UK OPERATORS and pilots were the pioneers of the Egyptian hot air ballooning industry about 20 years ago but were “forced out” about 10 years later as the Egyptians decided to do it themselves, according to one British industry figure.

Tuesday’s was not the first ballooning accident in Egypt. In 2009, 30 people were hurt in five hot air balloon incidents in the country, including three on one day in February. There were also non-fatal accidents in Luxor in 2007 and 2008. But John Rudoni, director of Wickers World, which flies more than 6,000 passengers a year in the UK, says ballooning is fundamentally a safe activity. He said the UK industry was “very, very tightly controlled”, with pilots and operators licensed by the Civil Aviation Authority and subject to annual checks.

He said that since the licensing regime was introduced in 1988, there had been one death in the UK.

Rudoni, who is also a founder member of the British Association of Balloon Operators, said he did not wish to speculate on what might have caused the crash in Luxor, but human error was the usual cause. “With most accidents it’s down to pilots making a mistake or someone in maintenance making a mistake,” he said.

Alaa Mahmoud, sales manager for Magic Horizon, a Luxor-based balloon company not involved in Tuesday’s crash, said Egyptian authorities did regulate operators and pilots and carry out checks, but some companies employed relatively inexperienced pilots. However, to get a commercial licence pilots had to have 35 hours’ experience, the same as in the UK. He said foreign tour operators carried out checks on balloon operators, “but only the companies they work with”.

In the UK, balloons are fired with propane gas. But expense and lack of availability in Egypt mean butane is usually used instead. Butane must be pressurised, which requires other gases to be used, which leaves more scope for mistakes, the UK industry figure said.

Maggie Sabourne from Surrey, who was rescued by the Egyptian air force after the hot air balloon she was in crashed in the desert in 2009, said the health and safety standards were “not what you would expect”. She said the balloon had no first aid kit and very little drinking water, and after it crashed the pilot walked off without the passengers when they refused to follow him across a dangerous rocky path. — The Guardian, London

Updated Feb 28, 2013 12:00am

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