Hot Air Balloonist Convicted Of Landing In Grand Teton National Park

A federal judge convicted a Jackson balloon pilot last week for landing illegally in Grand Teton National Park. The balloonist argued the wind and an airport staffer's direction prompted the landing.

CM
Clair McFarland

November 30, 20233 min read

A hot-air balloon floats over the Grand Tetons in northwest Wyoming in this file photo.
A hot-air balloon floats over the Grand Tetons in northwest Wyoming in this file photo. (Getty Images)

A federal judge has convicted a Jackson hot-air balloon pilot for landing illegally in Grand Teton National Park.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephanie Hambrick, of Wyoming, filed a conclusion Nov. 21 that Richard Glas landed his hot-air balloon, with five people in it, illegally within the Grand Teton National Park in July.

The conclusion followed an Oct. 17 bench trial, where Glas argued that the wind swayed his balloon against his will. The federal prosecutor at that trial presented the testimony of a federal park ranger, body cam footage and a photo of Glas’ balloon on the ground in the park.

In a bench trial, the judge – not a jury – decides whether the defendant is guilty.

In a follow-up brief, Glas argued that an exception in the federal law justified him to land there. That exception says pilots aren’t guilty of illegal landing in “landings due to circumstances beyond the control of the operator.”

Airport Told Him To Land

An unexpected wind gust knocked Glas’ balloon over the park and into the airspace of the Jackson Hole Airport, says his brief. The filing says Glas thought he could ease toward where his fellow pilot, who had launched with him, was landing, but airport staffer Alex Clark told Glas to land as soon as it was safe to do so.

So Glas landed.

Once he was on the ground, the park ranger cited him.

Though Glas’ brief lays out the wind and airport staffer as bolstering his defense under the legal exception, he didn’t raise those arguments at his trial, Hambrick’s conclusion says.

“These arguments are improperly raised in the Defendant’s brief and will not be considered by the Court,” she wrote.

Contacted Thursday, Glas told Cowboy State Daily he is not yet ready to comment on the case because it is still ongoing.

Glas’ sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 3 in the Yellowstone Justice Center. He also could appeal the conviction.

‘Affirmative Defense’

The exception of landing illegally due to circumstances beyond one’s control is an “affirmative defense,” which means it’s a legal mechanism by which a defendant can justify, but not negate, a crime.

Launching an affirmative defense is an acknowledgement that the crime did occur, but it was justified, according to court filings.

Hambrick found that the prosecutor proved all elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, and that Glas landed illegally.

After that, the burden of proof shifted to the defendant to prove his affirmative defense argument by a preponderance of evidence.

“The Defendant did not provide any evidence at trial on why or how the exception of ‘landings due to circumstances beyond the control of the operator’ should apply,” wrote Hambrick. “Therefore, the Court finds the Defendant Guilty of delivering a person by airborne means within Grand Teton National Park.”

Operating or using aircraft in national parks, other than in designated areas, is punishable by up to six months in jail and fines, according to news reports.

Clair McFarland can be reached at Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com.

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CM

Clair McFarland

Crime and Courts Reporter