Local hot air balloon expert calls accidents rare

SOUTH WALES, N.Y. (WIVB) – Mark Gietler, who has been flying hot air balloons out of South Wales for 15 years with the Aurora Balloon Company, tells News 4 that overall, accidents are rare.

He explained, “Everyone knows that it’s more dangerous to be in a car than a plane. Well it’s far more dangerous to be in a plane than in a balloon.”

News 4 spoke to Gietler after learning of the tragic death of 24-year-old Natalie Lewis, a Buffalo native and Nardin grad who was killed Friday in a hot air balloon accident in Virginia.

RELATED | Just one month before this tragic accident, the NTSB called on the FAA to step up regulatory oversight of hot air balloons

Gietler said it’s even more rare for an experienced pilot to hit power lines.

“What it looks like from an armchair quarterback position is there were two other balloons on the ground waving him in saying, ‘Oh, land here.’Sso he probably took his eye of the ball for a split second and didn’t notice and boom, there was the wire,” he theorized.

Gietler also says how pilot Daniel Kirk responded, by trying to lower the balloon, showed he was experienced.

“He did everything right, but when you’re in a bad situation, sometimes doing everything right isn’t going to be enough. And if there’s heat generated from a fire, the balloon is going to go up. Heat rises,” Geitler said.

He explained that modern balloons are built to prevent fires and hold up in case of an accident.

“They’re not flimsily built. Stainless steel goes through and completely around the basket,” he noted.

He hopes that the accident won’t scare people away from balloon rides including festivals like the annual Great Wellsville Balloon Rally.

But he does have some suggestions of things to look for before going for a ride:

  • Look at the equipment and make sure it has an up-to-date inspection certificate
  • Check to make sure the pilot or company is fully insured
  • Ask how long the pilot has been operating a hot air balloon and how long the company has been in business for
  • Ask how well the pilot knows the area

Gietler said, “I’ve been flying in this area, I know where all the landing spots are, I know where all the trouble spots might be and I avoid them.”

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