RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The pilot of a hot air balloon that crashed May 9 in Virginia, killing all three on board, attempted to gain altitude before the balloon hit power lines and caught fire, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a preliminary report Tuesday.
Veteran pilot Daniel T. Kirk was at the controls of the Eagle C-7 balloon when it left the site of a balloon festival in Doswell about 25 miles north of Richmond and attempted to land nearly 4 miles away in Ruther Glen, the report said.
"As the accident balloon approached the landing site, the pilot engaged the burner," the report said. That maneuver would cause the balloon to rise.
But the balloon could not avoid the power lines, and when it struck them caused a spark that ignited the basket and ultimately the balloon, the report added.
"The balloon began an accelerated climb and drifted out of sight," it said.
Besides Kirk, the dead included two athletic officials at the University of Richmond: associate head coach for the women's basketball team Ginny Doyle and the director of basketball operations, Natalie Lewis.
While an NTSB spokesman declined to elaborate on specifics in the report, a veteran balloon pilot said Kirk was likely attempting an evasive action after seeing the power lines.
Troy Bradley, who reviewed the NTSB report at the request of The Associated Press, said Kirk was faced with two options: to seek more elevation or "ripping out" — meaning deflating the balloon in hopes it would drape over the power lines.
"A saying we have in ballooning is, 'When in doubt, rip it out,' because if you drape the balloon over the lines, chances are you'll survive," Bradley, a record-holding pilot, said in a telephone interview from Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The balloon's wicker-and-wood basket, which has not been found, probably disintegrated, said Bradley, past president of the Balloon Federation of America.
The NTSB report said the debris path covered 1.75 miles of the heavily wooded landscape. Two stainless steel propane fuel tanks, a fire extinguisher, the instrument panel and a portion of the balloon were recovered. Two other propane tanks were not recovered, as well as other materials.
The report on the crash was consistent with the initial eyewitness accounts from the scene.
An NTSB spokesman said the report is intended as a factual summary of what happened.
"Making sense of all that and the reasons why things were done, that's actually the next part of the investigation," Peter C. Knudson said in an interview.
Investigators will look at records of the aircraft, including maintenance, the fuel system and other controls; the pilot's certification and experience, and any medical history on Kirk.
They'll also seek out those who had seen Kirk in the 72 hours leading to the accident to determine if there was "anything that could have happened that could have affected the pilot's ability to safely operate that balloon," Knudson said.
A report on the cause will be issued in about one year, he said.
The balloon was among 13 that lifted off on a preview night for the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival.
Bradley said only one other fatal balloon accident had occurred in the U.S. in the past five years.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap .
Balloon Federation of America: http://www.bfa.net/