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Hot air balloon pilot had ketamine in his system at the time of a crash that killed 4, report says

April 4, 2024  By The Associated Press

PHOENIX (AP) — A hot air balloon pilot had an elevated level of an anesthetic in his system at the time of a January crash that killed four people in southern Arizona, according to a newly released autopsy report.

Toxicology tests showed Cornelius van der Walt had a high amount of ketamine in his blood when the balloon plummeted about 2,000 feet (609 meters) to the desert floor, the report from the Pinal County Medical Examiner’s Office said.

While more clinics in recent years have offered ketamine as a treatment for pain, depression, anxiety and other conditions, the report noted there was no known ketamine prescription issued to van der Walt. First responders did not use it while trying to resuscitate him, the report said.

It is unclear if ketamine was a factor in the fatal crash. The report cited a study outside the U.S. that found amounts of ketamine — below the amount measured in van der Walt’s blood — have been indicative of impairment in drivers. Adverse reactions can include hallucinations, blurred vision, irrational behavior, nausea and seizures.


Other fatal balloon accidents over the years had prompted calls to require drug testing for commercial balloon pilots. But a final rule adopted by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2022 called only for balloon pilots who are carrying paying passengers to have a medical certificate.

Officials with the FAA did not immediately respond to an inquiry Thursday from The Associated Press on whether van der Walt — the founder of Droplyne Hot Air Balloon Rides — had a certificate on file.

Van der Walt died from blunt force trauma, with the manner of death listed as accidental, the autopsy report stated.

A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board earlier this year said there was damage near the top of the envelope where the sewn rim tape material was frayed, and several of the balloon’s panels were damaged. The envelope is what is filled with hot air, making the balloon rise.

Thirteen people were aboard the Kubicek BB 85 Z balloon when it took off from Eloy, southeast of Phoenix, on the morning of Jan. 14. Eight were skydivers who exited the gondola before the crash.

The skydivers jumped out at around 5,000 feet (1,524.00 meters). Witnesses said the balloon partially deflated and began to lose altitude quickly before a hard impact in an empty field that serves as a drop zone for skydivers.

Declared dead at the scene were van der Walt, 37, of Eloy, and three passengers — 28-year-old Kaitlynn “Katie” Bartrom of Andrews, Indiana; 28-year-old Chayton Wiescholek of Union City, Michigan; and 24-year-old Atahan Kiliccote of Cupertino, California.

Another woman from the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale was critically injured in the crash.

Droplyne Hot Air Balloon Rides offered condolences on its website, noting it halted operations after the deadly crash. It had been offering flights from the Eloy area and Moab, Utah.

The website also said Droplyne, which was founded in 2017, had a perfect safety record before the crash.

In June 2021, a mistake made by a hot air balloon pilot who had drugs including cocaine in his system caused a crash in New Mexico that killed all five people on board. The NTSB said in its final report that the pilot didn’t maintain enough clearance from power lines while trying to land.

In 2016 in Texas, 16 people were killed in what was the deadliest hot air balloon accident in U.S. history . Investigators in that case determined the pilot was probably impaired by a variety of medicines when he flew into a power line.

News from © Canadian Press Enterprises Inc., 2023


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