Hot Air Balloon Rides Dangerous
November 5, 2013

Hot Air Balloon Rides May Be Hazardous To Your Health

Michael Harper for - Your Universe Online

Researchers have analyzed crash data for different modes of air travel and have found that the minimal regulations for hot air balloon rides may be making the tours more dangerous. The researchers specifically blame the lack of regulation covering these flights and suggest that extra safety measures, such as cushioned basket bottoms and restraints could save lives in the event of a crash.

In the past 12 years, five people have died in 78 hot air balloon crashes, but far more incidents resulted in the passengers breaking their legs or other lower extremities. Susan P. Baker, MPH, ScD co-authored the paper with aviation expert Leland P. Beaty and Blythe Ballard, MD, MPH. The results were published in the November issue of Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine.

The National Transportation Safety Board provided the researchers with crash data between 2000 and 2011. According to this information, 518 people were involved in 78 paid hot air balloon tours which ended in some sort of crash. In these incidents, 91 people were seriously injured and five were killed. The largest majority of these crashes (83 percent) left passengers with some sort of serious injury; 56 percent of those left with broken legs or a similar injury.

“Our findings provide valuable information not previously available on the number and kinds of injuries sustained in crashes of paid hot-air balloon rides,” explained Ballard, the first author of the paper and a PhD student at Johns Hopkins.

“This research can inform consumers about the risks involved with this recreational activity, and serve as a tool for operators and policy makers wishing to employ targeted prevention strategies to reduce balloon ride crashes and crash-related injuries and deaths.”

Of the 78 crashes in the 12-year span, 81 percent occurred as the pilot was landing the balloon, 65 percent of which involved hard landings. In these incidents, the pilot either drug the gondola along the ground, tipped it, or bounced upon landing, tossing the passengers from the basket. Twenty percent of these accidents resulted in a damaged balloon.

According to data from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), half of all passengers who incurred a serious injury as a result of a hot air balloon crash were involved in a collision with a fixed object. Incidents involving buildings, power lines or trees were always fatal and accounted for every one of the five deaths during the 12-year span.

“Practical interventions and ones that have been proven to reduce injury and death in other areas of transportation and recreation could be utilized to ensure a safer passenger experience on hot-air balloon rides,” explained Baker, the founding director of the Injury Center at Johns Hopkins. “We know over half the serious injuries we reviewed in our study were lower extremity fractures sustained during landings.”

To prevent further injury, the Johns Hopkins researchers suggest regulations which would require passengers to wear helmets while on their trip. Pilots may also be asked to cushion the bottom of their gondolas and install crash-worthy seats with restraints which passengers could sit in during landings.

“A more standardized reporting of hot air balloon crashes would assist the development of targeted interventions aimed at decreasing the number and severity of balloon crash injuries, and improve the public health impact of less-regulated commercial air tour operations, like paid hot-air balloon rides,” explained Beaty, an analyst with 20 years of experience in aviation.