Erin, Wisconsin 6/16/17- A small blimp crumbled and crashed roughly a mile away from where thousands of spectators were engaged in watching the US Open golf tournament at Erin Hills Golf course. The aircraft, owned and operated by AirSign Ltd., an aerial advertising agency was flying over and around Erin Hills Golf course and had moved off to the East when the pilot began experiencing problems.
Spectators and golfers participating in the US open watched in horror as the crash unfolded before their eyes.
According to golfer Jamie Lovemark, who had just finished his first round “I was teeing off and I looked up and I saw it on fire, and I felt sick to my stomach.”, “I had the shakes. I felt terrible for the people inside. I didn’t know what was going on. It was a horrible sight.” Fellow golfer Brandt Snedeker indicated he too saw something off in the distance about 35 miles NorthWest of the city of Milwaukee.
According to officials, the aircraft had ascended to an altitude of 1,000 feet above ground level when the pilot, identified as Trevor Thompson decided to land due to instability because of high winds. Mr. Thompson was the only occupant of the aircraft at the time. Per his account, as he was making his descent, he heard what sounded like panels ripping off of the blimp, and although he cut the engines off, residual fuel left in the engine caused the aircraft to burst into flames immediately following him reaching the ground.
It had been initially reported that Thompson had parachuted out of the aircraft however, it was later determined that he actually rode the aircraft to the ground. Thompson was listed in serious condition due to the severity of his burns, but has been upgraded to stable condition and is expected to recover. Although he was injured, he was still able to talk to officials and provide a statement as to what happened.
The aircraft, which is some sort of blimp/hot air balloon amalgamation was marketing for PenFed at the time of the crash. The aircraft is what is commonly referred to as a ‘thermal airship’ which is essentially a form of hot air balloon. Its ascension is powered by air that is heated utilizing flames produced by propane tanks and maneuvered by the pilot riding inside a gondola-like apparatus beneath the balloon’s envelope.
Thermal airships are more economical than employing helium-filled aircraft as to fill a balloon with helium is very costly. Another advantage is they can be easily packed up following their use and transported in the back of a truck without difficulty. Generally, however, these types of aircraft can be difficult to steer at low airspeeds and even be hard to maneuver on the ground if the wind speed is above 5 knots or so.
And as the envelope is not rigid, it can crumple easily.
Perhaps these elements came into to play at the time of the accident, as of the present time, an NTSB investigation is ongoing. It’s important to note that blimp crashes are extremely rare, thousands of these airships are employed all over the world for various reasons without incident every year.