman took his neurologist, Arnold Sadwin, and Sadwin's daughter, Donna, up in his large balloon. The Sadwin family lived on the East Coast and was vacationing in Arizona.
In a telephone interview, Arnold Sadwin recalls that it was a breezy day, perhaps too breezy for ballooning. Sherman landed the balloon hard and fast, causing Donna to fall, breaking an ankle and fracturing several vertebrae. Under FAA regulations, Sherman was obligated to report the accident, but he did not.
Sadwin had flown with Sherman before, and had always found him to be a careful pilot. There had never been any sign of drug abuse.
But now Sherman was behaving oddly.
Sadwin says he repeatedly telephoned and wrote Sherman, asking for insurance information, but Sherman never responded. In desperation, Donna Sadwin in 1995 sued Naturally High and Sherman, and obtained an out-of-court settlement from Sherman's insurer.
Sadwin says he wishes Sherman no harm.
"The man needs help," he says.
Elonica Poggi, Donna Sadwin's attorney, says that after the lawsuit was filed, Sherman denied there'd ever been an accident in the first place--or that anyone had been hurt.
"Mr. Sherman absolutely is insane, in my opinion," Poggi says.
Poggi learned from Sherman's medical records and testimony that he regularly used methadone and other drugs to control his pain.
She says after the 1995 lawsuit was filed, she notified the FAA of Sherman's drug use--long before the accident with the Phoenician guests.
"I guess we don't have the protection we think we have, do we?" Poggi says.
Naturally High was named in two other Superior Court lawsuits prior to the Phoenician mishap. Both cases were filed in 1995. In one case, two passengers won a $900,000 judgment from Sherman's balloon company because one of Sherman's pilots "recklessly crashed the balloon." In the second lawsuit, a Connecticut woman alleged that Sherman negligently allowed the balloon to crash. Sherman did not respond to the lawsuit, and the woman won a $12,136 default judgment for her medical expenses.
Neither of the accidents was reported to the National Transportation Safety Board.
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.
"If there were, the FAA would take action."
Jeffrey Michael Sherman, now 43, shows up an hour late for an interview at the International House of Pancakes. He apologizes for being late; he's had a bad night; his medicines haven't kicked in yet, so please excuse.
Sherman was released from the Maricopa County Jail in February and maintains he was set up. He is an innocent man, he says. He signed the plea agreement only to put the matter to rest.
Sherman is a sad, short man with uneven, ground-down teeth, bloodshot blue eyes, thinning, fuzzy hair, dirty fingernails. He wears a gold chain around his neck and a gold ring embossed with a hot air balloon design on one finger. His long-sleeved shirt does not hide the weakness or asymmetry of his right arm. His toes point inward and he seems to walk stiffly. Sitting is even more difficult; two bone tumors have grown at the base of his spine, he says. Another tumor grows on his wrist.
He claims to have undergone 21 bone surgeries, and began taking "prescription methadone" in the early Nineties to help the pain pills work. But he says he's never abused drugs and has never piloted a balloon while under the influence.
He says he's heard that cocaine bolsters the effects of prescription pain medications, but he'd never touch it. He figures cocaine was found in his urine after the balloon "incident" because a former employee jerry-rigged his asthma inhaler, and he inadvertently inhaled it after he fell.
The physical pain is nothing compared to the mental pain, he says. Since 1995 he's suffered deep intermittent depressions, has been suicidal, has undergone electroshock therapy.
He describes himself as a twice-divorced fellow who was always "a little bit solitary," because "when you have health problems . . . people think you are contagious."
"Ballooning is probably the best painkiller I've got," he says, which explains why he took to ballooning in 1977 despite his physical disabilities.
But he can't pilot his beloved balloons anymore. The FAA revoked his license after the 1996 crash.
Sherman says it was all part of a plot against him, hatched by the FAA, the police, the insurance company that dumped him and his rivals in the ballooning community who always treated him like a "pariah" and lied about him because they were jealous that he was the best pilot in Arizona.
The people who sued him were misguided--he never got in any balloon crashes.
And now the press is after him.
"I think you're on a witch hunt," he tells New Times.
Despite his suspicions, Sherman wants to talk.
He says the passengers gave an erroneous account of the September 27, 1996, ballooning "incident."
He says the balloon hit a "downdraft" and that the landing was "windy."
After the balloon "lightly" bounced down the second time, he says he announced: "Folks, we're going to keep on flying," and the passengers clapped their hands and said, "Yea, Great!" He says that as he tried to "power out," he attempted to aid a female passenger who was not properly bracing herself. Then he fell out of the balloon and got a concussion. That's all he remembers. The vial of cocaine police found did not belong to him, he claims.
After the "incident," he says he sequestered himself in his Ahwatukee-area home. He did not open his mail, which explains why his legal situation is such a mess.
His attitude toward the passengers vacillates. At one point, he says the passengers "can't touch" him because as a subcontractor he was covered by Randy Long's insurance.
At another point, he expresses remorse: "I am very unhappy for the passengers. . . . I wasn't negligent or anything else, but I feel badly for them."
Forgive Jim and Mary Harvey if they can't summon much sympathy for Jeff Sherman.
"I don't feel remorse for the fact that his life was shattered by the things he did," says Jim Harvey.
He continues to be astonished that the FAA sees no need to strengthen regulation of commercial balloon pilots. He wonders how a tourist at the Phoenician or any other hotel can possibly check out an FAA certified balloonist before hopping into the gondola.
"Thirteen people were just killed in a train wreck," he says, noting that the train wreck immediately generated cries for more safety regulations.
"Well, it could have been 13 people killed in a balloon, but because we were able to respond to the situation and survive, it is a non-event. Nothing will happen until people are killed, and only then will someone do something."
Contact Terry Greene Sterling at 229-8437, or online at email@example.com
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