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Tue, Oct 12, 2004

Smokey Bear Balloon Considered Total Loss

Parents Watched As Cool-Headed Pilot Got Young Passengers To Safety

By ANN Contributor Glen Moyer

"You think you are strong till you know your kids are in jeopardy."

Those words came from Mike Whitacre Sunday, after the balloon his ten-year old son, Aaron, was riding in collided with a broadcast tower during a mass ascension to mark the end of the 33rd Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

Just as the morning's Farewell Mass Ascension was coming to an end, officials, balloonists and thousands of spectators were horrified to see the special shape balloon Smokey Bear impaled on a 670-foot tall radio transmission tower just west of Balloon Fiesta Park. On board the balloon were the pilot, 69-year old Bill Chapel and his two young passengers, Aaron, from Tuczon (AZ) and 14-year old Troy Wells of Rio Rancho (NM).

"I was just running down the street, trying to get to the accident site and praying he was okay," Aaron's mother, Jeanette, told KVOA-TV in Tucson.

As thousands looked on and news and rescue helicopters circled nearby, the three were able to climb out of the balloon's still suspended basket and then begin the almost hour-long climb down to safety. Rescue workers reached the three about 100 feet above the ground and aided them off the final section of the red and white triangular tower in a utility service bucket truck.

On the ground, all three said they would fly again though young Whitacre said "not tomorrow, but maybe next year." The parents of both boys praised the pilot for his quick thinking and instead of blaming him for the accident thanked him for saving their children.

Chapel is a retired US Forest Service Ranger and his wife Sally credited that experience with helping him to remain calm and look after his passengers.

The 670' tall radio tower was erected in 1953-54 and is almost twice as high as the tallest building in Albuquerque. It serves as the transmission tower for the 50,000-watt KKOB news talk station. Immediately upon learning of the accident the station shut down broadcasting and cut all power to the tower. KKOB was off the air from approximately 0830 to almost 1800 hours.

A four-man crew worked all day using a pulley system to lower the suspended balloon basket and its propane tanks to the ground without incident. Early reports say there is approximately $10,000 damage to the tower and parts of the balloon envelope remain draped around it.

The Smokey Bear balloon was one of 87 special shape balloons taking part in the world's largest balloon festival. It was built principally with private donations is owned and operated by a private non-profit corporation. The balloon debuted at the Albuquerque Fiesta in 1993. Chapel says he plans to start all over again and raise the money to build a new Smokey Bear Balloon in order to continue his mission to educate children about the dangers of wildfires.

The incident is under investigation by the FAA and the NTSB.

The air scare capped what had been a wonderful 10-day annual celebration of lighter-than-air aviation. More than 700 balloonists from 16 different countries had converged on Albuquerque for a series of fun flights and competitive events. Mother Nature also made a guest appearance on Sunday, October 3rd when a sudden downpour canceled the traditional balloon glow. High winds kept the balloons grounded the next morning (Monday) and that night a severe thunderstorm dumped hail stones ranging from pea to golf ball size throughout the city, caused extensive street flooding and gave the pilots another day off on Tuesday.

The remainder of the week featured weather right out of a Chamber of Commerce brochure and the hundreds of balloons returned to the skies. However, gusty winds on Friday forced cancellation of a "pole grab" wherein pilots launch one mile from Fiesta Park, fly back to the field and attempt to grab a prize envelope from atop one of five, 30-foot poles. A total of $25,000 in prize money could have been won.

In the end, Johnny Petrehn of Overland Park, Kansas was named Champion of the 2004 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and won a new 2005 Harley-Davidson for his efforts.

(Glen Moyer edits the news at www.bfa.net , the official website for the Balloon Federation of America)

FMI: www.albf.org, www.bfa.net

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