A few years ago while I was attending the St Patrick's day balloon rally in Los Lunas, New Mexico, I came very close to hitting powerlines. It was during the second day of the rally, and the weather was pretty strange to begin with. During the flight my passenger and I experienced many different wind changes. It was basically unpredictable. After about forty-five minutes of flying, the wind started to pick up so I decided to look for a place to land. I figure we were traveling about eight miles an hour and it was steadily getting faster. I picked my landing spot and started my approach. In front of me was a field big enough to land in with the speed I had. To the left was a set of powerlines running diagonally away from me. To the right was an apartment building. Right before the apartment building was an asphalt road directly in my flight path.
My plan was to stair-step my way into the field and be as low as possible when I got passed the road so I could rip out and stop as quickly as possible. About thirty seconds before we were to land, my passenger (who is an experienced crew member) told me that he saw powerlines in our flight path near the field were going to land in. I told him I saw them and we didn't say anything more about them. Then I vented a little and as we came closer to the ground my passenger yelled "OH NO!" At that point it was obvious I made a big mistake. I looked ahead of me and there they were in plain site. a set of powerlines staring me in the face. There was a powerline pole right in front of the apartment building to the right that basically was camouflaged by the building from my vantagepoint. The powerlines themselves dissolved into the air until my passenger spoke up. This line was connected to the line that I DID see. I followed the asphalt road I was about to pass. The second I saw them I shut off the pilot light and ripped out the top. I told my passenger to get in the bottom of the basket and hold on. I did the same. We were about thirty feet in the air when I pulled the top. It was at this point that I actually wondered if I would be gone in a minute or so. What was worse was that I was taking and innocent bystander with me. I didn't think I pulled the top in time and I knew in my gut that we would be in the lines. Luckily, I was wrong! The balloon laid over and barely missed the lines. If I would have waited one more second, the balloon would have been draped over them. If I had tried to burn out of it we would have hit the lines at the basket. When the envelope was on the ground it was actually passed the lines. When my crew arrived, they wanted to know why I deflated on the asphalt road. As they were driving up to us even they could not see the lines. I told them to look up and they finally got it.
Needless to say, my crew briefing changed that day. I have always told my passengers to tell me if they see powerlines or any other obstacles for that matter. This was the first time I had to clarify WHICH ones my passenger saw. Now I tell them to point out WHERE they see them. I've always wondered if I would do the right thing in a situation like this. I never really wanted to find out, but I guess it was my turn. During my ballooning career I have always preached that if you know you are going to hit powerlines, RIP OUT! There is no other choice. It is like a computer command. I f this, then this! It will save your life in the end.
This big scare I had opened my eyes. I have looked at some of the things that led up to this and it all boiled down to me getting lazy after a few hundred hours of flight time. I never wanted to admit that but that is the way it is. I would like to think that I am not alone in this way of thinking. For the record, I treated this incident as a warning. We all need to make sure we are paying attention ALL the time. Always have your passengers help you out with their eyes.
Thanks for listening. Fly safe and have fun!