The tragic crash of a Serengeti hot air balloon last week raises some very old questions and puts into doubt the safety of hot air ballooning in Tanzania.
Two passengers were killed (an American and a Dane) and eight seriously injured after the smaller of two balloons lifted off at dawn a week ago Wednesday and then crashed in turbulent winds. The flight of the larger balloon was aborted by the pilot who felt the winds were too strong.
Although no official investigations have been completed, a simple review of the situation suggests neither balloon should have been allowed to fly.
Serengeti Balloon Safaris (SBS) has acknowledged that the winds were 30 mph as the smaller gondola attempted an emergency landing that went very wrong.
Two balloons are scheduled to lift off daily in the Serengeti, and this season ballooning just began in Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park as well. But Tanzania’s total capacity pales in comparison to Kenya’s, where as many as 14 balloons fly daily in a single reserve, the Maasai Mara.
I’ve spoken to principles of balloon companies in both countries, and my gut feeling is that they do it much better in Kenya than Tanzania. This might be simply because the Kenyan industry is so much larger and has had a much longer experience. And extraordinary caution is required when asking someone in Kenyan tourism about Tanzanian tourism, and vice versa, as the rivalry is profound.
But off-the-record Kenyans generally express sympathy with a vengeful website launched by what is certainly a disgruntled former SBS employee, Nigel Pogmore. Kenyans insist that many of Pogmore’s accusations of SBS’s unsafe procedures would never be seen in Kenya.
Pogmore’s long list of what SBS does wrong is mostly ridiculous, as I an untrained pilot, dare to determine. But a few do standout:
Pogmore claims he was fired because he was a “whistle blower” after being appointed SBS’ Safety Officer and then in the course of that job uncovered all sorts of safety irregularities. SBS claims Pogmore was a disgruntled employee with a very short fuse and that his past employment history bears this out.
So I asked SBS Managing Director, Tony Pascoe, why he hired Pogmore in the first place. Pascoe has not answered despite several emails to him.
Pogmore claims SBS balloons fly virtually until they run out of fuel, and therefore violate an industry standard that there be 50% fuel reserves left at the end of a flight.
While this may, indeed, be the industry standard, this is one that many Kenyan companies don’t manage, either. (Although no Kenyan company claimed they would fly until they were out of fuel.) The balloon flights in East Africa are generally short by industry standards and over pretty uncluttered (no power lines) geography. Provided the winds aren’t unusual, they can usually expect to land anywhere along the expected flight path.
Pogmore severely criticized the procedure by which SBS fired up their balloons in the morning, claiming the method they used to raise the pressure in the gas tanks was unsafe and that passengers were boarded in unsafe ways.
He also specified faulty equipment on 5 of the 6 balloons owned by SBS. This included poor or faulty Emergency Rapid Deflation (ERD) capability, fuel gauges and incorrectly maintained fire extinguishers.
Most scathingly, Pogmore claims SBS essentially ignored required safety inspections, insisting that a normal inspection took 2-3 trained staff 4-5 hours, but that his experience proved there were some inspections completed in less than ten minutes.
SBS, of course, is defending itself against all these accusation at their new “answer” site, balloonsafety.info. The problem was that site is very similar to the problem with Pogmore’s site: there’s too much emotion and not enough facts.
I had a courteous phone call with a close relative of SBS Managing Director, Tony Pascoe, and a subsequent courteous email exchange with Tony.
Tony thanked me yesterday when I advised him I had reduced our conversations into a few simple questions I would appreciate him answering.
But when I sent those questions in writing, as agreed, they’ve gone unanswered. Pascoe has suddenly gone silent. A subsequent reminder email also went unanswered.
Please see below in comments. The CEO of SBS finally did answer some of these questions after this blog was posted.
This leads me to believe they have something to hide, or at least aren’t well enough prepared yet to answer some very serious accusations.
Should you take a hot air balloon ride on your safari?
My answer for the time being is, No, not if it’s in Tanzania.