ATLANTA (AP) – A hot-air balloon pilot who died after taking skydivers up for a jump in Georgia was desperately trying to evade a sudden thunderstorm by climbing over it, federal safety investigators say in a new report.
Pilot Edward Ristaino ordered the group of skydivers to jump, then radioed his ground crew that he would “attempt to get over the storm,” according to the preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board released Friday.
“Shortly after, he expressed doubts that the balloon would be able to get over the storm and the ground crew watched the balloon disappear into the clouds,” the report states.
Ristaino, of Cornelius, N.C., described being battered by winds and chunks of hail as he talked about his ascent to his crew on the ground on March 16.
“Around 12,000 feet, he again repeated, `I don’t think I’m going to get over this thing,'” the report states. “At the top of the climb, the pilot advised, `I got nothing over my head’ and that the balloon was descending.”
Ristaino’s balloon plummeted to earth after climbing to an estimated 17,000 feet, nowhere near the height of the storm. The top of the thunderstorm was estimated at 45,000 to 50,000 feet, according to radar data.
The skydivers were able to float safely to the ground, and they credit Ristaino with saving their lives by spotting a field from the air and ordering them to jump ahead of the storm.
As Ristaino’s crew drove their chase vehicle in the direction they thought the balloon might land, they described hail the size of golf balls falling from the sky. They lost control of their vehicle in the storm, and slid into a ditch, the report states. During the next two minutes, they estimate that four inches of hail accumulated on the ground.
When Ristaino’s body was found, the balloon basket still contained hailstones, three days after the accident, the NTSB report states. Those ice chunks were the size of soccer balls, the pilot’s brother Dominick Ristaino, told The Charlotte Observer.
Dominick Ristaino believes the ice formed as his brother entered the cold upper altitudes. He believes the ice likely caused the balloon to collapse, he told the North Carolina newspaper.
An NTSB spokesman declined to comment on such details or what might have caused the crash. The agency’s investigation is continuing.
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