National Transportation Safety Board
Aviation Accident Final Report
Date & Time:
03/16/2012, 1900 EDT
FIREFLY BALLOONS INC FIREFLY 8
Windshear or thunderstorm
1 Fatal, 7 None
Flight Conducted Under:
Part 91: General Aviation - Skydiving
The balloon pilot conducted multiple sport parachute flights throughout the day without obtaining a weather briefing. A SIGMET for severe thunderstorms, hail, and cloud tops to 45,000 feet was in effect for the area surrounding the takeoff and accident sites. Shortly after the balloon lifted off on the accident flight, the ground crew was advised of a severe storm warning for the area and observed the storm on radar via their cellular telephones. The crew contacted the pilot by radio to advise him that the storm was growing quickly. The pilot informed the ground crew that he would attempt to climb over the storm but shortly thereafter expressed doubts that the balloon would be able to rise over it.
The ground crew watched the balloon disappear into the clouds but continued to receive altitude and weather updates from the pilot via radio. The pilot described being battered by wind and heavy hail, and the altitude updates came quickly as the balloon climbed in an updraft. Around 12,000 feet, the pilot repeated, "I don't think I'm going to get over this thing." About 17,000 feet, the pilot advised that the balloon was descending and stated, "I got nothing over my head." In his last transmission to the crew, at an altitude of 2,000 feet, the pilot advised that he had the ground in sight. The crew dialed 911 and drove the chase vehicle in the direction where they thought the balloon would land. As they pursued the balloon through the storm, they experienced hard rain and hail "the size of golf balls." All major components of the balloon were recovered and a detailed examination indicated multiple envelope tears, including a few small puncture holes consistent with contact with trees. Several lines of the outer sheath had burned away, but the lines were intact with no evidence of fraying or wear.
Video footage taken by parachutists during the balloon's ascent on the accident flight captured audio of the pilot's conversation with the ground crew and provided visual evidence of the developing storm as the balloon entered the base of the clouds. The footage then showed parachutists exit from the basket well after the balloon had entered the clouds and visual contact with the ground had been lost. According to the balloon manufacturer's emergency procedure for weather deterioration during flight, pilots should "land immediately rather than fly into severe atmospheric turmoil…Severe atmospheric forces are capable of taking over and exposing the flight to the hazards of immense envelope stresses and uncontrollable contact with the ground…"
The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be:
The pilot's intentional flight into adverse weather. Contributing to the accident was the pilot's failure to obtain a weather briefing and his failure to follow the balloon manufacturer's published emergency procedure for weather deterioration during flight.
Decision making/judgment - Pilot (Cause)
Weather planning - Pilot (Factor)
Decision making/judgment - Pilot (Factor)
Hail - Decision related to condition (Cause)
HISTORY OF FLIGHT
On March 16, 2012, about 1900 eastern daylight time, a FireFly 8 hot air balloon, N14643, was lost in flight after climbing into a storm near Fitzgerald, Georgia. On March 20, 2012, the balloon's envelope and basket were located in wooded terrain near Fitzgerald, Georgia. The pilot, who remained in the basket, was fatally injured. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed throughout the day of the accident, as the pilot conducted sport parachute flights under the provisions of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91.
According to one of the ground crewman for the balloon, two flights had been conducted prior to the accident flight; one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Seven parachutists were loaded for the second afternoon flight, the balloon lifted off, and the ground crewmen boarded the chase vehicle and drove after the balloon. Minutes after beginning the drive, the crewmen received a "severe storm warning" from the local emergency management director by telephone.
The crewmen observed the storm on radar via their cellular phone, and contacted the pilot by radio to advise him that the storm was "getting big very quick." The pilot advised the parachutists to exit the balloon and the ground crew watched them exit. The parachutists reached the ground uninjured. The pilot requested another storm update, and informed the ground crew that he would "attempt to get over" the storm. Shortly after, he contacted the ground crew and expressed doubts that the balloon would be able to climb over the storm, and the ground crew then watched the balloon disappear into the clouds.
The pilot provided altitude and weather updates in 1,000-foot increments to the ground crewmen as the balloon climbed to an estimated 17,000 feet. He described being battered by winds and heavy hail, and the altitude updates came "quickly" as the balloon climbed in an updraft. Around 12,000 feet, the pilot again repeated, "I don't think I'm going to get over this thing."
At the top of the climb, the pilot advised, "I got nothing over my head," and that the balloon was descending. At an altitude of 2,000 feet, the pilot advised that he had the ground in sight.
The ground crew dialed 911 and drove the chase vehicle in the direction that they believed the balloon would land. As they pursued the balloon through the storm, they experienced hard rain and hail "the size of golf balls." The driver lost control of the vehicle and slid into a ditch due to the weather conditions. Over the next two minutes, they estimated that 4 inches of hail accumulated on the ground.
The pilot held a commercial pilot certificate with a rating for lighter-than-air-balloon, limited to hot air balloons with airborne heater. His most recent Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) third class medical certificate was issued March 4, 1997. A review of his pilot logbook by an FAA inspector revealed that the pilot had logged 1,108 total hours of flight experience. He had logged 19 hours in the year prior to the accident, of which 9 hours were in the 90 days prior to the accident.
According to FAA records, the balloon was manufactured in 2007, and issued a standard airworthiness certificate on July 19, 2007. A review of maintenance records revealed the most recent annual inspection was completed March 10, 2011, at 106 total aircraft hours. As of March 10, 2012, the balloon had accrued 114 total aircraft hours.
