Risk vs. reward

Everyday life presents its own set of risks. It’s a risk getting out of bed to face the day. While in a state of morning drowsiness, you can slip in a wet shower stall. It’s also possible to burn your tongue on a hot cup of morning coffee. Jumping in your car and proceeding to work is fraught with dangers. And depending upon your work, a job site can present its own dangers.

But in life, what we normally try to do is minimize the dangers we face.

On the other hand, we occasionally like to test the boundaries of danger to give our lives a little spice — there’s a bit of daredevil in most of us, although perhaps only a few of us may lay claim to being an Evil Knievel. When we do take a chance, we should be conscious that it has the potential to be hazardous to our well-being.

Among the many risks we may choose to take, riding a balloon would seem to be the least life-threatening. In Winnipeg, literally hundreds of people have enjoyed a balloon ride without mishap. 

I climbed aboard a hot-air balloon in September 1994 for a leisurely  journey above Winnipeg. At first I was apprehensive — I have a fear of heights — but a calm overcame me as the balloon wafted upward. 

Even before going aloft with two other passengers, I decided to allay my fears by asking plenty of questions about the safety record of ballooning and the experience of the pilot. He had originally been an airplane pilot in his native New Zealand, but at the time had extensive experience ballooning in Saskatoon, Regina and Calgary, as well as three years in Winnipeg as a lighter-than-air pilot. It also helped soothe my anxiety when he showed us that he carried a valid hot-air balloon pilot licence.

While in the van to our launching point, I asked him what conditions were ideal for ballooning. His  response was that we would not be having a “distance day,” but that it was “a perfect day for ballooning.”

The pilot based his comments on the launch of a helium-filled weather balloon which travelled upward with only a slight variation in its course. Still, he said the upper winds indicated we would have to change locations for the launch and we proceeded to Kildonan Park.

He informed us that flights are only made in the morning and evening. I was told wind conditions in the afternoon normally exceed the flight limit of 16 km/h. It seemed logical since some control of the craft would be required when aloft. We were also assured that balloon flights were not allowed above a certain ceiling so as not to interfere with aircraft traffic into and out of Winnipeg’s airport. This was a measure that again seemed quite logical.

Once in the gondola, a sudden blast of  hot air into the balloon’s envelope moved us slowly upward. Surprisingly, there was little sensation associated with the lift-off from the ground. The first real indication of upward movement was the sight of early morning joggers in Kildonan Park stopping in their tracks below us to gawk upward as we floated in the sky.

The relaxing flight was over after about an hour and the site located for our landing seemed almost impossible — a smallish vacant lot in a north Winnipeg subdivision. But our touchdown was just as sedate as the our travel through the sky.

“Any guy who can land in that space, I wouldn’t be too worried about,” pronounced a female passenger. 

For myself, it was a thrilling and enjoyable experience. I had taken a risk and had survived unscathed. When I landed, I wondered why I had been anxious about taking the flight. Inwardly I chuckled at my pre-flight insecurity.

Because of the rarity of ballooning accidents, the 12 people who climbed into a balloon gondola last Saturday probably had no fear that their ride would end tragically. Yet it did. Unlike my smooth landing, the passengers last weekend withstood numerous attempts to land in  a farmer’s field north of Birds Hill Park and when they did land, they struck the ground violently with the gondola bouncing several times before flipping upside down with the passengers still inside. At this point,the envelope caught fire followed by the gondola. When they were freed, some had been burned or otherwise injured, including the pilot, while two others were so seriously injured that they had to be taken to hospital. Only one person escaped without injury.

The balloon had been launched around 7:30 a.m. at St. Vital Park and was to have landed near the Perimeter Highway, but the pilot was unable to find smooth landing place as winds began to pick up until they reached the spot in the RM of St. Clements.

Hot-air balloon crashes are relatively rare, but they occasionally occur. In 2001, a 15-year-old girl was killed when the balloon she was riding in hit power lines and burst into flames in Ottawa, according to a Canadian Press report. 

Another incident in Ottawa occurred when a balloon struck a high-rise building, but the 10 people aboard escaped injury. In 2005, five people were injured after a crash landing in Caledon, Ontario.

It would appear that landings are the most dangerous aspect of the ballooning experience. I alit smoothly, but a co-worker was riding another balloon that bounced violently when landing. The landing had been so sudden that people travelling on a nearby road stopped their vehicles and ran to the field near the Brady Road landfill to see if everyone was okay. Despite her experience, my co-worker says she is still eager to go up again.

The same pilot who had landed so gracefully after my ride related that the evening before he had to set down on railway tracks, though without incident.

At St. Clements, a neighbour who heard the explosion was quickly on the scene to help the 12 people. Another neighbour at the crash site was a registered nurse; as well there was as a man training to become a nurse. Paramedics and police also quickly arrived at the field to help the injured.

The Transport Safety Board of Canada is now investigating the cause of the fire and will be examining the balloon’s fuel tanks and burners.

Despite a relatively good safety record, ballooning obviously is still a risky undertaking. 

What people have to decide when contemplating such an experience is the risks they are taking when involving themselves in any activity outside their immediate control. It’s always a case of measuring risk against reward.