FAA- it’s time to follow Chairman Sumwalt’s Balloon Pilot Medical call

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Two Years and Counting . . . Still no FAA Action

BFA Advocates Against Balloon Amendment In FAA Bill

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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6 Comments on "FAA- it’s time to follow Chairman Sumwalt’s Balloon Pilot Medical call"

  1. I believe the issue here is that there is such a large discrepancy between a pilot flying a balloon of 77,000 cubic feet that might carry 2 passengers where the pilot make take a few rides per year and a pilot flying a balloon capable of carrying 6-40 passengers and flying daily in a full fledge commercial operation. The risk is tremendously different between the two operations but the license is 100% exactly the same. There is similarly no CFI for balloons since a commercial pilot has CFI privileges in lighter-than-air. It seems the logical action would be to segment balloons and pilots based on size and type of operation like fixed wing and then regulate accordingly.

    As reference I am a fixed-wing and commercial balloon pilot with 38 years of accident free flying and approximately 4,000 hours.

  2. Roger Clarks concise comment above is the ‘meat’ of the problem. There is no regulation in place for passenger carrying balloon operations at present.
    Much can be learned from the commercial driving licensing world. There a “P endorsement”, with annual medical requirements, is required to drive a passenger carrying vehicle of 8 passenger or more capacity. Also, in most states, consent to drug testing is mandatory, random or otherwise, with the endorsement.
    As I view this dilema; increased regulation of LTA is needed but must not burden the ‘sport balloon’ population where a commercial rating allows new pilot training.
    Logically a required ‘P endorsement’ based on gross lift capability and/or manufacture rated passenger capacity, say 5 or more, may be the answer.

    I offer this with a 45 plus year experience level in ballooning.

  3. There are 3 companies that insure commercial balloon operations in the United States. Shortly after the Lockhart tragedy, the insurers changed their policy terms and now require a 2nd class medical certificate for commercial balloon ride operations. The issue has already been solved by our industry without the expense and burden for the FAA to make regulatory changes.

  4. I wish someone would enlighten me as to how a 2nd class medical will solve the drug/impaired issue?? Drug testing is NOT required for a 2nd class medical. If you lie per the FAR’s about drug use, you will lie to the AME. So it accomplishes absolutely nothing.
    Mandatory DRUG TESTING.

  5. NTSB Balloon Recommendations Should Have Been a No-Brainer, Safety Experts Say–https://www.flyingmag.com/NTSB-concludes-investigation-fatal-texas-balloon-crash

  6. Had the FAA followed and enforced existing regulations, the pilot of the Lockhart balloon would not have had a license. He had DUI and drug convictions that the FAA knew about, but they chose not to pull his license?? DUI and drug convictions are supposed to be reported by the pilot to the FAA. Anyone can fail to report and can lie about it when they get a medical.

    A medical for balloon pilots will do nothing to enhance safety.

    If you want something done to enhance safety – enforce existing regulations.

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