How safe is ballooning?

January 9th, 2012 at 1:00 pm by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

A prominent Canterbury balloonist and friend of the pilot of the balloon at the heart of Saturday’s disaster in the Wairarapa has cautioned against speculation over the cause of the tragedy.

Martyn Stacey, of Methven, was also at pains to stress that the sport is safe.

Stacey, the Aoraki Balloon Safaris operator and Balloon Aviation Association of New Zealand president, was a close friend of pilot Lance Hopping, who was killed along with 10 passengers in a fiery crash in Carterton early on Saturday morning. …

“It’s a shock to the whole community. What we’ve got to reiterate now is that is safe. People have to understand that is a major tourist operation.”

The deaths have been a major international story. They even made the Drudge Report which gets 30 million views a day. It was reported in UK and Australia also. The reality is that no one will be wanting to book a balloon ride in New Zealand for some time. In fact, it may damage the practice internationally for a period of time.

My flatmate has a voucher for two to do a balloon ride in the Wairarapa. Even though I’ve done one before in Egypt, I’m like “Don’t invite me to go with you”. It is a bit creepy thinking that if she had redeemed them this weekend, it could have been her up there.

In another close call, I’m horrified to see this video of a bungee cord snapping over crocodile infested waters.

I wondered where this happened, and it was at Victoria Falls over the Zambesi, where I spent Christmas Day. I saw several people bungee from that bridge, and almost did one myself. As I had done a bungee before at Skippers, I didn’t feel the need to do a second one.

Horrified to see the cord snap, or somehow not be secured correctly. A miracle the young girl survived. She had to swim to shore with the cord still tying her legs together.

Anyway going back to the ballooning:

There had been only three fatal balloon accidents in New Zealand in the past century, he said.

“You’ve got more chance of drowning or being run over by a car.”

I’m not sure that is the case. It’s like when people say elephants kill more people than sharks. What is a better comparison is how much time do people spend in the vicinity of elephants compared to swimming with sharks, and what is the fatality rate.

I’m not sure how many people balloon a year, and for how long, but to compare to road deaths, you need to compare per (say) million hours of an activity.

In NZ let’s say three million people spend 10 hours a week driving. That is 30 million hours per week, or 1,500 million hours per year. If 300 people die in car crashes then that is 0.2 deaths per million hours.

Now I have no idea how many people balloon in NZ every year. So I’ll guess some figures just so one can do a potential comparison. Please note these are not actual figures, and I am not saying ballooning is or is not more safe than driving. Just showing what a proper comparison would be.

Let’s say there are 50 ballooning operations in NZ. Also assume each goes up once per day (tends to be sunrise) with 10 people in them, and they stay up for an hour. That is 500 person hours a day which is 3,500 a week and 175,000 person hours a year.

Now if car fatality rate is 0.2 deaths per millions hours (or 1 death per five million hours), then you would expect one ballooning death around every 30 years, for ballooning to be safer than driving.

How with three accidents in the last century that could suggest they are of equal . But only if just one person died in each accident, and that is unlikely.

It would be great if someone somewhere (maybe an insurance company) calculated and published the fatality incidence rates for everything from driving to cycling to to ballooning to rafting to safari touring on a per (million) hours basis. That would be an interesting comparison.

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16 Responses to “How safe is ballooning?”

  1. s.russell (1,486 comments) says:

    If someone offered me a balloon ride tomorrow, I’d take it.

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  2. Dick (80 comments) says:

    “What we’ve got to reiterate now is that ballooning is safe.”

    Actually that is not something you need to reiterate now. There is a time and place for such reiterations – immediately after a tragedy whilst the family members are still grieving is not the time or place. However, it is understandable that you are concerned about the impact the tragedy will have on your business profits.

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  3. RJL (122 comments) says:

    DPF, excellent work. Do you ghost-write for Shelley Bridgeman?

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  4. Scott Chris (5,672 comments) says:

    How safe is ballooning?

    I’ve got an idea! :idea:

    The Ballooning Association can commission Curia to find out….

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  5. MikeG (359 comments) says:

    Do you think twice before going out to drive in a car? Even if 1200 people died in RTA’s in NZ per year I don’t think it would stop you driving in a car.

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  6. CJPhoto (182 comments) says:

    I think you are over reacting.

    I would take a ride in a balloon if offered.

    Sure we dont know the cause yet but my guess it was a freak accident. Weather conditions caught him by surprise just as he was going past power lines.

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  7. reid (15,493 comments) says:

    Sure we dont know the cause yet but my guess it was a freak accident. Weather conditions caught him by surprise just as he was going past power lines.

    Another possibility is equipment failure in either the burner or the envelope. It’s very odd. Obviously the pilot knew where all the lines were. A witness report on Stuff I think it may have been the photographer who was with the tour, said it descended quite fast before it hit them. However as we all know the weather was perfect that day and a strong convection current at that spot you’d think would be the only weather thing which could do it.

