FAYETTEVILLE, AR—A black box recovered from the scene of Sunday afternoon's crash of a hot-air balloon gave investigators a chilling glimpse into the craft's final, somewhat terrifying 90 minutes in the air.
"I hate to imagine their ordeal," Fayetteville Police Chief Dwight Gibson said. "Suspended dozens of feet off the ground, at the mercy of the wind, the good part of an afternoon spent not knowing where or when you'll come to a somewhat bumpy stop."
Gibson said investigators located the black box for Mild Blue Yonder Hot-Air Excursions Ride 592 next to a set of power lines about four miles south of Fayetteville Sunday, "in near perfect condition, considering it hit the ground at 6 miles per hour."
Using information from the flight data recorder, it has been determined that Ride 592's wicker basket skidded nearly 35 feet across the grass before falling on its side, ejecting its three passengers and pilot.
"One quick-thinking civilian thought to use his cell phone to alert authorities to the disaster," 911 dispatcher Myrna Baines said. "Then he called his family, his friends, the hot-air-balloon company, and then a coworker, to reschedule some appointments."
Emergency crews arrived on the scene 40 minutes before the crash, responding to calls from area residents reporting a low-flying hot-air balloon. Said Officer Jason Cheyenne: "We got stuck in traffic, so the wait for the balloon to crash wasn't too bad."
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were on the accident scene overnight, inspecting the lightly scuffed wicker and rainbow-striped nylon debris and reviewing information obtained from the flight data recorder.
"The flight data recorder indicates that about 30 minutes into the balloon ride, a burner began to perform erratically," NTSB spokesman Richard Schneer said. "When the pilot lost what little control he had of the craft, he panicked, and the passengers followed suit, sending the whole basket into chaos."
Investigators believe that over the course of a harrowing hour and a half, the balloon slowly lost altitude and descended at a 25-degree angle. The voice recorder revealed tense moments on board during the descent.
"We believe that when the balloon picked up a wind and floated upward, the panic subsided," Schneer said, "only to flare up again when the balloon began to float downward. Once the balloon successfully cleared that corridor, calm was restored, then lost when a section of the balloon began to sag."
"Our data would seem to indicate that this cycle happened seven more times," Schneer added.
Schneer said the conversation that took place among the passengers "was awful tough to listen to."
"One passenger, a female, said that her life passed before her eyes, minute by minute," Schneer said. "Then when that was over, she reflected on her life's quieter moments."
"Some of the audio is unclear, but we believe one passenger got into an argument with his wife because he forgot to take out the trash before he left home," Schneer said.
Another passenger painstakingly narrated the accident for rescue workers, explaining, during much of the last 40 minutes of the descent, where the balloon was likely to touch ground.
"We talked about the wreck, sure," Baines said. "But we started chatting about other stuff as well. He's a pretty cool guy. Some of us might go out and grab some beers with him later on this week."