If another deadly hot-air balloon crash like the one that killed 16 people in Lockhart, Texas two years ago happens again, will aviation regulators and lawmakers be ok with that, knowing it happened on their watch?
More than two years after the horrific Lockhart tragedy, those with the authority to improve safety have taken no meaningful action to help prevent such a devastating and entirely preventable accident from happening again in the U.S.
If the deadliest balloon crash in U.S. history wasn’t enough to change the incredibly lax oversight of the hot air balloon industry, what would be?
In a recent blog post, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Robert Sumwalt writes that he and other investigators determined the probable cause of the Lockhart hot air balloon crash was “the pilot’s pattern of poor decision-making that led to the initial launch, continued flight in fog and above clouds, and descent near or through clouds that decreased the pilot’s ability to see and avoid obstacles.”
Additionally, NTSB investigators also found some contributing factors, including “the pilot’s impairing medical conditions and medications” and the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) policy to not require a medical certificate for commercial balloon pilots.
Mr. Sumwalt notes that the odd thing about the FAA’s inaction is its inconsistency. “Unlike commercial airplane and helicopter air tour pilots, commercial air tour balloon pilots are not required to have an FAA medical certificate.”
Had FAA’s medical requirements applied to hot air balloon pilots, aviation medical examiners would likely have identified the pilot’s “potentially impairing medical conditions and medications.”
FAA rules also allowed the pilot Alfred “Skip” Nichols’ history of drug- and alcohol-related offenses to go unnoticed. If hot air balloon tour pilots were held to the same standards as other aviation tour pilots, the FAA would have red-flagged Mr. Nichols and revoked his license to fly paying passengers in hot air balloons. The accident most likely would have been prevented.
In fact, the NTSB has called on the FAA for years to close this deadly loophole by requiring hot air balloon pilot medical certificates, and the proposed rule has been on the NTSB’s “Most Wanted List” of critical safety improvements since 2015, the year before the Lockhart balloon crash.
Mr. Sumwalt notes that two years have passed since the hot air balloon crash but the NTSB still hasn’t “received any indication that the FAA plans to require commercial balloon pilots to hold valid medical certificates.”
“The FAA should act. The victims of this horrible accident and their families deserve nothing less, and future balloon passengers deserve better,” Mr. Sumwalt wrote.