The Egyptian balloon crash that killed 19 tourists – the worst ballooning accident since the Hindenburg disaster – was “inevitable”, according to a British pilot, who says last week’s incident is “the tip of the iceberg”.
His warnings come as an investigation by The Independent on Sunday establishes that British pilots are refusing to work in Egypt and Turkey because of safety fears. The sport was suspended in Egypt in 2009 after a previous accident, in which 16 people were injured, and safety measures were strengthened, including the introduction of a limit of eight balloons being allowed to fly at once. The same year, a Briton was killed in an accident in Cappadocia, central Turkey, but the sport has grown unchecked ever since, and more than 120 balloons operate every day.
One pilot, who runs a ballooning business in the UK, told the IoS how he cut short a contract in Turkey after being forced to fly despite bad weather. “I left after 4 months because I was involved in an accident and was concerned about the disregard for safety procedures. I counted 123 balloons in the air at once. I was flown into several times by young and inexperienced pilots, sometimes even before take-off.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, he described how he was forced to fly even when there was a storm 7km away, and was expected to use faulty equipment. “It’s a multi-million dollar business, and they are putting profit before safety,” he said. “One balloon I flew had only one working helium canister out of four. The others were leaking. The problem in Turkey is that the owners of these companies carry firearms, because they carry a lot of cash. If you don’t fly, you are threatened. When one pilot said it was too breezy, the operator got out a pistol and fired shots in the air to intimidate him. He came back to Britain as soon as he could. We don’t want to fly there because the safety risks aren’t worth it.”
He claims there are “almost daily” incidents in Turkey, and says the scale of the danger has gone largely unreported because of cover-ups and fear of reprisals by whistleblowers. “There’s no real appreciation for weather conditions,” he said. “I had one really uncomfortable flight which, when we landed, it was raining. If there’s a storm, you go home. But that’s not how it works here.”
Despite improved safety measures in Egypt, one expert warned pilots are not sufficiently well-trained. Pilot-error is the biggest cause of balloon accidents, and was responsible for the two accidents with the highest fatalities in recent history, including a crash in New Zealand last year, in which 11 people died.
Phil Dunnington, Chair of the British Balloon and Airship Club, last week called the training of Egyptian pilots “very weak” . He said authorities did not regularly assess local pilots’ skills, and that examiners were often not balloon experts.
The balloon which crashed was involved in another accident only two years ago. Tourists watched in horror as the green Ultramagic balloon, belonging to Sky Cruises, dipped into the Nile and hit a boat. No one was killed, but passengers were left with bruises. The 19 victims of Tuesday’s accident included Britons Yvonne Rennie, 48, Joe Bampton, 40, and Mr Bampton’s Hungarian-born partner, Suzanna Gyetvai, 34. On Friday, Rennie’s husband, Michael, 49, was released from hospital in Luxor, where the pilot, Momin Mourad Ali, is being treated for burns and injuries. Investigators have yet to establish the cause of the crash, though it’s thought the balloon was landing when a cable got caught round helium canister, and a fire broke out.
Though ballooning is tightly regulated in the UK, statistics on the accident rate are hard to come by. According to the Civil Aviation Authority, there have been 48 balloon accidents in the UK in the last 10 years, with two fatalities in that period. Figures compiled by the Federal Aviation Administration in the USA show that, ballooning is twice as dangerous as flying in a plane. There’s an average of 12 accidents per 100,000 flying hours, compared to six for general aviation. The rate of injury in skydiving is even lower: 0.3 injuries per 100,000 jumps.
Mr Pogmore, who campaigns for improved safety in the ballooning industry, has called for an international training syllabus to be drawn up. “It’s time the balloon community came together. We should create an international organisation that puts together training syllabus and overseas testing. This should run side-by-side with the local civil aviation authority, as it is the CAA that issues licences. It should be mandatory for periodical refresher courses and if necessary retesting of written exams. The pilot involved in the New Zealand accident had smoked cannabis prior to the flight. I would support the implementation of random and periodical drug testing as well as random breathalysers on all pilots. Unless those in charge act, customers will desert this industry.”