NTSB findings of Pilot Health Problems
Recommends 1st Class Medical
BFA and FAA improve other standards
For a lot of substantive policy bases, the FAA has and will define different levels of safety based on the risks involved in the type of flying. The best example of degree of regulatory rigor matched to the safety risk is the differentiation between an Air Transport Pilot whose health must meet the exacting standards of the 1st Class Medical and a Private Pilot License who is measured against the criteria of the 3rd Class Medical. Similarly, the rules for a Part 121 air carrier are more demanding than the rules for a Part 135.
Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt was the Member who led the NTSB investigation of the deadliest hot air balloon crash, the Heart of Texas Balloon on July 30,2016 in Lockhart, TX. The Board’s finding of probable cause to “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.”
In the NTSB Safety Compass blog, the Chairman expressed his dismay:
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.
The FAA in 2008 issued a Balloon Flying Handbook, lengthy pamphlet of advice on how best to fly these aircraft. Before the Texas tragedy, the FAA revised FSIMS to provide additional guidance, in part based on input from the Balloon Federation of America
The BFA met with John Duncan, then FAA Director of Flight Standards, to discuss how the professionals might, by their own initiative, up their standards. Two months later, with the FAA’s “blessing”. BFA issued its ENVELOPE OF SAFETY, primarily setting levels of accreditation and further training.
None of these efforts addressed the medical standards for a balloon pilot to fly paying passengers. BFA administered a survey of its members and asked them a number of questions. Responses to Question 7 demonstrated that 80.36% did not have a 1st Class Medical and when queried “do you believe having FAA medical certification would reduce balloon accidents, the answers were as follows:
It would appear that Chairman Sumwalt’s recommendation should be acted on expeditiously!!!
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