Criminal charges pending against paraglider operator
Police recommend prosecution for endengerment
COTTONWOOD - A paraglider operator involved in a collision with a hot air balloon during Cottonwood's Airfest 2010 Saturday may be charged criminally with the offense.
Cottonwood Police have sent to the Yavapai County Attorney a recommended charge of "endangerment." The county's chief prosecutor is reviewing the incident and will determine if the charges move forward in court and whether additional charges such as "criminal damage" are warranted.
The paraglider operator, 65-year-old Kenneth Ritchie of Cornville, was also among the most seriously injured in the hard landing of the two entangled aircraft. He was originally reported to have head injuries and a broken back. The balloon quickly lost air and rapidly descended at least 500 feet, trailing the entangled paraglider. The landing of the entangled balloon and paraglider was softened only when the basket crashed onto the perimeter fence.
The pilot of the balloon was identified as Eric Wadleigh, 53. His passengers were Susan Evans and Jon Bidolf. All occupants were treated for injuries. The balloon pilot was the least seriously injured.
About a half-dozen balloons had lifted off from the Cottonwood Airport as the show was getting under way at 7 a.m.
The damaged balloon was among the last to inflate and take off. The two paragliders took to the air about the same time.
Cottonwood Airport Manager Tim Costello said an individual was manning a radio at the Airfest to advise of incoming and outgoing flights.
"He was not an Air Traffic Controller, it was merely 'advisory,'" Costello said.
He admits balloons are unusual to have on an airfield.
Aircraft right-of-way rules are etched in a federal FAA regulations document and specifically say that a "balloon has the right of way over any other category of aircraft."
Additionally, the regulations address ultralight vehicles of a weight under 254 pounds: "Each person operating an ultralight vehicle shall maintain vigilance so as to see and avoid aircraft and shall yield the right of way to all aircraft.
(b) No person may operate an ultralight vehicle in a manner that creates a collision hazard with respect to any aircraft."
Costello said the airport does not have authority to conduct an investigation.
The National Transportation Safety Board was in contact with the airport and police.
The national board, however, is unlikely to complete its determination in under six months, he believes.
Cottonwood Police Spokesman Gareth Braxton-Johnson said the FAA has asked the department for copies of its investigation and photographs.