“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.