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Lax FAA Rules For Balloon Pilots Cited In Deadly Lockhart Crash

Pudelek (Marcin Szala/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The National Transportation Safety Board says the FAA should require commercial balloon pilots to pass medical exams and submit to drug tests.

From Texas Standard.

Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board singled out the Federal Aviation Administration as a factor in last year’s deadly hot air balloon crash in Lockhart. The crash killed 15 passengers and the pilot.

The direct cause of the crash has been determined to be pilot error, but the NTSB said the FAA’s lack of oversight of commercial balloon pilots contributed to this tragedy.

Back in March, John Tedesco reported for the San Antonio Express-News that the FAA has resisted efforts to strengthen oversight of the commercial balloon travel business for years. Tedesco says commercial balloon pilots are required to put in 35 hours of flying time before receiving a license. Unlike other pilots, they are not required to undergo drug testing or a medical examination.

Tedesco says Alfred “Skip” Nichols, the pilot in the Lockhart crash, who died along with his passengers, suffered from several ailments that could have impaired his ability to fly the balloon safely. In addition, Nichols had a number of prescription medications in his system at the time of the crash.

“He suffered from a variety of ailments – depression, chronic pain, ADHD, to name a few,” Tedesco says. “If he had taken a medical exam like other pilots… this would have raised some red flags with the FAA.”

Tedesco says the FAA justifies the lack of oversight of commercial balloon pilots based on the low number of flights and pilots that would be affected. But despite their reputation as a relaxing way to fly, hot air balloons pose the same risks as other flying modes of transportation.

“The vast majority of balloon flights are safe,” Tedesco says, “but they’re at the mercy of the wind, and when you actually look at the crash rates, the fatality rates for balloons, when compared to other aircraft, are pretty much identical.”

NTSB officials, along with an FAA inspector in Detroit, have been advocating for more stringent regulations on balloons since before the Lockhart crash. Tedesco says the FAA has said it would “take a look” at NTSB recommendations, but that advocates of stronger oversight “aren’t holding their breath.”

Written by Shelly Brisbin.

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