Balloon grounded

probes starting

Md. begins investigation, FAA inspects today after stranding of passengers

July 19, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

A day after the helium balloon anchored at Port Discovery stalled in the air and left its passengers to ride out high winds, the tourist attraction was grounded indefinitely yesterday, as a state investigation began and a federal official confirmed a second probe.

James D. Fielder, secretary of the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, said investigators with his office inspected equipment at the ride yesterday. Fielder declined to give more details, saying the investigation is far from complete.

He said the ride, which passed a safety inspection this year, would remain closed until the investigation is complete. "The main thing is the protection of public health and safety," Fielder said.

The Federal Aviation Administration's Flight Standards District Office in Baltimore will send an investigator to inspect the ride today, said spokeswoman Holly Baker. The investigator will also try to determine what caused the incident, she said.

The president of the board for nonprofit Balloon Over Baltimore Inc., Alan M. Leberknight, said the ride - which was already in financial trouble - is now facing an uncertain future for additional reasons. "We're going to get every bit of information we can get ... and consider every alternative," Leberknight said.

Among questions Leberknight was asking after the mishap was why passengers were stranded in the air for nearly two hours when the ride's backup engine is designed to haul down the balloon in 45 minutes.

"It does seem like it didn't get started up right away to come down," he said.

To obtain answers to some of its questions, Balloon Over Baltimore contacted officials at Lindstrand, the English company that built the balloon and helped train local operators.

The Sun could not reach Lindstrand officials yesterday. On its Web site, the company says it has been constructing "lighter-than-air vehicles" for more than 20 years. It promotes itself as the world's largest manufacturer of airships and claims "a perfect safety record."

The trip under investigation left the Port Discovery Children's Museum about 3:30 p.m. for what was supposed to be a 20-minute ride.

On Saturday, officials said 17 people were on board, but yesterday a Fire Department spokesman said there were 16.

As the balloon climbed to about 200 feet, a wind squall - undetected on the operators' laptop computer - whipped into downtown. The gusts caused a shutdown of the 55-horsepower engine on the winch that normally hauls in the 4-ton balloon by a wire cable.

On Saturday, officials said the shutdown was a safety precaution. Leberknight said yesterday that the shutdown prevents the balloon from rising too quickly and too high. The engine cannot be restarted until the balloon is on the ground, operators said.

Workers began trying to bring down the balloon with a five-horsepower backup engine, but a brake clamped on the winch was difficult to release.

As the balloon stalled in the air, winds pushed it around. The steel gondola slapped against the air-conditioning shed atop the city's police headquarters, jarring the passengers. At times the gondola tipped at a 45-degree angle.

The officials who operate the ride were apparently not the first to notify rescue workers of the situation. The first 911 call came in at 3:52 p.m., apparently from a passenger on the ride, Fire Department spokesman Kevin Cartwright said yesterday. The second came seven minutes later. Fire officials stopped logging calls after that.

Leberknight said equipment on the balloon measured one wind gust of 49 knots - about 56 mph.

Fire officials debated with operators on how best to bring it down. Fire officials wanted to hitch a cable to the balloon's cable and use a firetruck to pull it down. Operators pushed to continue using the backup engine, and they eventually brought it down that way. Several passengers were treated for non-life-threatening injuries.

"That balloon is built with all kind of backup systems, and they did work," Leberknight said.

In Niagara Falls, N.Y., the Great American Balloon Co. offers trips on a balloon made by the same company. Every 15 minutes, passengers soar up to 400 feet above the waterfalls.

"It's basically the same system that they have," said Shaun Asbury, the company's assistant general manager, referring to the Inner Harbor balloon.

The Great American Balloon Co. has three backup methods - including spare generators and a plan to haul the balloon using a fire engine or truck - if a vessel gets stuck or won't return to the ground. But the Niagara Falls engine does not automatically turn off if something goes wrong, Asbury said.

Baltimore's balloon lifted off three years ago. It was grounded for a time after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and it collapsed under the weight of snow in February 2003.

The company that started the operation, Sky High of Maryland, wasn't able to pay its bills this year, and the Abell Foundation stepped in to underwrite the expenses through October.

Leberknight said the board of the new nonprofit group operating the ride intended to evaluate its financial viability at the end of this season. "Certainly we didn't need this," he said.

Sun staff writers Lynn Anderson and Jason Song contributed to this article.

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