A number of deadly hot air balloon crashes have occurred in the U.S., but none of the crashes had called attention to hot air balloon safety regulations – or the lack of them – until the July 30 crash that killed 16 people on a sunrise balloon cruise in central Texas. This crash received tremendous media attention and brought attention to the need for better regulation.
The Heart of Texas balloon operated by the pilot Alfred Nichols ascended from a field in Lockhart around 5:45 a.m. Two hours later, the balloon and its basket lay smoldering on the ground underneath some high-voltage power lines. At press time, investigators didn’t know how or why the balloon drifted into the lines. Patches of fog were seen in the area that Saturday morning, but the ground crew said that the weather was clear during takeoff.
Alfred Nichols continued to pilot hot air balloons for years despite having been convicted of drunk driving at least four times. He also had a drug-related conviction and two prison sentences. Nichols was also a recovering alcoholic. Any one of those problems would be enough to get a professional airplane or helicopter pilot grounded, but hot air balloon operators aren’t held the same standards, or anything close to them.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates transportation accidents and makes recommendations to federal regulators, has repeatedly called on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to take measures to improve hot air balloon safety. Thus far there have been no response to the agency’s recommendations.
Former NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman told CNN that she formally urged the FAA to address “operation deficiencies” within the hot air balloon industry after a series of accidents in 2007, 2008 and 2013. She also pressed the agency for tighter restrictions and oversight. Ms. Hersman told CNN:
The FAA has not responded in an affirmative way. The NTSB (has) classified that recommendation ‘open-unacceptable,’ which means they really haven’t done what the NTSB asked.
The FAA’s decision to stay out of the hot air balloon industry has created a “disparity” in the requirements for balloon operators compared to other commercial pilots, according to NTSB member Robert Sumwalt. For instance, pilots applying for an FAA ballooning certificate do not have to disclose any drunken driving convictions or drug offenses. Licensed balloon operators are not required to report any new alcohol or drug convictions to the FAA the same way helicopter and airplane pilots must.
It should be noted that balloon pilots do not have to get regular medical exams with FAA-certified physicians, whereas airplane and helicopter pilots must undergo physicals every six months. This loophole allows for the possibility of endangering hot air balloon passengers in the event their pilot suffers a debilitating medical emergency during flight. It’s quite evident that this industry – including involved pilots – needs to be properly regulated.
Sources: Associated Press, USA Today and CNN
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