Eloy Hot Air Balloon Crash: Aviation attorney weighs in on what may have caused crash

We are learning more about a balloon accident near Eloy that left four people dead and one person with critical injuries.

The crash happened on Jan. 14 in Eloy, which is in Pinal County, around 7:45 a.m. near Sunshine Boulevard and Hanna Road. 13 people went up in a Kubicek BB 85 Z hot air balloon. Eight were skydivers who departed the balloon before the crash, four were along for the ride, and the final person was the pilot. Authorities have since identified the victims, along with the skydivers.

"The balloon impacted desert terrain following an unspecified problem with its envelope," officials with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said on Jan. 15. "Investigators have not found any mechanical anomalies with the balloon during their examination."

Aviation attorney speaks out

Most people think of skydiving as jumping from an airplane with a parachute, but doing it from hot air balloons is fairly new, albeit with much less oversight than airplanes and helicopters.

"With hot air balloons, the first thing you’re looking for is if there’s a fire that also did not appear to be any obstacle involved. Powerlines or anything like that," said Mike Slack, an aviation with experience handling deadly hot air balloon cases.

Slack was part of the case involving the nation's deadliest hot air balloon crash. That crash, which happened in Lockhart, Tex. in 2016, resulted in the death of 16 people. For the Eloy case, an aspect of the incident caught Slack's attention: eight of the 13 passengers were skydivers who jumped out just before the trouble started, and all landed safely.

That many jumpers, along with the timing, appeared troubling.

"If a jumper caught one of the lanyards that controls the vents on the balloon and it ripped the balloon open, then that could – that could certainly compromise the envelope," said Slack.

Witnesses say the envelope – or the balloon itself – was straight up and down after the skydivers exit. So far, investigators can only call it an ‘unspecified problem with the envelope.’

"I'd say the focus on the mixed mode of having jumpers, regular pastors and understanding if there’s a particular safety problem is created by that and addressing that, particularly with these large gondola balloon operations," said Slack.

The NTSB should release its initial report in the next 30 days. The final report is expected in about a year.