ATLANTA (AP) — A hot-air balloon pilot found a safe spot for his skydiving passengers to bail out just before a thunderstorm sucked in his craft and sent him plummeting to his death.
Searchers found the body of 63-year-old Edward Ristaino on Monday after combing the woods in south Georgia with helicopters, airplanes, horses and all-terrain vehicles. Ben Hill County Sheriff Bobby McLemore said a helicopter spotted the balloon, and searchers on the ground then found the North Carolina resident dead.
Ristaino was ferrying the five skydivers Friday night when the fast-developing storm struck. Two of the skydivers say Ristaino kept them safe by spotting a field where they could safely parachute and telling them to jump as the storm approached.
"If we would have left a minute later, we would have been sucked into the storm," said skydiver Dan Eaton of Augusta, Ga.
He said he didn't think Ristaino's choice to embark on the trip was reckless. They took off into a blue sky from a festival in Fitzgerald, Ga. From the air, they could see only a fog-like haze that later turned into a fierce thunderstorm.
The storm "came out of nowhere," said skydiver Jessica Wesnofske of Cornelia, Ga.
Wesnofske said winds from the storm whipped and rocked her parachute on the way down, making her realize how strong the storm had become.
"By the time we got to the ground, the lightning was hitting the ground," Wesnofske said. "There was spider lightning across the sky."
As the storm lifted Ristaino into the clouds, he was using a walkie-talkie to speak with his ground crew, McLemore said.
"He told him he had gone into the clouds, that an updraft had taken him up to 17,000, 18,000 feet," McLemore said.
At some point, authorities believe the storm's winds collapsed the balloon and twisted it into the shape of a streamer. The last time anyone heard from the pilot, McLemore said, he saw trees beneath him.
"He had just made the statement that 'I'm at 2,000 feet and I see trees,' and that was his last transmission," he said.
The chaotic nature of the storm complicated searchers' efforts to figure out exactly where the balloon crashed. Authorities used radar images of the storm to help guide the 50 to 75 searchers.
"We're dealing with a storm here with a lot of cross currents at different altitudes, so that's why the area is so large," McLemore said.
Making the task harder, McLemore said: "It wasn't nothing but a streamer when it came down and it's going to be a very small object to be looking for."
The balloon was found about eight miles east of Fitzgerald, the sheriff said. It was draped over the passenger basket in a heavily wooded area.
National Weather Service meteorologist Todd Lericos in Tallahassee, Fla., said most of southwest Georgia was sunny on Friday, but scattered thunderstorms were developing.
McLemore added: "It started off as just a red dot on the radar and then it mushroomed very quickly in to a big storm. This one just popped up out of the blue."
Ristaino worked in the medical field and owned Lake Norman Balloon Co., which has the same listed address and phone number as his home in Cornelius, N.C., about 20 miles north of Charlotte. Lake Norman is a popular area for balloon sightseeing tours, with at least five other companies based in the area.
"He could take that balloon, blow it up in his front yard, and take it up, missing all those power lines and everything," said Carole White, a neighbor of Ristaino's. "He's been doing this for years and years. He loves it."
Balloon pilots have to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, a process that includes training on the ground and in the air. According to FAA records, Ristaino owned a balloon manufactured by a western North Carolina company called FireFly Balloons.
Training for balloon pilots includes instructions in safety, meteorology, air traffic control and the specifications of the pilot's particular balloon model, said Troy Bradley, president of the Balloon Federation of America. With the growing sophistication of radar technology, accidents involving storms are rare, he said, recalling just one other example in recent years.
"Something like this is a very rare occurrence because we have so much weather data available to us these days," Bradley said. "If you think something like this is going to happen, you just stay on the ground."
Sudden weather changes occasionally still catch pilots when they're already aloft, Bradley said, which is when things can become dangerous.
"We only have vertical control," he said. "Horizontally, we have to go where the wind takes us. If you get into some storm activity, you're basically losing control of the aircraft."
Breen reported from Raleigh, N.C.