CALDWELL COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — The newest information to come out of Monday’s briefing with the National Transportation Safety Board indicates the pilot of the hot air balloon that crashed near Lockhart, killing 16, was in the process of landing the balloon when the accident happened.
“An examination of the balloon envelope indicates the top vent was open; which is consistent with a landing maneuver,” said Robert Sumwalt with the NTSB. The cables that were attached to the balloon also indicated a landing movement. Sumwalt also said a preliminary examination of the balloon portion shows “no evidence of pre-existing failures, malfunctions or problems.” The aircraft was also current on its annual inspection.
On Monday afternoon, tow crews can be seen hauling away the balloon portion in a white bag. The basket and balloon will be stored at a salvage yard in Dallas for safe-keeping.
NTSB investigators also spent the day interviewing the balloon’s three ground crew members, who were able to give some insight into the timeline of what happened Saturday morning. The crew said while they put up two trial balloons (to see which way the winds are blowing) prior to the launch of the hot air balloon. The crew members said while they were driving from the Walmart in San Marcos to Fentress Airpark, there was some patchy fog in low-lying areas but that it was clear when they launched from the airpark.
Sumwalt did clarify that while sunrise Saturday morning was at 6:49 a.m., the time wasn’t the exact time the crew was going to launch. On Sunday, Sumwalt noted that he thought the crew delayed their launch but that does not appear to be the case.
“They were essentially trying to get everything done before launching so it does not appear there was anything out of the ordinary. It doesn’t appear like they were waiting for weather to clear or anything,” explained Sumwalt.
While up in the air, the pilot and crew used Glimpse, a navigational app, to share messages. At 7:26 a.m., the ground crew said they received a position update from the pilot which normally indicates he is ready to land. At 7:42 a.m., the first power line trip was reported by the Lower Colorado River Authority. Approximately one minute later, a 911 call came in reporting a possible crash.
While a witness saw the fireball, the crews didn’t know what happened to the balloon until a little later. “When the ground crew could not locate the balloon or had no more communication with the pilot, they drove around for an hour searching for the balloon,” continued Sumwalt.
When NTSB crews surveyed the utility lines, they found evidence of “multiple points of contact” as well as arcing on the wires. Sumwalt said approximately 30 feet of the wires had evidence of abrasion.
“We know that the top of the [utility] tower is 140 feet—and the wires, of course, have sag—but it was on the top portion of the wires,” continued Sumwalt.
While investigators continue putting together the pieces of the wreckage, Sumwalt said they still don’t have any indication of what may have caused the balloon to fly into the power lines.
Around 7 p.m. Monday, four Lockhart ISD school buses carrying approximately five dozen family members of the victims pulled up to the site of the crash. The victims’ families were carrying flowers and other memorabilia to leave at the crash site.