By Phaedra Haywood Phaedra Haywood | The New Mexican
October 31, 2006
Two helicopters, an airplane and more than a dozen members of state, county
and local agencies joined in a search at Rowe Mesa on Tuesday after a man
reported seeing a hot-air balloon crash about 20 miles southeast of Santa
Fe. But after four hours of looking, no sign of a downed balloon was found.
Juan Bustamante, 58, of Tesuque said he was a passenger in a truck traveling
toward Rowe from Santa Fe on Interstate 25 when he saw what looked like a
deflated hot-air balloon plummeting toward the ground.
"I saw this yellow thing coming down," Bustamante said. "At first, I thought
it was just balloons floating there, but since it was coming down so fast, I
thought, 'This thing has weight on the bottom.' It was coming down between
these two trees. I thought it was a balloon with people in it. It was
completely deflated. It seemed like there was something wrapped around it.
It was twisting and collapsing toward the middle."
"Then I looked up to see if there was an airplane. I know there are drugs
around, and I thought they might be dropping some drugs or something, but
there was no airplanes."
Bustamante snapped two pictures of the object through the windshield of the
truck he was riding in as it moved toward the falling object.
In his photos, the object appears as a tiny dot in the sky. Zooming in on
the image reveals what appears to be a deflating balloon with something that
resembles a gondola hanging from it.
Bustamante and his friend, Henry de Herrera, got off the interstate about
four miles later at Exit 307 and raced up the frontage road in Rowe to where
they thought the balloon would have come down, but found nothing.
Bustamante called 911 at 9:40 a.m., and by 10, the area was filled with
flashing lights and wailing sirens as emergency personnel from Santa Fe and
San Miguel counties converged on the area. Representatives from the New
Mexico Department of Public Safety, state police, the San Miguel County Fire
Marshall, Pecos Valley Medical Ambulance and the Rowe, Ilfeld, Glorieta and
Pecos Canyon fire departments gathered on the frontage road ready to head
for the scene if air searchers found the downed balloon.
San Miguel County Fire Chief Dan Wright, the incident commander, asked Care
Flight, a private emergency medical services provider, to help search the
area with its helicopter. "They are like our eyes in the sky," said Pecos
Valley Ambulance Service employee Jane McSweeney, who said the helicopter
has helped find missing people before in the mountainous rural area.
The Care Flight helicopter searched the area for about half an hour before
being joined by a state police chopper that flew for over an hour before
returning to Santa Fe for more fuel. A state police plane also searched the
area to no avail. After the state police helicopter returned, it flew for
about another hour before giving up the search.
State police spokesman Lt. Rick Anglada said officials called off the search
2 p.m. "Maybe it landed safely and either flew off where the witness
couldn't see them, or they landed, packed it up and left and never knew we
were looking for them," Anglada said.
"But (the pilots) covered every inch of ground out there and didn't see
anything," he said. "The (state police helicopter) pilot said he did a good
search of the area. If it was in the area described, they would have seen it
from the air. A balloon from the air is pretty easy to find even if it falls
in the woods. It drapes over the trees."
Anglada said the airplane flew for 1.7 hours at a cost of $264 per hour, and
the state helicopter flew for a total of three hours at $541 per hour. He
said the pilots earn an average of $23 to $30 per hour. "That's why we can't
just fly and fly and fly," Anglada said.
The search focused mainly on the area at the base of Rowe Mesa between
Glorieta and Rowe, but the aircraft also circled the north side of I-25 near
Pecos and looped around toward the eastern end of Rowe Mesa.
According to a 2003 story in The New Mexican, an unidentified flying object
reported in the same area three years ago turned out to be a helium-filled
research balloon launched by New Mexico State University's Physical Science
Laboratory as part of a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space
But representatives of the school, NASA, Kirtland Air Force Base and the
Federal Aviation Administration all said Tuesday that no balloon launches
were scheduled in the Rowe Mesa area. Public information officer Betty
Flowers said NASA has not launched any research balloons in New Mexico since
She said some balloons have been known to stay in the air as long as two
weeks and have circled the globe. But she said it was unlikely the object
Bustamante reported seeing was one of NASA's balloons because they are large
-- about 22 acres worth of material joined by 20 miles of seams -- and
bright white, and could easily be seen from a helicopter if downed.
Flowers also said all NASA balloons are equipped with tracking devices and
followed by chase crews.
Johnny Lewis, owner of Santa Fe Balloons, the city's only commercial hot-air
balloon flight company, said people who aren't familiar with the balloons
often think they are crashing when they are just landing.
"Tons of times, people think it was a crash, but it was a normal landing,"
Lewis said. "(The pilot) might be trying to hike out of there. But I doubt
if they crashed, honestly," he said.
"If it's windy (which Tuesday was), we get some drag, and it looks like a
complete fiasco (from the ground), and it's totally under control," Lewis
"We're trying to figure out who the heck would have flown up there," he
added. "I wouldn't want to fly out there. There are no roads, no access for
Wright said the case is now under the jurisdiction of state police. Anglada
said his agency might search further if someone is reported missing or there
are other leads.
Contact Phaedra Haywood at 986-3004 or email@example.com.
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