Parents Watched As Cool-Headed Pilot Got Young Passengers To
By ANN Contributor Glen Moyer
"You think you are strong till you know your kids are in
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
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
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