Sunday, October 12, 2008

Balloon accident 3

Balloon pilots somber at NM festival after death

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Pilots of hot air balloons on Saturday mourned the loss of one of their own in a fiery crash at Albuquerque's famous festival, even as they said another pilot fighting for his life after the accident would want them to keep flying.

Saturday's weather failed to cooperate. Windy, stormy weather grounded balloons readying for a morning mass ascension, and evening fireworks also were canceled, lending a somber mood to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

Keith Sproul of North Brunswick, N.J., was critically injured Friday when the gondola of his Wings of Wind balloon crashed into power lines and exploded into flames over the town of Bernalillo. His co-pilot, Stephen Lachendro of Butler, Pa., was killed.

Sproul remained in critical condition Saturday, a hospital spokesman said.

"Our friend who's fighting for his life in the hospital, he would have wanted us to fly if it was flyable. I mean, that's what we do," said balloon pilot Chris Keefe of Oshkosh, Wis.

Keefe said Sproul was one of about a dozen balloon pilots who belong to the dawn patrol, a handful of balloons that launch before sunrise to test air currents for other balloons that will take off later. The crash occurred around 8 a.m., too late for Sproul to have been carrying out those duties.

The pilots said Sproul would want them to learn from the accident.

Pilot Craig Kennedy of Albuquerque said of Sproul: "I'll bet you that he will share his experience with any pilot who will listen to explain what happened, so that we can learn from it."

Balloon fiesta spokeswoman Kathie Leyendecker said Lachendro was a "very well-loved pilot."

"There's lots of warm conversations and reminiscing going on today," she said.

Pilots and fiesta organizers gave no thought to shutting down the festival, which ends Sunday.

"It provides a lot of joy and excitement for a lot of people," Keefe said. "We don't consider (ballooning) a risk-taking activity. Just like an airline pilot flying cross-country with a load of passengers, he doesn't consider his job a risky thing."

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the crash. Witnesses on the ground said it was windy at the time, and authorities said they received several reports of hard landings within about 15 minutes of the crash.

Six people died from 1990 to 2007 when their balloons hit or snagged power lines during the fiesta. Four died in 1982 when propane tanks on a balloon exploded.

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