Balloon pilot tried to climb over storm

Monday, March 26, 2012 8:32 AM
Last updated 8:39 AM
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ATLANTA — A new report by federal investigators describes a hot-air balloon pilot’s desperate attempt to climb over a fierce thunderstorm over south Georgia as he was battered by winds and chunks of hail.

In this Friday, March 16, 2012 photo provided by Brian Wesnofske, pilot Ed Ristaino, 63, speaks to skydivers in his hot-air balloon over Fitzgerald, Ga. Later, Ristaino would tell 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, March 19, 2012 after combing the woods in south Georgia with helicopters, airplanes, horses and all-terrain vehicles. (AP Photo/Brian Wesnofske)  AP
AP
In this Friday, March 16, 2012 photo provided by Brian Wesnofske, pilot Ed Ristaino, 63, speaks to skydivers in his hot-air balloon over Fitzgerald, Ga. Later, Ristaino would tell 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, March 19, 2012 after combing the woods in south Georgia with helicopters, airplanes, horses and all-terrain vehicles. (AP Photo/Brian Wesnofske)

The preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board says pilot Edward Ristaino ordered a group of skydivers -- including a man from Columbia County -- to jump, then radioed his ground crew he would “attempt to get over the storm.” But shortly after that, as his balloon climbed in the updraft of the storm, he said he didn’t think he could get over it.

The report says that when Ristaino’s body was found, the balloon basket still contained hailstones three days after the March 17 accident.

The skydivers floated safely to the ground, but Ristaino’s balloon plummeted to earth after climbing an estimated 17,000 feet.

“If we would have left a minute later, we would have been sucked into the storm,” said skydiver Dan Eaton of Appling.


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