Tributes were paid today to a ”lovely” and ”unforgettable” scout master killed in a tragic hot air ballooning accident on New Year’s Day.
Tragic Allan Burnett (pictured with son Alex) died alongside experienced balloonist Lee Pibworth when their hot air balloon plummeted to the ground and exploded during a 20,000 ft high altitude flight.
It’s believed Blenheim Scout leader Allan, from Bristol, was treated to the balloon ride as a New Year treat from his teenaged son Alex – who was Lee Pibworth’s usual co-pilot.
Friends and colleagues of Allan, who was also a governor at Cheddar Valley Primary School in Bedminster Down, yesterday paid tribute to the popular scout master.
On person said: ”My thoughts are with Jill Burnett and her family tonight after the tragic loss of Allan Burnett who was such a lovely man and will be sadly missed by everyone who knew him especially all those at Cheddar Grove Primary School…x.”
Liam Stevenson added: ”RIP Allan Burnett he was a very good man and always there to help people. He will never be forgotten and be in our hearts. To all his family and friends we are all thinking about him. RIP Alan never forgotten x.”
Father-of-one Lee Pibworth, 42, Bristol, was piloting the £20,000 craft when it burst into flames and crashed at Prattens Bowls Club in Midsomer Norton, Somerset, in a ”blazing inferno”.
The medium sized balloon Lee was flying was a Cameron A120 craft and he took off from a field near Chelwood, Somerset.
Lee’s wife Elisabeth, known as Lis, is thought to have been in the ground crew alongside Allan Burnett’s son Alex who was Lee Pibworth’s usual co-pilot.
The ground crew watched the balloon launch successfully, but lost sight of the craft as it disappeared into the clouds.
But minutes later the balloon, operated by the Blenheim Balloon Team, reappeared with the canopy deflated and literally dropped from the sky ”like a dart”.
The balloon’s basket exploded as it hit the ground at Prattens Bowls Club Midsomer Norton, Somerset, killing both pilots instantly.
Two off-duty fire fighters, who were on a bike ride nearby, saw the balloon hit the ground and raced to help – but could not get near to the basket as its four LPG gas cylinders ignited.
A further 19 fire-fighters also battled the flames when they arrived at the scene.
Pauline Dander, club secretary of 55-member Prattens Bowls Club, said the outdoor club ”thankfully” had few visitors during the winter.
She said: ”I wasn’t at the Club when the crash happened but one of our members was. He saw the balloon falling through the sky but didn’t see it hit the ground.
”By the time we arrived at the club the police had sealed it all off.”
High altitude balloonists require a supply of oxygen to breath when they reach heights of more than 10,000ft with one theory being that an oxygen cylinder exploded, igniting the craft.
Another theory is that the oxygen supply failed, causing the pair to lose consciousness through hypoxia.
It is also possible that liquid petroleum gas cylinders used to power the balloon may have ignited.
Most balloons fly at around 3,000ft – with the tragic two believed to have hit nearly seven times that height as Mr Pibworth attempted to obtain his 20,000ft altitude badge.
The UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch were yesterday continuing to examine the crash site.
Experienced balloonist Lee had previously worked for Cameron, the world’s largest manufacturer of hot air balloons, for nine years, leaving the company in 2002.
Alan Noble, MD of Cameron, described Lee as a ”very nice chap” with lots of experience flying hot air balloons, who had carefully planned his trip.
He said: ”We believe one of the victims was a former Cameron employee, who had been with the company for eight to 10 years.
”He recently left the company and re-trained to become a tree surgeon and he was a very nice chap.
”We also believe the balloon was a Cameron balloon, although it has not been officially confirmed.
”Flying 20,000 feet is not the sort of flight you do every day. We understand that the pilot wanted to get to that height, perhaps as a personal record.
”It is an extra effort and has to be well planned. It is very rare for anything like this to happen with hot air balloons, they are one of the safest forms of transport.”
Civil servant Sarah Andrews, 45, who lives just 200 yards from the crash site, saw the burning hot air balloon ”plummet” to the ground in a blazing inferno.
She said: ”I heard the noise first. It was a flapping noise where the canopy was collapsing.
”We have many hot air balloons going overheard and I’ve never heard one like that before.
”I went out to my back garden and saw it on fire high in the sky. The whole thing was just plummeting to the ground, really quickly.
”It had been mostly destroyed by fire by the time I saw it and it was sadly obvious that anyone inside it was not going to get out alive.
”I saw it hit the ground. It was all on fire and looked like a huge inferno. The basket was on fire and the gas was on the side.
”It exploded when it hit the ground. It was horrific. My house is only a few hundred yards from where it landed and I thought it was going to hit it.
”It was absolutely terrifying. When it hit the ground there was a terrible whooshing noise. It is just so sad.”
Pete Bish, an experienced balloonist who runs Zebedee Balloon Services, said: ”One can only speculate at this stage but oxygen is very volatile.
”Balloonists don’t normally take it on flights but if you’re going to be over about 10,000ft for any length of time, you need it to breathe.”
The British Balloon and Airship Club awards bronze, silver and gold badges for flights of particular distance, duration and altitude.
Lee Pibworth, a qualified balloon pilot who left Cameron Balloons to retrain as a tree surgeon, is understood to have been attempting to obtain his 20,000ft altitude badge.
Derek Maltby, who trained Mr Pibworth as a balloon pilot ten years ago, said: ”They would have been carrying propane gas and oxygen and if they mix they can be very volatile.
”If you go to altitude and the oxygen canister fails you can get hypoxia â€“ a lack of oxygen to the bloodstream. That can result in you passing out.”
There are believed to have been only four fatal ballooning accidents in Britain since the Sixties.
Det Insp Mike Williams, of Avon and Somerset Police, said:’We would like to speak to anyone who may have seen the balloon in the air before the incident, or witnessed the balloon come to the ground.
”Two people have tragically lost their lives and we would appreciate any information that anyone may have.”