According to an NTSB meteorologist, weather radar echo intensities of Video Integrator and Processor (VIP) level 5 and 6 were recorded in the area of the accident site at the time of the accident. Levels 5 and 6 are described as “intense” and “extreme,” respectively. These values indicated moderate to extreme conditions with severe turbulence, lightning, large hail, and extensive wind gusts.
Lightning flash data depicted a thunderstorm over the accident site at the time of the accident. Over 1,000 lightning flashes were recorded during the 30-minute period surrounding the accident time, with over 560 flashes recorded during the 15 minutes prior to the accident.
Dual-polarization (dual-pol) imagery scans of the storms surrounding the accident site revealed values indicative of rain and hail between 3,000 and 9,000 feet, dry snow, wet snow, and graupel (soft hail) between 9,000 and 13,500 feet, and a mix of dry snow and graupel between 14,500 and 20,000 feet.
The dual-pol imagery scans captured the area of the storm where the pilot reported the balloon was ascending in an updraft as hail struck the balloon.
Satellite images revealed the top of the storm at an estimated 36,000 feet. Hail algorithms estimated that hail reaching the surface was between .75 and 1.00 inches. According to the Sherriff who led the search for the balloon, the balloon envelope still contained large clumps of frozen precipitation (hailstones) when it was found 3 days after the accident.
Significant meteorological information (SIGMET) advisory 57E was active for the accident site at the accident time. It warned of severe thunderstorms moving from 290 degrees at 15 knots, with tops to FL450, hail to 1 inch in diameter, with wind gusts to 50 knots possible.
Video footage taken by parachutists during the balloon's ascent on the accident flight was posted on a commercial website (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vd5VLWIxBAE). The video provided altitude updates in subtitles, captured audio of the pilot's conversation with his ground crew, and provided visual evidence of the developing storm as the balloon entered the base of the clouds.
About the time the balloon entered the cloud, the pilot asked his ground crew by radio, "What phase is that cell in…That thunderstorm cell, what phase is it in…Is it building or is it dissipating?" The ground crew replied, "Building." To which the pilot stated, "I'm right on the edge of it then." Shortly thereafter, the pilot announced, "We're getting into this cloud."
The video footage then showed four parachutists exit from the basket well after the balloon had entered the clouds and visual contact with the ground had been lost.
A review of archived data revealed that the pilot did not obtain a weather briefing from either a flight service station briefer or a commercial vendor on the day of the accident.
The wreckage was examined at the site on March 20, 2012, and all major components of the balloon were accounted for at the scene. The balloon was recovered, and a detailed was completed on April 10, 2012. The envelope exhibited two fabric tears, located six gores (panels) apart from one another, each measuring approximately 110 feet in length down the vertical load tapes (seam). The tears were located approximately 1/2 inch from the stitching of the seams.
There were two additional tears across the top horizontal load tape around the deflation port measuring approximately 12 feet in length. The stitching was intact, but the fabric was torn away just after the stitching.
A few small puncture holes were observed in the envelope, consistent with contact with trees. There was one small tear approximately two feet in length at the mouth horizontal seam. Several lines had the outer sheath burned away, but the lines were intact with no evidence of fraying or wear. There was no evidence of burns on the skirt.
The basket was largely intact. The floor was cracked diagonally across its full span, and the overhead frames were broken at two of four attachment points. The burner was largely intact, but displayed some impact damage.
The deflation valve and the deflation line were intact.
According to Paragraph 4.12 of the FireFly Balloons Balloon Flight Manual, Weather Deterioration During Flight:
"Land immediately rather than fly into severe atmospheric turmoil. Risk damage if necessary to land while the flight is still under control. Severe atmospheric forces are capable of taking over and exposing the flight to the hazards of immense envelope stresses and uncontrollable contact with the ground…"
History of Flight
Enroute-climb to cruise
Windshear or thunderstorm (Defining event)
Loss of control in flight
Collision with terr/obj (non-CFIT)
Other Aircraft Rating(s):
Second Pilot Present:
Last FAA Medical Exam:
Last Flight Review or Equivalent:
1108 hours (Total, all aircraft), 9 hours (Last 90 days, all aircraft)
Aircraft and Owner/Operator Information
FIREFLY BALLOONS INC
Year of Manufacture:
Landing Gear Type:
Date/Type of Last Inspection:
Certified Max Gross Wt.:
Time Since Last Inspection:
Airframe Total Time:
114 Hours at time of accident
Operating Certificate(s) Held:
Meteorological Information and Flight Plan
Conditions at Accident Site:
Condition of Light:
Observation Facility, Elevation:
FZG, 365 ft msl
Distance from Accident Site:
8 Nautical Miles
Direction from Accident Site:
Lowest Cloud Condition:
/ 11000 ft agl
5 knots /
Turbulence Type Forecast/Actual:
Turbulence Severity Forecast/Actual:
30.14 inches Hg
29°C / 13°C
Precipitation and Obscuration:
Type of Flight Plan Filed:
Type of Clearance:
Type of Airspace:
Wreckage and Impact Information
1 Fatal, 7 None
31.718889, -83.075833 (est)
Investigator In Charge (IIC):
Brian C Rayner
Additional Participating Persons:
Michael Denaro; FAA/FSDO; Atlanta, GA