Published January 14, 2015
A balloon became entangled in a radio tower on the final day of the city's trademark balloon festival Sunday, forcing the pilot and two young passengers to climb most of the way down the nearly 700-foot-tall structure.
Bill Chapel was piloting the balloon — shaped like the face of Smokey Bear (search) — when it blew into the radio tower near a park where the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (search) was being held.
"All you can do is grit your teeth and hold on to your passengers and prepare them for the impact," he said.
The hot-air balloon's (search) canopy got wrapped up around the triangular-shaped tower, leaving its gondola resting up against the structure. Chapel, 69, and passengers Aaron Whitacre, 10, and Troy Wells, 14, then began the long climb down the tower's ladder.
"I hung onto the tower with all my strength, and I got them calmed down," Chapel said. He added that he didn't need to tell the boys what to do: "They climbed down the tower and I followed them."
KKOB-AM shut down its 50,000-watt transmitter and emergency crews gathered at the base of the tower, said Kathie Leyendecker, festival spokeswoman.
About 100 feet above the ground, workers met the three, secured them with safety gear, and helped them into a utility truck bucket.
Leyendecker said tower maintenance crews arrived to get the balloon down.
The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board were investigating the incident.
The festival, which started in 1972, draws hundreds of balloons every October. Organizers say it has become the largest such festival in the world.