After 16 die in Texas: ‘Safety is a top priority,’ NJ balloon festival spokesman says
In the wake of a deadly hot air balloon crash that killed several people in Texas Saturday morning, a spokesperson for the QuickChek NJ Festival of Ballooning says safety is always the top priority at the weekend-long event in Hunterdon County.
The 34th annual festival, which features dozens of balloons that ascend twice a day — weather permitting — takes place over three days and allows members of the public to view the launches as well as ride in hot air balloons. Russ Mensch, a spokesperson for the festival, said the incident in Texas was a tragedy, but stressed that everyone participating in the weekend event in New Jersey adheres to a number of safety regulations.
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to all of those affected by this tragedy," Mensch told NJ 101.5 Saturday. He said he couldn't comment further on the Texas incident since he was unaware of the specifics and the investigation is ongoing, but he did say festival organizers make safety a primary concern.
"Safety is always our top priority. The safety of our pilots and patrons is very important," Mensch said. "We would not put anyone in harm's way."
Safety measure include briefings before each of the morning and evening ascents and all balloons and launches must adhere to FAA standards. There is also an FAA representative on site.
"We have a pilot briefing prior to every inflation and ascension and part of that is that they follow the weather, so if we should see that conditions are unfavorable we wait it out, and if conditions are not favorable we will not fly," Mensch said.
According to Mensch the 6:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. launch times were not chosen arbitrarily.
"Those are optimal times to fly because wind and weather are at their calmest. An hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset," he said, adding that they do have windows of time to play with depending on the weather conditions, but typically the early morning and evening ascensions are safest and pilots can always opt not to fly if they aren't comfortable with the conditions.
Representatives from the FAA's Eastern Division could not immediately be reached for comment.
FAA officials in Texas say a hot air balloon carrying at least 16 people caught fire and crashed into a pasture shortly after 7:40 a.m. near Lockhart, which is in central Texas. Investigators are still trying to determine the exact number of fatalities and the identities of the victims. The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash.
Although hot air balloon crashes are rare, the National Transportation Safety Board has investigated at least 775 crash incidents in the United States since 1964, according a 2014 report by NBC News. Of those crashes, 70 involved fatalities and a total of 16 people died while hot air ballooning between 2002 and 2012, NBC states.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Toniann Antonelli is a social content producer for NJ 101.5. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @ToniRadio1015.