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Fiery crash during prestigious balloon race injures 2 Polish pilots

The Poland-1 gas balloon, center right, slowly inflates in preparation for the launch of the 66th Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett gas balloon race at Balloon Fiesta Park in Albuquerque on Saturday. Chancey Bush/The Albuquerque Journal
Hydrogen-filled balloon hits high-voltage power line

ALBUQUERQUE – Two balloon pilots from Poland who were competing in the prestigious Gordon Bennett Cup long-distance race were recovering Tuesday from burns, broken bones and other injuries after their hydrogen-filled balloon struck a high-voltage power line over Texas and exploded before falling to the ground.

Race organizers said the team was flying at an altitude of 12,000 feet (3,658 meters) to pass over the Dallas-Fort Worth airspace around 3:30 p.m. Monday and started their descent a short time later. Within a few hours, the balloon’s tracking device indicated that the aircraft’s motion had stopped.

Night already had fallen when the crash happened, according to authorities in Kaufman County, Texas. Flames were leaping from the side of the road where pieces of the balloon and basket had landed, not far from an electrical substation.

Residents shared stories on social media about seeing the balloon come down as if it was landing and then seeing it suddenly explode. Some also reported that their power went out while others said their lights flickered.

Steve Howie, the county's emergency management coordinator, said it's believed that the balloon first hit a 138,000-volt transmission line as it was floating about 90 feet above the ground. Then it hit a distribution line that was lower to the ground.

“The balloon filled with hydrogen exploded, caught fire and fell to the ground. Both occupants were injured, one more seriously than the other,” he said in a phone interview.

Federal transportation officials would be investigating the crash, Howie said.

The weather and visibility were good at the time, race organizers said.

The pilots – Krzysztof Zapart and Piotr Halas – had been aloft since launching Saturday night from the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta along with 16 other teams representing nine countries. Competitors were aiming to fly the farthest distance in what is known as the world’s oldest air race.

The command team that oversees the international competition confirmed Tuesday that the pilots were in stable condition and expressed relief that the outcome was not any worse. Zapart sustained cuts and burns to his legs and arms, while Halas was being treated for burns and broken bones to his legs and midsection.

Event director Tomas Hora said the team's ground crew was at the hospital with the pilots and he thanked balloonists in Texas who were offering their support.

“We are receiving many words of encouragement and support from the other teams participating in the Gordon Bennett and from the ballooning community throughout the United States and the world,” Hora said in a statement. “Balloonists are a tight-knit community who never hesitate to help each other in time of need.”

There were only two teams remaining in flight as of Tuesday afternoon. Both were trying to catch up to the lead team, which landed earlier in the day along the eastern edge of Georgia.

The balloonists spend days in the air, carrying everything they need to survive at high altitudes as they search for the right combination of wind currents to push their baskets as far as they can go.

They fly throughout the night and into the next day, trading off so one pilot can get some sleep while the other keeps an eye on weather conditions. Each team communicates regularly with race officials and their own weather experts as they gauge their prospects for pushing ahead.

Race organizers described Zapart and Halas as people with adventurous spirits who understand the risks.

Zapart has flown in eight Gordon Bennett races and won the 2019 America's Challenge gas balloon race to break his streak of previous runner-up finishes. For Halas, this marked a return to the Gordon Bennett after having last competed in the event in 1997.

The gas balloon race has roots that stretch back more than a century, and this year marks the first time in 15 years that the United States has hosted the event.