Source tells Team 10 no one is regulating the hot air balloon industry

Questions surround emergency landings

SAN DIEGO - Two emergency landings by hot air balloons this year has Team 10 asking questions about how the industry is regulated.

The latest incident was on Saturday when a panda-shaped hot air balloon landed in the divider on state Route 56 in Carmel Valley. Video sent to 10News by a viewer showed an abrupt and tricky landing as drivers slowed to watch.

The balloon was from Panda-Monium Hot Air Balloon Flights out of Del Mar, owned by Timothy Chico.

Chico told 10News he did not land off-course and that balloons do not have courses, only general flight paths.

When Team 10 contacted him on Monday for further clarification about his emergency landing, and about his flight suspension by the FAA a few years ago, Chico repeatedly said, "No comment."

Team 10 found an incident report that shows Chico had to make an emergency landing as the pilot for a Panorama Balloon Tours Hot Air Balloon on March 17, 2010. The landing happened in the Black Mountain Open Space Park and three passengers suffered broken bones in the landing.

Team 10 obtained pictures of that incident that show the deflated balloon and a champagne bottle near the balloon's basket.

A former San Diego parks ranger, who did not want his name used, remembers the incident and said he cited Chico for it.

"He made the one good choice to dump the balloon 50 feet in front of the power line, otherwise, we could have had 9 dead people on city open space," said the former ranger.

The FAA told Team 10 in a statement:

"We have one enforcement record for Mr. Chico. We suspended his pilot certificate for 60 days stemming from a March 17, 2010, accident during a hot air balloon sightseeing flight.

The accident occurred when Mr. Chico made an emergency landing about a mile from his intended landing spot. The balloon came down hard and three of the eight passengers suffered broken bones and other injuries. The FAA determined Mr. Chico violated regulation 91.139(a): No person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another."

The former ranger told Team 10 similar "crash landings" happened more than a dozen times when he was employed by the city from 2006 to 2010.

"To my knowledge no one is regulating the hot air balloon industry that's supposed to, that's tasked with it," said the source.

The city was evasive when pressed to identify its policies on emergency landings.

Since May, Team 10 has repeatedly tried to get a city spokesperson to provide the policy on who is responsible for abrupt landings.

That spokesperson was Irene McCormack, who recently resigned from the mayor's office.

As of Monday, there still was no answer from the city on its policies for emergency landings by hot air balloons.

The FAA said it does not get involved with local landings of hot air balloons - only with licensees.

"The FAA's concern with balloon operations is that they are safe. We do not get involved in where a balloon lands, provided the landing is safe and does not endanger any people or property on the ground," the FAA said in a statement. "Trespassing is an issue for local governments, not for the FAA."

Team 10 covered an emergency landing in January when high winds forced a hot air balloon owned by Sky Surfer Balloon Company to land right after a couple had said their vows.

Connie Von Zweck owns the company and told Team 10 the balloonists are the victims in all of this.

"I know pilots who have quit. They won't even fly here because they are so nervous about being arrested," said Von Zweck.

Von Zweck said her pilots have been followed by rangers who want to cite them and she said there is not enough places for balloonists to land.

Her pilot on that January day was Pete Brunner, who 10News first interviewed in 2008. At that time, he said the same thing Zweck said: that balloonists do not have enough places to land in San Diego.

"It's becoming more difficult because our open space is diminishing," Brunner said five years ago.

Team 10 checked and found Brunner was issued a warning letter -- but no citation -- for operating a balloon with an expired registration for the January incident.

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