Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Canadian Balloon Accident


Hot-air balloon pilot's record comes under scrutiny

August 28, 2007

VANCOUVER -- The pilot of the hot-air balloon that burst into flames on the weekend killing two passengers was convicted of reckless endangerment two decades ago in another perilous ballooning incident.

Even so, his company's website says that he has a perfect flight record and has personally flown 25,000 passengers without incident.

Steven Pennock was fined $250 for endangering the lives of his passengers after the gondola of a balloon he was piloting dipped into Elk Lake on Vancouver Island on Sept. 28, 1985.

During the same flight, a 12-year-old boy - who was not a passenger or crew member - grabbed a rope hanging from the balloon and was suspended 20 metres above the ground.

Mr. Pennock was fined $500 in that incident, on a second charge of reckless endangerment.

His 1987 conviction on the two counts was overturned on appeal.

No fine was paid after the conviction, with an upper court ruling that Mr. Pennock was forced to prove his innocence at trial, when the Crown should have had the onus to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

The incident is not mentioned on the website of Fantasy Balloon Charters, which details Mr. Pennock's safety history.

The website includes a reference that he has a "perfect flight record" after 21 years of commercial flying, and that he has "personally flown in excess of 25,000 clients for the company without incident, an achievement which is unparalleled by any other balloonists in British Columbia."

The pilot was not available for comment yesterday, but the spokesman for Fantasy Balloon, John Kageorge, said it is perfectly correct to say that Mr. Pennock has a perfect flight record, noting that his conviction did not stand and he has not been censured by any regulatory authorities.

"Everything was dropped," Mr. Kageorge said.

However, Mr. Kageorge said that the statement that Mr. Pennock has flown "without incident" may not be accurate, given that a 12-year-old boy was suspended in mid-air from a balloon he was piloting.

"That's a good point. Quite clearly, there was a situation where a stranger, a passerby, grabbed a rope. I suppose we could say that in 24 years of carrying passengers, there have been no accidents and there's been one incident of a stranger passing by grabbing a rope."

Allan Vandekerkhove watched the balloon briefly touch down on his farm north of Victoria, and saw the boy run to grab onto the balloon.

He said in an interview yesterday that he still recalls the event as a terrifying moment. "He hung on for dear life," the 71-year-old said, adding that the boy was pulled inside the gondola before it landed.

As for the gondola hitting water on Elk Lake, Mr. Kageorge characterized that as a "skim-and-go" and a "pretty common occurrence," in which a pilot moves up and down to turn to the left or right.

The ability to execute such a move demonstrates skill, he said, although he later added that Mr. Pennock had intended to perform the manoeuvre in a field beside the lake.

Such a move is not prohibited by any regulation, he noted. "There was no safety violation on the part of the pilot."

Mr. Kageorge also said that there are no parallels between the 1985 incident and the accident on Friday evening, in which a hot-air balloon that Mr. Pennock was piloting caught fire, burned free of its tether and then soared into the sky, blowing apart as its propane tanks caught fire.

A mother and daughter, Shannon and Jemma Knackstedt, died in the accident, and four other people were sent to hospital with serious injuries.

Mr. Kageorge said Mr. Pennock was also injured, although he is no longer in hospital.

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