Safety Board Calls for Better FAA Oversight of Hot Air Balloon Operators

NTSB faults FAA's oversight of commercial balloon operators, making two recommendations to the agency that ask it to remove the medical certificate exemption for commercial balloon operators and to find ways to better provide oversight of balloon operators.

The Federal Aviation Administration is praising the Balloon Federation of America's "Envelope of Safety" accreditation program for balloon ride operations, saying in an Oct. 13 statement that, following the July 30, 2016, balloon accident in Lockhart, Texas, the killed 16 people -- 15 passengers and the pilot, who owned and operated the balloon -- it took proactive steps to increase the safety of hot-air balloon tourism. And the new accreditation program is the result of the year-long FAA "Call to Action" with the commercial hot-air balloon industry, FAA said.

On Oct. 17, 2017, the National Transportation Safety Board found that the Lockhart balloon pilot's "pattern of poor decision-making" led to the balloon striking power lines and then crashing to the ground. But the board also faulted FAA's oversight of commercial balloon operators, making two recommendations to the agency that asked it to remove the medical certificate exemption for commercial balloon operators and to find ways to better provide oversight of balloon operators. "Today's recommendations, if acted on, will help to bring the safety standards closer to those that apply to powered flight," NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt said. "Balloon pilots, their passengers, and their passengers' loved ones deserve no less."

The board found that the medical certification exemption for commercial balloon operators contributed to the balloon crash. Also contributing to the accident were the pilot's impairing medical conditions and medications that likely affected his decision-making, the board found. NTSB said its investigators found that depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and the combined effects of multiple central nervous system-impairing drugs probably affected the pilot's ability to make safe decisions.

"The pilot's poor decisions were his and his alone,"’ Sumwalt said during the Oct. 17 board meeting. "But other decisions within government, dating back decades, enabled his poor decision to fly with impairing medical conditions while using medications that should have grounded him."

FAA said the accreditation program means that company pilots of balloons that are capable of carrying more than 4-6 passengers must be commercially certificated for 18 months, have a specified amount of flight experience, and hold an FAA second-class medical certificate, and the pilots also must pass a drug and alcohol background check, have attended a BFA-sanctioned safety seminar within the past 12 months, and be enrolled in the FAA WINGS program. The Balloon Federation of America will verify this information annually and will check the safety background of pilot applicants by researching FAA accident and incident data, according to FAA's statement.

The program gives balloon ride operators a choice of three levels of safety accreditation: silver, gold, and platinum. While a company of any size can achieve the highest level, the tiered structure is designed with different size companies in mind. Each level has increasingly stringent safety requirements.

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