Baltimore's wild ride

July 20, 2004

HERE'S AN acrophobic's worst nightmare -- a giant helium balloon and 16 stranded passengers bobbing around like a child's toy for nearly two hours. But it happened Saturday at Baltimore's Inner Harbor to the 110-foot-tall Lindstrand HiFlyer balloon at Port Discovery. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt, but the event drew national attention, and no doubt the images broadcast on television spurred millions to gratefully conclude, "Glad it wasn't me."

It's been a rough year for the Inner Harbor's outdoor tourist attractions. In March, a sudden storm capsized a Seaport Taxi, tossing 23 tourists into frigid waters near Fells Point. Five people were killed. While the consequences of the balloon mishap were not nearly so dire, the cause of both accidents is thought to be the same -- unexpected strong winds. In this case, a gust of wind (perhaps 50 miles per hour or more) caused the shutdown of the attraction's primary engine powering its winch. And that left the balloon and its passengers 200 feet in the air, sitting ducks to Mother Nature.

State and federal investigators are looking into the causes of Saturday's accident, but some details are fairly straightforward. When the primary engine stopped working (the balloon has to be completely lowered for the engine to restart -- a safety measure of dubious value), the backup engine eventually kicked in. It was delayed, but it worked. In these circumstances, the balloon is supposed to be back on the ground in 45 minutes, but it took twice as long.

The balloon has been grounded since the accident, an appropriate decision under the circumstances. But whether it's ever allowed to operate again deserves some serious review -- by its operator and by regulators. Even if all systems had worked properly, for instance, the balloon's gondola still would have been slapped around in the wind. At one point, it crashed into air conditioning equipment on the roof of police headquarters. What's to prevent that from happening again -- as long as the balloon is located so near tall buildings?

Certainly, bringing a giant balloon to the Inner Harbor seemed like a good idea when the attraction opened three years ago. It's been a fun addition to the children's museum. And its current owners, the nonprofit Balloon Over Baltimore Inc., have been responsible caretakers. It should be noted, for instance, that the balloonists had recently installed a laptop computer on board to monitor for bad weather. The balloon has a good safety record -- its chief problem to date has been financial. Thanks to pricey liability insurance, it has cost more to run than it earns in ticket sales.

But there are other issues raised by this incident, too. The gondola has no passenger restraints, and that means nothing to prevent riders from getting batted around. Is it appropriate for the balloon to carry 3-year-old passengers? We can't yet judge the balloon's safety, at least we shouldn't until the investigations are complete. But we've seen enough to have reservations -- and so has the rest of the country.

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