An advertising blimp with a lone pilot on board plummeted from the sky on Thursday afternoon during the first round of the U.S. Open at Erin Hills in Wisconsin, according to multiple reports from the scene. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel says the blimp caught fire before it hit the ground in a field near the intersection of Highway 83 and Highway 167, just outside the course.
"It started deflating, and then it started going down," witness Bryan Rosine told the Journal-Sentinel. "They were trying to give it some throttle and it didn't go up. Then there was a bunch of kabooms and smoke clouds."
A spokesman for AirSign, the company that operated the blimp, told the Journal-Sentinel that the pilot suffered burns but will recover after staying with the blimp as it went down in a field near the golf course. A crew member on the ground was able to pull him from the wreckage.
According to the USGA, which runs the event, the blimp was unaffiliated with the tournament or with Fox Sports, which is broadcasting the event.
WMTV in Madison, Wisconsin, posted photos of the crash scene and had a helicopter circling the crash scene. Its live footage showed what appeared to be a good number of emergency workers tending to a single individual on the ground. The person was transported away from the middle of a field in the back of a pickup truck and driven to a the parking lot of what appeared to be a warehouse in the middle of a vast field. Workers unloaded the gurney off the truck and loaded it onto a waiting emergency helicopter, which then flew off to a nearby hospital.
Patrick Walsh, AirSign's CEO, told CBS News that the cause of the crash was still under investigation. The pilot suffered burns, he said, and there were no injuries on the ground.
According to a National Transportation Safety Board database, AirSign aircraft have been involved in two incidents, both of them involving planes. In April 2010, the pilot was killed after a small propeller plane he was flying "was substantially damaged when it impacted terrain after a loss of control during initial climb" at Orlando North Airpark in Florida. The plane was involved in a "banner towing job," according to the NTSB, which cited the pilot's failure to maintain airspeed after takeoff as the reason for the crash.
In March 2005, a Cessna registered to AirSign made an emergency crash landing on a road after the pilot reported a loss of engine power shortly after takeoff from Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina. The pilot suffered what the NTSB report described as minor injuries after colliding with a curb and a parked car, and the agency found that he failed to follow a pre-flight checklist.
But crashes involving blimps are "extremely rare," Dan Coffee, owner of the Wisconsin airstrip from which the blimp took off Thursday, told the Journal-Sentinel, and a check of the NTSB database seems to back this up. The last blimp incident logged by the agency took place in 2006.
According to Terry Sater of WISN-TV in Milwaukee, the NTSB is gathering information about Thursday's blimp crash.