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Screams heard as gust hits balloon

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A terrified passenger on a hot air balloon that hit trees yesterday said she thought about jumping to save herself.


An eyewitness, who did not want to be named, said he heard screaming from the 18 passengers as the balloon, operated by Up Up and Away, was hit by a strong wind gust and tore on trees while trying to land in North Canterbury about 8am.


The Civil Aviation Authority has launched an investigation.


Savannah Hyssong was riding with her partner: "At least half the balloon hit the tree, and the basket was also in the trees. There were massive holes. It freaked me out. The only thing I was thinking was should I jump out and grab a branch."


A 7-year-old girl was crying during the ordeal, and her father was hit on the head by a branch, Hyssong said. "There were sudden screams of panic. I think a lot of people were terrified."


In the final attempt at landing, the balloon hit the ground "really hard" and bounced back up, and the basket tipped over, she said.


"We all landed on our backs. It was insane. Freaky – scary as hell. That's not the way it is supposed to be. After we landed there were still huge pieces of tree stuck in the balloon. Everyone took a pinecone from the basket."


The eyewitness said: "I saw the balloon trying to land. It jumped the fence a bit and the wind got hold of it – the nor'easterly is quite gusty. I ended up chasing it in my bare feet."


He said a group of neighbours gathered to search for the balloon after it was swirled away in the winds. They found it on a property about 1.5km from where it had originally tried to land.


The scare comes just two months after a fatal balloon crash in Carterton in January in which 11 people died when a balloon plunged to the ground in flames after hitting powerlines.


The Transport Accident Investigation Commission subsequently called for urgent checks on the maintenance of all 74 balloons in the country.


Hyssong said: "My partner and I talked about it [Carterton] before we went up." But she never dreamed she would experience her own terror.


In 1995, three passengers died when a balloon in Christchurch was caught by a southerly squall and landed in the sea off Waimairi Beach.


Police Southern Communications spokesman Inspector Mike Coulter said a member of the public called police, who were at the scene shortly after the hot air balloon landed.


No-one was injured and police were able to speak to the passengers and pilot.


A spokeswoman for Up Up and Away, who would not be named, said there was "no forced landing" and "no incident".


"There was no risk to passengers, no emergency landing, no forced landing. They did a landing under standard procedure. There was a small tear that did not compromise the safety or the air-worthiness of the balloon."


The Civil Aviation Authority said investigators would start interviews tomorrow.


Earlier this month, as part of the Balloons Over Wairarapa festival, 11 helium-filled white dove-shaped balloons were released as a tribute to those killed in the Carterton disaster: pilot Lance Hopping, 53, of Masterton; husband and wife Howard, 71, and Diana Cox, 63, of Wellington; husband and wife Desmond, 70, and Ann Dean, 65, of Masterton; cousins Valerie Bennett, 70, of Masterton and Denise Dellabarca, 58, of Paraparaumu; partners Stephen Hopkirk, 50, and Belinda Harter, 49, of Lower Hutt; and Johannes Jordann, known as Chrisjan, 21, and girlfriend Alexis Still, 19, both of Wellington.


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