The California pilot at the helm of a hot-air balloon forced to land in the ocean Sunday previously had his license suspended in connection with a "careless" hard landing that injured his passengers in 2010, FAA records reveal.
Pilot Timothy Chico with Panda Air Bear Balloon Flights told NBC 7 continuous westward winds pushed his balloon over the ocean near Cardiff-by-the-Sea, leaving him with no choice but to do a surf landing. Inside the basket was a couple who got engaged minutes before.
“The best thing to do was get it to the surf, have the water basically push us in using the onshore winds,” Chico, a retired Marine, said in an interview Sunday.
The balloon made it to the beach with the help of surfers and lifeguards below, and no one was injured. The pilot said that in his 12 years of flying hot-air balloons, nothing like this has ever happened.
But a letter provided to NBC 7 by the FAA shows Chico’s commercial pilot certification was suspended for 90 days in 2010 for an incident in March of that year.
Chico was flying a balloon over San Diego when he began to run low on fuel, according to the suspension order.
The FAA says Chico bypasses suitable landing sites and instead turned on the “Fast Deflation System” while the balloon hovered more than 600 feet, landing it hard and injuring his passengers.
The notice claims his operation of the balloon “was careless so as to endanger the life or property of another.”
An FAA spokesperson said the agency is looking into Sunday’s incident.
Calls to Chico were unreturned, and the number listed for Panda Air Bear Balloon Flights has a message stating it is not accepting calls at this time. The business has no physical address.
The balloon in Sunday’s incident was one of two operated by the company.
The most recent emergency landing made an “unforgettable” engagement for Eric Barretto and his fiancee. He told NBC 7 Chico threw a line to surfers and paddle boarders below to help tow them ashore.
As the balloon sat on top of the water, the basket took in several waves but did not sink.
“I don’t know if we’ll do it again,” Barretto said.
Chico said once they made it to the beach, he fired up the burners to make sure everything was intact and then tore the balloon down to get it out of the surf.
“All in all, it could have been a lot worse so I’m grateful that we had the help that we did,” Chico said on Sunday.