Appling skydiver calls balloon pilot a hero

Skydiver passengers recall fatal flight

Monday, March 19, 2012 10:47 AM
Last updated Tuesday, March 20, 2012 2:04 AM
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Hot-air balloon pilot Edward Ristaino, who plummeted to his death in a south Georgia storm, used quick thinking to save the lives of his five skydiving passengers, according to a Columbia County man who parachuted to safety.

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Pilot Edward Ristaino, 63, speaks to skydivers in his hot-air balloon over Fitzgerald, Ga., on Friday. Ristaino later told his five passengers to bail out just before a thunderstorm sucked in his craft and sent him plummeting to his death. Searchers found his body Monday in south Georgia.  BRIAN WESNOFSKE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
BRIAN WESNOFSKE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Pilot Edward Ristaino, 63, speaks to skydivers in his hot-air balloon over Fitzgerald, Ga., on Friday. Ristaino later told his five passengers to bail out just before a thunderstorm sucked in his craft and sent him plummeting to his death. Searchers found his body Monday in south Georgia.

“He was definitely a hero that day, for all of us,” said Dan Eaton, a skydiving instructor from Appling, who had accompanied Ristaino on a half-dozen jumps in recent years. “He was looking out for our interests first.”

Ristaino, 63, of North Carolina, was taking Eaton and four other skydivers into the air Friday night during a festival in Fitzgerald, Ga., when a storm struck.

“It had been great weather all day,” Eaton said. “We had gone up, and all of a sudden we looked over and you could see the storm building, blowing us east, and it built really fast.”

The pilot had been checking radar imagery all day, with no signs of trouble.

“Once we got up to about 1,000 feet, you could see it forming – it just came out of nowhere,” Eaton said.

Ristaino brought the balloon to about 4,000 feet and told Eaton and two other skydivers to jump. As he ascended farther, the remaining two passengers jumped.

All five descended safely – but Ristaino and his balloon vanished as the storm swept past.

Ben Hill County Sheriff Bobby McLemore told The Associated Press Monday that a helicopter found the wrecked balloon and searchers on the ground then found Ristaino’s body.

Authorities believe strong winds from the unforeseen storm forced the balloon up to about 18,000 feet before it collapsed and plummeted to Earth.

Eaton said he is saddened at the loss of a conscientious and skilled pilot who put the lives of his passengers ahead of his own.

McLemore said Ristaino quickly found a field for his skydivers to jump into and then told them to leave the balloon.

Ristaino worked in medicine and owned Lake Norman Balloon Co., which has the same listed address and phone number as his home in Cornelius, N.C., about 20 miles north of Charlotte, the AP reported.

Lake Norman is a popular area for balloon sightseeing tours, with at least five other companies based in the area.

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Lkn4Ans
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Lkn4Ans 03/19/12 - 11:40 am
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So glad that Mr. Eaton and

So glad that Mr. Eaton and the other four jumped to safety; and many prayers that Mr. Ristaino will be found safe. I have never sky-dived, nor been in a hot air balloon, so do not know the answers to these questions: does the balloon pilot not wear a parachute in case of emergency situations such as this? Also, if not, couldn't he have piggy-backed (I think that's what it's called) with one of the parachutists? Hoping for a good outcome for this pilot.

raul
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raul 03/19/12 - 12:36 pm
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Does the balloon not have a

Does the balloon not have a homing device to track it? Doesn't sound good if witnesses saw the balloon collapse. Hope he made it.

GaStang22
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GaStang22 03/19/12 - 08:50 pm
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=( Prayers to the family. Are
Unpublished

=( Prayers to the family. Are chutes that a single person uses not strong enough to carry 2 down? Just curious, I dont know about those things. He is a hero though saving those people and for trying to keep his balloon from possibly injuring others.

itsanotherday1
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itsanotherday1 03/20/12 - 12:21 am
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Chutes for tandem jumping are

Chutes for tandem jumping are specialized. Even if a regular chute would carry two, there is no way to strap the second person in.

This man had tremendous courage. He would have had a better chance of bringing it down if the extra weight of the passengers was still in it, but he opted for their safety rather than risking a crash landing with them in it. God rest his soul.

Austin Rhodes
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Austin Rhodes 03/20/12 - 10:23 am
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I also wonder why anyone who

I also wonder why anyone who is doing this type of thing at such high altitudes would not have a parachute in case of a problem.

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