Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Electricity and hot air balloons can be a dangerous, and sometimes deadly mix.
Consider the kite string, Mylar birthday balloon and water-soaked tree branch, which all caused an arc of electricity to wildly jump from a pole attached to a transformer block during a Wednesday demonstration at the Reeves Generating Station.
The demonstration in advance of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta was hosted by the Public Service Company of New Mexico for the benefit of first responders who might encounter a hot air balloon entangled in power lines.
Andrew Cusimano, a PNM operations manager, said that as part of PNM’s safety plan, employees will be on hand at Balloon Fiesta Park during the fiesta, as well as dedicated crews stationed at the nearby Reeves station.
Using an insulated glove that linemen wear when handling live power lines, they also showed what happens if the glove is compromised with just a pin hole. In this case, the glove sparked and smoked and a hotdog placed in one of the glove’s finger slots was charred.
The transformer block generated 7,200 volts of electricity, but some overhead transmission lines can carry from 115,000 volts to 230,000 volts, one PNM lineman said.
As part of the demonstration, PNM draped a hot air balloon envelope over high wires to show the course of action that first responders and bystanders ought to take to prevent a bad situation from getting worse.
It’s important to treat all electrical lines as if they are live, and to remember that “electricity is always seeking a path to the ground,” Cusimano said. Consequently, if a balloon envelope gets wrapped around a power line and the gondola is hanging off the ground, the natural inclination is to try to assist. But by touching the gondola or a tether rope “you create a path to the ground, and the human body is very conductive, so you would end up grounding the power line through the balloon, the gondola and your body.”
That chain reaction could injure or kill people in the gondola as well as the person on the ground, he said. Instead, those in the balloon should remain calm and stay right where they are, and bystanders should stay back and call PNM, which will send out crews to neutralize the line, evacuate those in the gondola and free the balloon from the power line.
The only time passengers should attempt to get out of a hanging balloon is if the balloon catches on fire, said Ray Bair, a longtime balloon pilot and member of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta board of directors. “But when you exit the basket, we teach our people, do not touch the basket and the ground at the same time. So you kind of step away from the basket when you come down,” thereby avoiding conducting an electrical path to the ground should the power line be energized.
Pilots know to avoid landing near power lines, but that is not always possible, and when contact is imminent, “we teach pilots to vent aggressively,” Bair said. “That means you’re trying to get all the hot air out of the balloon so that it falls. What you hope is it falls in front of the line, but sometimes it doesn’t.”
A less desirable alternative is when a pilot triggers the burners in an attempt get the balloon to rise over the power lines. That, said Bair, runs the risk of the balloon running into the power line, and if the power line touches the balloon’s suspension cables or basket, there is a chance it can sever the basket and it will fall.
Injury or worse can occur, “not from electrocution, but from the fall,” Bair said. “Any fall over about 30 feet has the potential to be fatal,” and many power lines in the metro area are 50 to 80 feet tall – some higher.