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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Terry Greene Sterling