The Napa-based hot-air balloon company involved in a Monday incident that left three passengers injured has been investigated at least three times by federal agencies in the past two decades following nonfatal accidents and was sued once for an injury that followed a hard landing.
There was also a 1995 fatality involving Balloons Above the Valley, the company that owned the balloon involved in Monday’s incident. The Register and Associated Press reported in 1995 that a 27-year-old woman from Dallas died after a Balloons Above the Valley balloon landed hard, bouncing some of its passengers into a field. The young woman died after falling face-down into the field and two other passengers suffered minor injuries, according to the report.
A Balloons Above the Valley balloon clipped power lines south of Yountville during a Monday morning flight, injuring three of 19 passengers.
A preliminary report issued by National Transportation Safety Board that describes the scene of the incident was not available as of Wednesday. A board spokesman said it can take up to two weeks for preliminary reports to be completed.
Three of the 19 passengers on board suffered electrical burns, according to Cal Fire-Napa County Fire. One passenger was flown to the University of California Davis Medical Center with moderate to major injuries, and the other two were treated at Queen of the Valley Medical Center with minor injuries, fire officials said. Updates on their conditions were not available Tuesday.
Balloons Above the Valley did not return requests for comment on Wednesday.
The Federal Aviation Administration said it first investigated an incident tied to Balloons Above the Valley in 2013, when a balloon landed on Finnell Road near the intersection of Vista Drive in Yountville, an FAA spokesperson wrote in an email. The balloon was blown into a light pole and became entangled, and no injuries were reported.
It also investigated an incident involving the company in 2015. Winds shifted during the flight, and the pilot attempted to land the balloon twice before deciding there was no way to clear trees in the balloon’s path and opting to touch down on an Oakville vineyard, the FAA wrote. The balloon hit a trellis and flipped over. Two people suffered minor injuries that did not require medical attention, according to the FAA.
NTSB investigated Balloons Above the Valley in 2013 after a sudden change in the wind that led the bottom of a balloon’s basket to touch the top of a 30-foot wooden power pole, according to the incident report. Several panels on the balloon burned, and it landed safely in a Napa park 1.5 miles away. The balloon was carrying 20 passengers and no injuries were reported, records show.
In an incident not recorded in federal archives, Melanie Rodriguez of El Paso sued the company in 2016 over an incident that she claimed occurred in 2014. Rodriguez said she was thrown from the basket during a hard landing, landed in the way of the basket and was dragged by the basket until the hot-air balloon lifted back off of the ground. Napa County Superior Court records indicate the lawsuit was settled out of court.
Other local balloon incidents
There have been additional hot-air balloon incidents in Napa County involving other ballooning companies over the years.
NTSB investigated a fatal incident involving Yountville-based Bonaventura Balloon Company in 2003 after a passenger who had grabbed onto the bottom of a balloon fell about 100 feet, according to an incident report.
NTSB also investigated an incident in 2009, when a Napa Valley Balloons balloon carrying four passengers encountered winds during a flight and landed hard in Napa, spraining a passenger’s ankle, according to the incident report.
FAA rarely inspects lone balloon operators
An NTSB spokesperson said the board does not keep statistics on how the safety record of hot-air balloons stacks up to other methods of transportation, but pointed to statistics in a 2016 NTSB report on a hot-air balloon crash in Lockhart, Texas that left all 16 people on board dead after striking a power line.
The FAA randomly looks at commercial hot-air balloon operators, but usually does so when operators are in the same place, such as at a hot-air balloon festival, according to the report. For more than 98 percent of the 2,300 hot-air balloons inspected by FAA from 2014 to 2016, multiple balloons were inspected on the same day and in the same place.
The rate of fatal hot-air balloon accidents has decreased slightly to 1 per 100,000 flight hours from 1.5 per 100,000 flight hours, according to FAA statistics cited in the report. The number of balloon flight hours per year had decreased by an unknown number, according to the FAA.
FAA statistics suggest that hot-air balloons comprised less than .06 percent of all aircraft flight hours between 2012 and 2014, according to the report.
An FAA representative was quoted in the report as saying that the agency spends less time overseeing hot-air balloon operations because they tend to be lower-risk. Much of FAA’s resources go toward higher-risk, large-scale commercial air operations, according to the report.