A Kent County family is in mourning following the death of noted hot-air balloonist Daniel Kirk in an accident on Friday.
Daniel T. Kirk, a veteran hot air balloonist whose Starship Adventures balloon company introduced scores of people to silent, wingless flight, was killed Friday evening in an accident at the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival.
Kirk, who lived in Hartly and styled himself as “Capt. Kirk” after the famous starship Enterprise commander on Star Trek, was 65.
Two passengers, Ginny Doyle and Natalie Lewis, both of the University of Richmond, also died, according to a press release from the school.
Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said Kirk was part of a contingent of 13 balloons flying at the time of the accident. He and two others were headed for a landing field when Kirk’s balloon hit a live utility line, starting a fire.
Witnesses said Doyle and Lewis apparently jumped or fell from the gondola while Kirk fought the blaze. There was an explosion and the fire continued to spread, Geller said. The balloon then separated from the gondola, which dropped into a heavily wooded area.
A Dover native who joined the U.S. Army shortly after his 1966 graduation from Dover High School, Kirk loved the freedom of crossing the countryside in a hot-air balloon, said his father, Donald Kirk, of Dover.
“He got interested in it in college or shortly thereafter,” the elder Kirk said. “He’d always said he wanted to fly, but probably didn’t think it would be in balloons.”
In a 2012 YouTube video posted by a former student, Kirk says he had more than 29.5 years’ experience ballooning.
According to Kirk’s FAA registry, the balloon was manufactured in 2000 and certified in 2001. The certification was good until July 2017.
His son was a consummate flier, always cautious in what he did, Kirk said.
“He was not a risk-taker. He was very, very careful, and I flew with him many times.”
Donald Kirk’s daughter, Sandra, who is helping him and his wife, Verna, learned about the accident Friday night, but only that Daniel was missing, he said. Because it was late, she didn’t immediately tell their parents, he said.
He found out Saturday morning when a correspondent from “Good Morning, America” called the house at 5 a.m.
Photographer Nancy Johnson was taking pictures at the balloon festival when she was alerted that something was wrong.
“I was concentrating on them as they went up,” she said in an email to the Dover Post. “I noticed a woman running across the field looking panicked.
“When I turned around I saw the balloon on fire; it was rapidly moving up,” she said. “My instinct was to keep snapping pictures.”
Some people around her started praying, Johnson said, while others watched in shocked silence.
Don Sloan, of Dover, rode with Kirk in October after winning a flight certificate during a USO silent auction.
Kirk took Sloan and partner Terri Faust on a 90-minute ride, covering the airspace from Bear to Sandtown.
The trip was “absolutely spectacular,” said Sloan, a retired C-5 pilot.
The finale was marked by hot chocolate and pumpkin donuts, as well as a bottle of champagne Kirk provided, Sloan said.
“Our ride was fun, informative and Dan was very professional,” Sloan said. “He loved ballooning!
“Our prayers go out to his wife, Jan, and his family.”
Delaware State Rep. Jeff Spiegelman (R-Clayton) recalled Kirk as a man who whole-heartedly supported his 2012 campaign.
“He always showed up at meetings and every one of my events, unless he was out flying or with his family,” Spiegelman said. “He was always there with a smile, always asking what he could do. He did it without asking and didn’t need a thank-you or a pat on the back.
“A lot of us are really devastated by this.”
Geller said more than 100 people were engaged in searching the crash area to find the remains of Kirk and his two passengers. One body was found Friday and another on Saturday. The third was recovered on Sunday, she said.
The remains were turned over to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond, who released a positive identification on Monday night.
Targeted recovery missions by the Virginia State Police and the Federal Aviation Administration are working to find personal effects and remnants of the balloon and gondola, she added.