Saturday, July 30, 2016.
The day started like most summer days in central Texas—hot and muggy, with the chance of foggy and cloudy conditions around daybreak. I can only imagine the feelings of excitement—perhaps even a few fleeting moments of apprehension—as the pilot and his 15 passengers climbed into the basket of the enormous hot air balloon. The large smiley face that adorned the side of the balloon was emblematic of what the day’s flight was supposed to be for these paying passengers, who were celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, and even, belatedly, Mother’s Day. Tragically, about 45 minutes after lifting off, the balloon careened into high-tension powerlines that crisscrossed the Texas countryside. The balloon plunged to the ground, claiming all 16 lives on board.
This was the deadliest balloon crash in U.S. history. Furthermore, it was the deadliest U.S. aviation accident in more than 7 years.
We determined the probable cause of the 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.” Further, we pointed out that “contributing to the accident were (1) the pilot’s impairing medical conditions and medications and (2) the Federal Aviation Administration’s [FAA’s] policy to not require a medical certificate for commercial balloon pilots.”
Our investigation revealed that the pilot had several medical conditions that would have precluded his legal ability to operate any aircraft, including a balloon. He was also taking medications prohibited when piloting. He had been arrested on four occasions for driving under the influence. Any of these conditions or circumstances would have barred his ability to obtain an FAA medical certificate.
But, here’s the odd thing: unlike commercial airplane and helicopter air tour pilots, commercial air tour balloon pilots are not required to have an FAA medical certificate. Our accident investigation report made clear: “The [FAA’s] exemption of balloon pilots from medical certification requirements eliminated the potential for (1) an aviation medical examiner to identify the pilot’s potentially impairing medical conditions and medications and/or (2) FAA awareness of his history of drug-and alcohol-related offenses, which could have led to [his pilot certificate being revoked or suspended] until satisfactorily resolved.” To close this loophole, we recommended a logical solution—that the FAA begin requiring medical certificates for commercial balloon pilots (Safety Recommendation A-17-34). “Require Medical Fitness” has been a focus of our Most Wanted List of critical transportation safety improvements since 2015.
As we wrapped up the Board meeting we held to deliberate this tragedy, I expressed my optimism that “today’s recommendations, if acted upon, will help to bring the safety standards and oversight of commercial passenger balloon operations closer to those that apply to powered flight.”
Sadly, it appears that optimism was misplaced. Two years after the Lockhart tragedy, and nearly 10 months after we issued this recommendation, we still haven’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.