A bill that would require commercial hot air balloon pilots to undergo medical exams in much the same way other commercial aviators do cleared the House and landed in the U.S. Senate for approval.
The proposed bill comes two years after the deadliest hot air balloon crash in U.S. history killed 15 passengers and the pilot in Lockhart, Texas. Federal investigators discovered that the pilot Alfred “Skip” Nichols had a history of medical conditions including depression, chronic pain, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Before the July 30, 2016, hot air balloon crash, Mr. Nichols took a slew of prescription drugs, including Valium, Prozac, a muscle relaxer, and the opioid painkiller oxycodone, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators discovered.
“Had the pilot in this crash been required to obtain a medical certificate, the NTSB believes he would not have been flying that morning,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), who co-sponsored the bill with two other Texas congressmen, said in a written statement, according to the San Antonio Express-News. “This is a victory for the victims’ families in Bexar County and elsewhere who petitioned for this action.”
Mr. Nichols attempted to fly and then make a rapid descent in the hot air balloon despite thick fog and clouds that severely restricted visibility. He steered the hot air balloon into high-voltage power lines, which caused it to catch fire and fall to the ground with all 16 occupants inside.
Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires commercial airplane and helicopter pilots to undergo a physical examination, disclose any health problems, and authorize the FAA to conduct a background check for any alcohol or drug-related offenses. Mr. Nichols had a series of DUI infractions on his record and was legally barred from driving a motor vehicle.
The FAA resisted holding hot air balloon pilots to the same standards as other professional pilots, even after the Lockhart balloon crash.
Some safety advocates worry that the bill doesn’t go far enough to guarantee the safety of passengers on commercial hot air balloons. Even if the Senate approves the current bill, supporters have expressed concern that Donald Trump might veto it, depending on his mood that day.