After the tragic crash of a hot air balloon that killed 16 people near Lockhart, Texas, July 30, safety experts across the country expected the deadly disaster would finally result in better ballooning industry regulations. Nearly eight months later, however, there are no improvements in sight.
The Lockhart balloon crash provides a stark contrast to the way federal authorities responded to the most deadly aviation crash prior to the Lockhart incident – the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 that stalled and crashed near Buffalo, New York, on Feb. 12, 2009, killing 50 people. That crash triggered an investigative and regulatory storm with probes into pilot fatigue, training, and demands that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) raise the bar for aviation safety.
But no meaningful action has been taken to improve safety in the ballooning industry after the Lockhart crash, despite bipartisan demands that the FAA step up.
The ballooning industry is surprisingly under-regulated, allowing pilots with questionable qualifications to take a dozen or more passengers on trips hundreds of feet in the air. According to the San Antonio Express-News, hot air balloons have higher crash rates than other forms of aircraft, a fact that underscores the need for better safety.
The FAA doesn’t require balloon pilots to take drug tests or submit to medical exams, and there is little customers can do to check on the safety record of a particular ballooning company or pilot.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated the Lockhart crash and discovered that Alfred “Skip” Nichols, the Lockhart balloon pilot, was on a “witches brew” of medications on the day of the crash, including Valium, Prozac, oxycodone and a muscle relaxant, the San Antonio Express-News reported.
Mr. Nichols was also a recovering alcoholic and was prohibited from driving a car due to a series of DUI convictions.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, whose district includes Lockhart, told the San Antonio Express-News that he has been hoping the FAA would do its job without having to call for a formal hearing on its policies in the wake of last year’s balloon crash, which was the deadliest in U.S. history.
“I think the FAA has not done its job,” Rep. Doggett told the San Antonio Express-News. “I think every moment that the FAA fails to act puts additional people at risk.”
“The pilot responsible for last year’s deadly balloon crash should not have had a license to fly,” U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said Monday in a statement. “The FAA needs to adopt more stringent balloon safety guidelines, piloting standards, and enforcement capabilities so that other preventable accidents don’t happen in the future. My prayers are with all the families who lost loved ones in these avoidable tragedies.”
Even State Rep. John Cyrier, R-Lockhart, who advocates for less regulation, believes the FAA isn’t doing enough to regulate the ballooning industry. Rep. Cryier, himself a pilot, has expressed his alarm over how a pilot like Mr. Nichols would be allowed to take passengers on balloon rides.
“The FAA said, ‘Well, you know, we haven’t touched the rules since the 1930s,’” Cyrier told the San Antonio Express-News, referring to regulations exempting balloon pilots from medical exams. “Shame on them.”
Even if the FAA were to propose new regulations for the ballooning industry, it’s not clear whether they would ever take effect under Trump’s regulatory freeze and executive order mandating two regulations be scrapped for every new regulation passed.
Source: San Antonio Express-News