Fri, Dec. 06

Cottonwood advised of pending balloon crash legal claims

COTTONWOOD - A dentist and a construction company owner, both from Page, have filed a Notice of Claim against the City of Cottonwood. Dentist E. Pell Wadleigh and Susan Evan were the operator and passenger in a hot air balloon Oct. 16, 2010, during Cottonwood's second annual Airfest. Both were injured when the balloon was torn in the air by a close-flying paraglider. The balloon plunged to the ground and spilled the occupants into a parking lot.

The claim, represented by Page attorneys Charles W. Stoddard and Ray Hanna, says Wadleigh was invited to fly his balloon at the show and offered use of an airport, free propane and free pilot breakfast. He agreed to participate with his balloon, Locopelli.

According to the claim, Wadleigh, Phoenix dentist Dr. John Biddulph and Evan got into the basket and launched to an altitude that would carry them east.

About 0.3 mile from the airport, Wadleigh noticed that a motorized paraglider was approaching and descending from the east. He says he shouted and waved at the paraglider but the operator did not change course and flew into the side of the balloon, hanging up in a panel seam. He said paraglider operator Kenneth Ritchie was holding a camera at the time of the collision.

While the balloon was torn, Wadleigh operated his burners to keep the balloon open and inflated while a passenger transmitted a mayday distress call.

The basket landed on a hedge fence and dumped into the parking lot.

The Stoddard claim says the city failed to apply or obtain a Certificate of Waiver or authorization for an Aviation Event and did not have an Air Boss to corral air traffic. The claim also says the city failed to advise performers of safety measures and allowed the powered paragliders in the same air space.

Wadleigh and Evan were both treated at Verde Valley Medical Center. Wadleigh was released, but Evan suffered a compression fracture of her spine that will cause pain and discomfort the rest of her life, according to the attorney.

The balloon was seized by Cottonwood Police as evidence.

The attorney says Wadleigh and Evans are both asking $500,000 to settle the claim.

The Cottonwood Police have sent to the Yavapai County Attorney potential charges against Ritchie. Police spokesman Gareth Braxton-Johnson says, "The matter is still under review by the County Attorney and federal aviation authorities, and CPD's investigation will remain open until after those other agencies advise us that they have concluded their investigations."

Cottonwood City Attorney Steve Horton says the Claim is a notice of intention to sue, but no formal complaint has been filed. However, he expects there will be additional filings.

He said he spoke to Ritchie's attorney, who claims the balloon, instead, flew into the paraglider, not the other way around.

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