Record bid balloonists plummeted to death inquest told
A BALLOONIST called his son to tell him he had surpassed an altitude record – then plunged to his death as the balloon went out of control.
An inquest heard Scout leader Allan Burnett and his friend Lee Pibworth were attempting a 20,000ft altitude record over Midsomer Norton on New Year's Day last year.
Mr Burnett called his son Alex, who was on his support team, to say they had reached 6,600m (21,000ft), where temperatures were -30°C, and were descending, Flax Bourton Coroner's Court heard..
Mr Pibworth also radioed Bristol air traffic control to say they had reached their attempted altitude, and Alex Burnett tried to reach his father to find out where they planned to land. But he never heard from the pair again.
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He told the inquest into the two men's deaths that as the support team driver headed to where they thought the balloon would land they saw an accident site but did not realise it was where the balloon had crashed, believing it was a car accident from New Year's Eve.
After taking off from a field in Chelwood owned by balloon maker Don Cameron at about 9.20am Mr Burnett and Mr Pibworth ascended quickly, at about 1,000ft per minute.
After reaching 21,000ft the balloon plummeted to the ground at rate of about 5,500ft per minute, crashing into a bowling green at Midsomer Norton shortly before 10am.
Witnesses described hearing a "horrific noise" before seeing the balloon hurtle downwards "totally deflated, like an upturned umbrella".
Onlookers saw the silhouette of a man frantically turning on the burners to try to re-inflate the balloon, before it thudded into the ground at Prattens Bowls Club and burst into flames.
Fireman Martin Coward, who was cycling home following a night shift, jumped over the club's gates to try to help.
He said: "The basket was upright and was on fire. I got to 15ft from it but had to stop because it was so hot."
Beaten back by the flames, Mr Coward moved members of the public to safety after he heard cylinders popping, and then there was an explosion.
The inquest heard that pilot Mr Pibworth, 42, a married tree surgeon from Bishopsworth, died instantly of multiple injuries but that Mr Burnett, 55, from Bedminster, a married father-of-three, died primarily from the fire following the crash but was likely to have been unconscious from a serious head injury.
Ballooning experts and air accident investigators told Flax Bourton Coroner's Court that it was impossible to tell what had caused the accident but there was no evidence of equipment faults.
Investigator John McMillan told the court it was likely to have been a combination of mishandling and inexperience of the type of balloon involved and its technical features, as well as oxygen impairment in the two men. The inquest heard that Mr Pibworth was inexperienced at flying at such altitudes.
The inquest continues.