'Inexperience' may have caused fatal Somerset balloon crash

Lee Pibworth and Allan Burnett
Image caption Lee Pibworth and Allan Burnett died on 1 January 2011

Inexperience and a lack of oxygen at high altitude possibly caused a fatal hot-air balloon crash, an inquest has heard.

Pilot Lee Pibworth and Allan Burnett, both from Bristol, died when their balloon came down in Midsomer Norton, Somerset, on 1 January 2011.

Mr Pibworth, 42, died on impact and a subsequent fire killed Mr Burnett, 55.

Flax Bourton Coroners Court was told the men's inexperience at flying the balloon may have caused the crash.

An Air Accidents Investigations Branch (AAIB) report said that although both men were experienced balloonists, for this flight they were using a large "lock-top" design balloon.

They were not familiar with this particular balloon or experienced in using it, although the court heard neither were unhappy about flying it.

The AAIB also said the lack of oxygen at high altitude might have affected the pair's judgement as they tried to descend.

Mr Pibworth, a pilot, had been trying to reach an altitude of more than 19,700ft (6,000m), one of the criteria needed for a British Balloon and Airship Club (BBAC) gold medal.

The inquest heard the men, who had been planning the flight for seven months, had a fully-functioning oxygen supply and were both wearing warm thermal clothing.

Image caption The balloonists were attempting a high altitude flight

Speaking in court were members of the ground crew including Mr Burnett's son Alex who was the last person to talk to him on the radio.

He said before losing contact with him, his father sounded "perfectly normal".

The last thing Mr Burnett told his son was that he had reached 20,000ft (6,096m), but after 30 minutes of not hearing from him he got a phone call from a friend telling him there had been a balloon accident.

Witnesses in court spoke of the "horrific" sounds they remember from the crash on the bowling green in Midsomer Norton, and their shock at seeing the balloon engulfed in flames after it hit the ground.

The inquest at Flax Bourton Coroners Court continues.

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