CAROLINE, VA (WWBT) - A report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board in the 2014 deadly hot air balloon crash at Meadow Event Park focuses on the experienced pilot killed in the tragedy.
"It is likely that the pilot identified the power lines late in the approach and ignited the burner to climb but that insufficient time remained to clear the power lines," the report concludes.
While the NTSB looked into wind issues and the location of the power lines in the May 9, 2014 crash, it finds the main issue was the pilot's approach to the landing field.
"Federal Aviation Administration guidance on balloon flying states that, if there is an obstacle between the balloon and the landing site, the pilot should either give the obstacle appropriate clearance and drop in from altitude; reject the landing and look for another landing site; or fly a low approach to the obstacle, fly over the obstacle allowing plenty of room, and then land," states the report.
The 2014 hot air balloon crash killed pilot Capt. Dan Kirk, along with two University of Richmond women's basketball staff members.
The fatal flight was nearly canceled due to weather in the hours before the launch, according to an FAA Inspector's report included in the NTSB's factual report. Organizers of the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival did review the weather conditions with the balloon pilots prior to the accident and FAA inspector Michael Dows said "winds were slowly decreasing" as the launch approached. However, Dows' report states the winds readings ranged from "initially about 12 knots to some as low as 6 knots at the surface." The FAA-approved operations manual for the balloon states, "most pilots prefer to launch and fly in winds less than 7 knots."
"While balloon flying is performed in higher winds, pilots accept that the faster the winds, the more they are exposed to risk and injury," reads the Eagle C-7 balloon manual.
Weather reports an hour before the crash from the Hanover Airport about 12 miles away measured wind at ten knots. A reading minutes after the crash showed surface winds at around seven knots, though speeds could have been higher at higher altitudes.
The balloon involved in the crash was actually meant to go up earlier in the morning, but was rescheduled to the afternoon, according to a statement from the wife of Captain Kirk to Virginia State Police.
Witnesses on the ground described the final moments of the tragedy. Timothy Alvarez said he heard an "electrical sound" and saw sparks when the balloon's basket hit the power lines. He then heard what he believed a female voice shout, "I am going to die, what do I do?" He believed it was Ginny Doyle, who was hanging from the edge of the basket. He then saw the balloon quickly rise 200 to 300 feet and one of the people inside fall out of the basket.
Another witness, Daniel Cooper, saw someone in the balloon point at the power lines prior to the crash and told State Police he heard a woman yelling, "Help me, help me" after it caught fire.
A GPS device and three cell phones sent to the NTSB Recorder Laboratory for download yielded few additional clues. A two-way radio with a GPS device did not yield any useful information. Another GPS and one iPhone were so badly damaged no data could be retrieved. Kirk's cell phone contained some photos, but nothing in the days leading up to the crash. The only useful data came from another iPhone belonging to one of the deceased passengers, which had some video and photos from the day of the crash and provided a path of the balloon's flight.
A toxicology performed on the pilot found only the allergy medicine Allegra and Diovan, used to treat high blood pressure, in his system.
After the crash, organizers of the festival canceled the rest of the weekend's events near Meadow Event Park. The Richmond Spiders postponed the weekend's basketball games.
Captain Daniel Kirk with Starship Adventures had more than 30 years experience piloting hot air balloons. He offered scenic hot air balloon flights over the DelMarVa area of the Eastern Shore. Kirk held a commercial balloon pilot license issued by the Federal Aviation Administration and was fully insured for commercial balloon operations, according to the company's website.
Kirk claimed "29 plus years" experience in a YouTube video published in 2012 of him training a beginner to fly a balloon.
His father, Donald, told NBC news his son was a retired lieutenant Army colonel who served in the military for 37 years. He called the crash "just a freak accident" saying his son was always very cautious.
"Dan was a very accomplished balloon pilot that enjoyed flying in competitive balloon events and was a true ambassador to the sport of hot air ballooning," said Mark Nelson, a friend of Kirk's for 35 years. "Dan Kirk will be greatly missed by everyone in ballooning across America. Our hearts go out to Dan's family and the families of passengers involved in the balloon accident."
FAA records show the balloon was certified in 2001 and its certification wasn't set to expire until 2017. It was inspected on August 5, 2013, and had 270.4 hours of total time.
Kirk was piloting the balloon for two members of the University of Richmond's women's basketball team staff when it crashed. Ginny Doyle, associate head women's basketball coach, and Natalie Lewis, director of basketball operations, were both killed in the crash.
Doyle was a two-time all-conference player at Richmond who graduated in 1992. She led the Spiders to the 1991 CAA Championship and NCAA Tournament and is the program's career leader in free throw percentage. She set the NCAA Division I record for consecutive free throws made with 66, a mark that stood for 18 years.
After graduation Doyle joined the Spiders' staff for 16 years. The Spiders had nine winning seasons, including a trip to the 2006 NCAA tournament and a first-ever appearance in the Atlantic 10 Championship final in 2009, during her 16 years at the university.
Lewis was a championship swimmer and four-year varsity letter winner at Richmond, serving twice as team captain. She was on three Atlantic 10 swimming championship teams, as well as a student government cabinet member and Spider Scholar Athlete when she graduated in 2011. She began her professional career with Spider Athletics in 2012.
The NTSB report does not go into detail about whether the power line struck was on the pilot's map. Representatives from Rappahannock Electrical Cooperative were called to the scene and conducted a survey. A police report filed a week after the crash shows the lines struck were about 30 feet off the ground and referred to as "Caroline Packing Lines," that run from the Caroline Pines switch station along Ruther Glen Road to the Caroline Packing Company.
The report states the power line easement had been in place since 1951, but doesn't elaborate on when they were installed or when they would be added to the maps used by pilots.