Photo Courtesy of Pixabay
On the cover of a magazine, “I SHOULDN’T BE ALIVE!” usually promises a lurid tale of questionable veracity. But in the case of Huntsville real estate agent Sid Pugh, it’s all true. And, though a pulse-pounding yarn, it’s not all that lurid.
“I’m very blessed to be alive,” says Sid, referring to the first of his two major life-threatening experiences.
“Several years ago, I was in a hot air balloon accident. We hit 7200-volt power lines. Hot air balloons and power lines have about a 96 percent failure rate, so I’ve been living on 4 percent for many, many years.”
7200 Volts Too Much
It’s hard to think of any incident involving 7200-volt power lines as a bullet dodged, but that’s exactly the case for Sid and the balloon’s pilot.
They were participating in a what’s called a fly-in race, in which balloon teams go out past a three-mile radius of the target — in this case, Point Mallard. Teams then release test balloons to detect wind currents that will return them to the target, where they drop a numbered beanbag as closely as possible to a marker.
On that fateful Sunday morning, Sid’s pilot saw balloons setting up on property surrounding an abandoned business, so they set up nearby. They sent up a few test balloons, all of which headed back toward Point Mallard, and that was all they needed to begin setting up for their flight.
As they were firing up the balloon’s propane burner, Sid noticed they were scooting a few feet closer to some power lines across the road. Still, Sid figured he shouldn’t worry.
“He’s an experienced pilot,” Sid thought. “He knows what he’s doing.”
Winds of Fire
When they finally launched, the balloon went straight up as anticipated, looking like it would clear a nearby building and any obstacles. Then a shift of wind drove the balloon directly into the power lines.
After the initial contact, they were hanging with one power line against the bottom of the basket. A second line power line made contact with the top of the basket, creating an arc that shot through their instrument panel and — most distressingly — the 20-gallon propane tank that fueled their burner.
“That’s when everything breaks loose,” Sid remembered. “It’s transferring current and sparks and everything everywhere. I just know that tank is fixing to blow, and I’m leaning out of the balloon thinking, ‘Do I jump or what?’ And I see sparks falling on the ground and people running around our crew and everything, and then there’s a big fireball explosion under the balloon. When that power line broke — it snapped in two.”
The Sky’s Other Fireball
“I turn around and the pilot is beating on his clothes because they’d caught on fire from all the sparking. He’s lying in the bottom of the balloon completely on fire from his waist up. He had on a short-sleeve jumpsuit — cotton and polyester — and all that is just kind of melting into his skin. … I’m trying to smother it out with my hand. … He was temporarily paralyzed from the waist up for about three days because he took so much of the current. It kind of peeled the skin off his arms.”
Sid had never piloted a balloon before, but the pilot said to him, “You’re going to have to fly the balloon because I can’t move.”
Sid took control, getting instructions from the pilot, whom he feared would soon go into shock because of his injuries. The instrument panel was melted, and the radio was burned, so there was no way to contact the ground crew.
As they drifted over Wheeler Wildlife Refuge, the pilot told Sid to heat the balloon up to catch some winds aloft, hoping that these would take them toward Point Mallard. It didn’t work.
The next ray of hope came as a subdivision passed under them. The pilot wanted to try a landing, but Sid thought better of it.
“You see those big TVA lines? We’re not getting anywhere close to those things,” Sid decided.
Sid let the balloon cool down because, remarkably, in neighborhoods, you can get close enough to talk to people when the burner’s off. As he had hoped, some of the neighbors emerged from their houses before scrambling back inside to their phones when Sid hollered at them to call 911 as he glided by.
Soon Sid spied a field that looked large enough for his first landing attempt as a pilot. He set the balloon down, but there was enough breeze to drag them along “pretty good.” Sid was operating the balloon single-handedly, but he finally managed to get it deflated and get the pilot out of the basket.
It had been raining, and the field they had landed in was muddy. Sid feared no cars would be able to make it to their landing site, so he and the pilot struggled to the road where an Alabama state trooper soon arrived.
“There’s an ambulance on its way,” the trooper said. “Or do you want to ride with me?”
Sid realized it had been twenty or so minutes since their adventure began, and “the adrenaline was starting to wear off.”
Sid had burns on his face, singeing off his eyelashes and brows. He had holes in his head and hand where electricity entered and left his body. The pilot had a nickel-sized hole in the palm of his hand and one on his hip where the power had gone through him.
They rode with the trooper to the nearest hospital, where medical staff soon realized the pilot’s third-degree burns were more than they could deal with. He was airlifted to UAB for surgery and treatments over the course of several months.
Living in the 4 Percent
Sid calls himself “very blessed” — beyond the old pilot’s saying, “Any landing you can walk away from is a good one.”
There’s a miracle here — or coincidence or divine intervention or stroke of luck. Call it what you want, but you don’t have to look very hard to see it.
“I don’t know why the propane tank did not explode,” Sid said. “I never will forget looking at the (gas) lines — they were frayed and melted to a certain point because of the heat, and the valve cover was actually warped from so much of the heat and the current coming through it. If it had exploded, we definitely wouldn’t be here.”
Sid said he “got back on that horse” the next year, but that was his last time in a balloon. And on that particular journey, Sid said he was “the best power line watcher you’ve ever seen.”
Tune in next time for “SID AND THE WIDOWMAKER!”