Six people have been injured in a hot air balloon crash in the Hunter region on Saturday morning, including two seriously injured women.
Up to 15 people were on board the hot air balloon when it struck a bush in strong winds while attempting to land.
The balloon made a hard landing near Camp Road outside Greta, 21 kilometres north of Cessnock.
A 24-year-old woman is being treated for suspected spinal injuries and is in a stable condition. An 80-year-old woman sustained multiple fractures and is in a serious but stable condition. Both are being treated at John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle.
Four other people have minor injuries. Two were taken to Maitland Hospital but have been discharged.
The balloon belongs to NSW hot air ballooning company, Balloon Safaris, and was carrying its maximum capacity at 15 passengers.
It took off at 5.45am on Saturday from Whittingham near Singleton in calm conditions, with three other balloons.
After about 35 minutes the wind speed increased much earlier than the Bureau of Meteorology had predicted, the company said.
“The pilot decided to land at the first available landing spot,” a statement from Balloon Safaris said.
“The balloon landed firmly and some injuries were sustained by passengers in the basket as a result. All three other balloons landed safely.”
The company said the pilot of the balloon “is highly experienced with thousands of hour’s flight experience”.
“The company, while proud of its long safety record, regrets the incident and is providing assistance and support to the passengers and their families.”
Twenty-six year-old Michael witnessed the crash from one of four other hot air balloons that were trying to land in the strong winds.
“You could see them hit the bush and we heard the pilot screaming ‘hold on, hold on’,” said Michael, who requested that his surname not be published.
“There was nothing the blue-and-white balloon could have done to avoid the bush. We were worried they would hit the barbed-wire fence running parallel to where they were flying,” he said.
Once the balloon’s basket hit the ground, no one got out, Michael said.
“They didn’t seem to want to get out … we asked our pilot if anyone was injured and he said he didn’t know,” Michael said.
Michael said he was in the hot air balloon to see his friend propose to his girlfriend, “and she said yes”.
He said hot air balloon staff were talking about the strength of the winds “the whole morning”.
“When we were in the air the pilot told us we were flying 90 kilometres an hour,” Michael said.
Their own balloon landed roughly just before the balloon carrying the severely injured passengers, he said.
“The pilot said our landing was about a seven-and-a-half to eight in terms of hard landings … a few of us were complaining of whiplash.”
A sudden wind change is believed to be a factor, and other hot air balloons – which had taken off from Cessnock – may have been involved.
Locals said a number of hot air balloons tried to take off at the same time, as the wind picked up unexpectedly.
A Westpac Rescue Helicopter was tasked to respond to the incident.
The Air Transport Safety Bureau will be conducting an investigation into the incident. In a statement, the Bureau said it would interview the pilot and other witnesses.
A spokeswoman for Beyond Ballooning – a hot air balloon company that operates in the area – said their pilots made the decision to cancel their flights on Saturday morning.
The company would not disclose the reasons for its cancellation.
A spokesman for the Civil Aviation Safety Authority has contacted the balloon operator and expects to receive a report in due course.
Earlier this month, an n couple were among the survivors of a hot air balloon crash in Egypt that killed a South African tourist.
In 1989, 13 people were killed in Alice Springs in one of the deadliest hot air balloon accidents on record. /**/
More to come.
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-With The Singleton Argus