    As far as doing it myself, my view is now that I’d rather forego the experience, personally.

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  8. gravedodger (1,426 comments) says:

    @ MikeG 2 08, 1200 RTAs ? that figure might be accurate for all time.
    It was no way in hell an “accident” when a driver overtook one more vehicle on a passing lane on the Kapiti coast, completing after the dual laning evapourated and the oncoming vehicle ended his time on earth, it was a ROAD CRASH and I am betting 100% down to driver error, so in the interests of factual accuracy possibly “RTC” might be a better term.

    FFS there are very few accidents on the roads.

    A good mate of mine was killed some 40 odd years ago when his horse, standing behind him while he was sitting in front of it waiting for sheep to go through a gate, for some reason “pawed” its front foot striking the victim on the back of his head killing him stone dead with one blow.
    Had he been wearing a helmet he would have been unhurt probably, only stunned, had he been another two feet distant the same outcome but his luck ran out, bugger!. That almost qualifies as an accident but with hindsight was preventable.

    As for the Tragedy near Somerset Rd we will just have to wait until the investigators report but ‘a perfect storm’ scenario may well be an outcome. ie weather, wind, down draft, miscalculation by the pilot, we just do not know yet.
    Things really altered when the two leapt out and the balloon went up fast, so why do we all not just wait.

    The president of ballooning NZ is right, it is a very tightly regulated activity, statistically safe and a good contributor to our many and varied adventure activities appreciated by so many who come to visit. Just as Erebus was massive in numbers so was this incident relative to participation numbers.
    Perspective and patience are words that come to mind.

    Shit happens and for those mourning the dead my condolences.

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  9. MT_Tinman (2,790 comments) says:

    Were I to ever contemplate taking a balloon ride now would be when I’d do it.

    Working, of course, on the theory that straight after an accident is the best time to do something, the operators right now will be particularly safety concious.

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  10. Pauleastbay (5,030 comments) says:

    I’m like “Don’t invite me to go with you”. It is a bit creepy thinking that if she had redeemed them this weekend, it could have been her up there.

    or the crash might have happened next weekend when she went , – anyway
    she is a lot more likely to get bowled by a bus in Manners Street.

    Lets all sit on the couch and be forever safe.

    @MT-Tinman
    the operators right now will be particularly safety concious.………….. and rates may understandably be cheaper.

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  11. Pharmachick (210 comments) says:

    “It would be great if someone somewhere (maybe an insurance company) calculated and published the fatality incidence rates for everything from driving to cycling to bungee jumping to ballooning to rafting to safari touring on a per (million) hours basis. That would be an interesting comparison.”

    LOL DPF!!!

    Of **COURSE** they do this. These people are called “Actuaries”, as you well know; and (as you also well know) they work for Insurance companies or occasionally for Wall Street.

    And, **NO** they won’t publish their probability tables, that’s how they set their insurance premiums or calculate investment risks, respectively.

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  12. tvb (3,937 comments) says:

    There will be some hard questions like why was the basket so flammable, was there a fire-extginuisher on board. I get tired when these questions get ruled out with people saying the pilot was so safety conscious, the industry was so safe and so on. They rule out every possible cause and leave us wondering whether the fatal accident was caused by some utterly freakish thing that simply cannot be explained. There will be human error involved but hopefully various safety issues can be addressed, including the flammability of the basket.

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  13. wolfjung (59 comments) says:

    I recall learning some interesting stuff back in the ol’ day of engineering school. We had a course on Process Reliability and Safety. It had some interesting discourses on perception and risk.

    What would be more interesting to see is the probablity of one being involved in an accident for example, car crash vs aeroplane vs hot air ballon vs bungy jumping etc.

    The issue is that when an aeroplane crashes it is perceived as a major catastrophy because it generally involves many deaths at the same time, constrast this with a car crash, normally 1-2 people. Though people are more fearful when flying, when I’m sure if the amount of time and people involved in accidents for driving vs flying is weighed up, people should be shitting themselves each time they get in their car.

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  14. Stephen Stratford (45 comments) says:

    “people should be shitting themselves each time they get in their car”

    Yes. I do. Metaphorically, you understand.

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  15. ross (1,454 comments) says:

    “I’m not sure how many people balloon a year, and for how long, but to compare to road deaths, you need to compare per (say) million hours of an activity.”

    I’m not sure I agree. With a balloon you’re unlikely to have a head-on collision with another balloon (though it is possible and I think happened in Alice Springs many years ago). There are no sharp corners needing to be taken, no cliffs to drive off, no red lights that can be run, no ditches to drive into, etc. So on the face of it, ballooning appears a lot safer than driving a car.

    It’s worth remembering that many of us get into cars every day of the week. Ballooning is something we might do once or twice in our lifetime….so of course the odds of being killed by a car are that much greater.

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  16. ross (1,454 comments) says:

    It’s worth noting that in 2010, there were more than 14,000 people injured as a result of car accidents. There were probably only a handful of injuries from ballooning.

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