It's easier than you think | Updated 2010-Nov 30 to add EAA's
It's easy to dismiss the risk of midair collisions because they're so
rare. But they're also severe and, tragically, seem to
happen to conscientious pilots with the smallest bit of inattention.
Flying with others obviously requires extreme vigilance. It's surprising
how few midairs
happen at major fly-ins--probably because everybody is paying so much
attention. But with just a few pilots aloft our
vigilance wanes and the unthinkable becomes more thinkable. History bears
this out--we should learn from it.
This accident had everybody scratching their heads. On the surface it
seemed about as likely as a wave runner crashing into a cruise ship. It
just made no sense. Plus, the pilot wasn't the type who "buzzed"
balloons and his instructor characterized him as a conscientious, conservative
sort with 40-plus flights who wasn't into showboating. So what's up?
pictures indeed seemed to show a side-swipe collision of the wing and
balloon, like he was buzzing it but just got too close and the wing
caught. But how could a wing catch like that? Then I saw
picture, taken seconds before the collision, showing a much
different story. The trike pilot was above the balloon, hitting
the envelope from near its top. That is indeed what happened. The
balloon was climbing and the paratrike pilot was flying essentially
The trike went through the fabric, ripping as it went and popped out
the other side. The wing followed through, tangling in the balloon
envelope as the trike fell down through, ending in the position we see
picture. Hot air poured out of the gaping hole, depriving the
balloon of its lift and causing a descent. Injuries were significant but
not life-threatening. It could have been oh so much worse.
This isn't about blame, it's about learning what happened so we can
prevent it from happening again. That's what true accident investigation
should strive for. Sometimes cause is obvious,
like when a hot-dog gets whacked while doing something obviously risky.
But other times it's a conscientious pilot(s) flying mostly in a normal
manner when something very unexpected happens. That's how I see this.
And there is usually more than meets the eye, a chain of events,
frequently easily broken, that lead to the final outcome.
The balloon pilot had control only of height and obviously can't
maneuver quickly. Much like a cruise ship captain
who may see waverunners flitting about but can't worry about them. The
Balloon pilot probably heard the paramotor up there flying but didn't
give it much thought. Nor should he. The analogy stops there, though.
This seems more like a sub coming up from below from the trike pilot's
I see two likely scenarios but first some data points. The area had
been wetter than normal which means more green, especially against the
mountains. The balloon was blue and yellow, possibly presenting less
contrast if it was backed by a green landscape. To match the landscape's
color I went to Google earth and used the date slider to pick a
Possible factors are:
1. The trike has a small blind spot in front. At a half-mile, the
balloon which could have still been on the ground, might be obscured. If
the balloon rose mostly in that blind spot, it might not get the pilots
attention as early.
2. It's possible the balloon's climb rate, starting at 0 and building
to around 500 fpm, would have made the balloon present no visible aspect
change and might have stayed basically in the same place against the
backdrop. I've had this happen with aircraft on collision courses --
they're not moving relative to the background and don't become visible
until they fill up a good portion of the windscreen. Scary moments.
These would be aggravated by a lack of contrast. A red balloon
against a green background would obviously catch the pilot's eye
So I put together this animation to see what the possibilities were.
I didn't calculate speed but set the PPG trikes speed as constant and
ramped up the balloon's climb slowly as you would expect.
Three scenes are shown. 1) First is from the ground observer's
perspective which makes it look so incredibly avoidable--the pilot is
simply heading for the climbing balloon. 2) Next is the pilot's
perspective and that really tells the story. Remember, you KNOW what's
coming. This pilot may have been looking around mostly at his altitude.
3) Pilot's perspective with a small turn about 10 seconds before. The
point of 3 is to suggest a possible solution: when in an area with other
craft of similar or less speed (PPG's PPC's, Balloons) it might be good
practice to do small turns regularly instead of flying straight
We haven't heard from the pilot so this is still speculation but lets
not just throw him under the bus. When I get information that the
parties are willing to share, I'll add it here.
We can learn from this and hopefully make some concrete actions to
reduce risk. Those who are willing to adopt lessons from past mishaps
are much less likely to repeat them.
1. Clear turns, as taught, but with emphasis on looking up and down
in your turn direciton. This is the normal advice we all learn early on
with "look, lean, turn" (paragliders) or "look, shallow, up/down, turn"
for paramotors. That is, look in the turn direction, start a very
shallow turn (to alert others), look up and down in that
direction, then turn.
2. When in an area where there is potentially other similar speed or
slower traffic, do periodic turns left and right. It doesn't take much,
maybe 10 degrees every half minute or so.
3. Try to keep track of as many craft in your flying area as possible
while following the other guidance.