Commercial balloon pilots interviewed for this story say floating in a balloon is safer than driving a car or flying in an airplane. They estimate that about 50,000 people take peaceful, serene commercial balloon rides in the Valley each year, which must surely make it the balloon capital of the Southwest.
The truth is, there's no way to know how safe the Valley's skies are, or whether the Valley is indeed the balloon capital of the Southwest.
The reason: The National Transportation Safety Board [NTSB] and the Federal Aviation Administration do not keep or collect data on how many people fly in balloons.
Without the number of passengers, it is impossible to figure out frequency of injuries and deaths. What's more, as the Jeffrey Sherman case shows, commercial pilots do not always report accidents to the FAA or the NTSB.
Both the FAA and the NTSB regulations require that ballooning accidents be immediately reported by commercial pilots. The agencies define an "accident" as an occurrence that causes a serious injury, including broken bones other than fingers or toes, or substantial damage to the balloon.
A review of those accidents that were reported to the NTSB from January 1996 to February 1999 (26 months) reveals that a total of 29 people in the Valley were involved in balloon accidents. Of these, two died and 27 were injured.
(In Albuquerque, which also purports to be a ballooning paradise of the Southwest, a total of 47 passengers were involved in ballooning accidents during the same time frame. Thirty people were injured and one died. All of the accidents occurred during the annual Albuquerque balloon festivals.)
Three Valley accidents were investigated by the NTSB in the last 26 months. All involved large sightseeing balloons.
In April 1996, five months before the Sherman accident, two people burned to death and six others were injured in an accident near Cave Creek. The NTSB said the probable cause was pilot error and improper equipment. Ironically, the two people who died were guests at the Phoenician at the time. There is no evidence that the Phoenician arranged or had anything to do with the fatal balloon flight; it had been booked by an out-of-town travel agency. The Phoenician was not named in the ongoing wrongful death lawsuit.
The most recent ballooning accident in the Valley occurred in Peoria on February 11 and is still being investigated by the NTSB and the FAA. According to the NTSB's preliminary report, all six people in the balloon were injured, and two sustained serious injuries.
The NTSB said the pilot, Erich Morrow, reported that the balloon encountered a wind gust as he sought a landing spot. The top of the balloon lost volume, and the balloon began descending rapidly. The gondola landed on a roof, tipped over on its side and lit on another roof, then touched down in a field and was dragged for 300 feet before stopping.
Morrow, the pilot, would not comment for this story.
--Terry Greene Sterling