Hot Air Ballooning is a great aviation experience,
but its accidents are too often and too visible
Sen. Cruz sponsored bill to mandate pilot medicals
Not implemented yet-what have FAA and Balloon Federation done
Sadly, another hot air balloon crash occurred in Albuquerque recently and the media appropriately asked, “where are the safety enhancements which Congress, sponsors Senator Cruz and Rep. Doggett, Lloyd [D-TX-35, enacted 4 years ago.” The FAA NPRM docket has a long queue and the agency’s internal list of priority regulatory projects is equal in length to the circumference of the globe. The congestion is not entirely the fault of the rule writers; every major aviation bill includes a multitude of mandatory, short deadline, not simple Congressional projects.
Senator Cruz, (R-TX), contrary to his libertarian principles, introduced and shepherded legislation that would ADD regulations. His COMMERCIAL BALLOON PILOT SAFETY ACT of 2017(as a rider to the FAA Reauthorization bill.), now requires:
“Section 318 (herein after “Section 318”). The provision requires the FAA Administrator, or in this case Acting Administrator, to, within 180 days after the date of enactment, revise part 61.3(c) of title 14, Code of Federal Regulations, to apply to operators of air balloons to the same extent such regulations apply to operators of other aircraft. In other words, to require that commercial hot air balloon pilots obtain a second-class medical certificate.”
[ quote from May 20, 2019 letter to Acting Administrator expressing concerns about delays in implementing §318.]
With that background, it is hard to understand why §318 has not been fully implemented. Workload, conflicting priorities, difficult OMB standards that may prohibit publication?
What has been done in the 4 intervening years by industry and the FAA ?
…As the result of a year-long FAA “Call to Action” with the commercial hot-air balloon industry, the Balloon Federation of America (BFA) has developed an “Envelope of Safety” accreditation program for balloon ride operations.
… A second part of the program provides balloon ride operators with a choice of three levels of safety accreditation: Silver, Gold, or Platinum. While any size company can achieve the highest level, the tiered structure is designed with different size companies in mind. Each level has increasingly stringent safety requirements including:
- Meeting the pilot requirements
- Holding valid aircraft and commercial vehicle insurance
- Not exceeding a minimum specified number of accidents or incidents within a recent time period
- Verifying annual aircraft inspections
- Hosting a forum for passengers to rate the company
- Notifying local FAA offices of the location of their base of operations
- Executing and storing passenger liability waivers
- Conducting random pilot drug screening
- Developing written policies for crew safety.
Balloon Federation Of America, With FAA’s Blessing, Establishes “Envelope Of Safety” Accreditation Program
Usually, there are good reasons for FAA delay. Here it appears that the promulgation of a hot air balloon pilot medical requirement should be within the time and resources of the safety agency.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) confirmed Saturday’s balloon crash in Albuquerque was the deadliest in New Mexico history.
“This is the second most deadly crash since 2016 in the United States,” said Peter Knudsen, NTSB spokesperson.
An NTSB investigator from Phoenix was sent to document the crash, and months of work will happen to make sure they get the investigation right.
“He was able to document the scene of the gondola, the envelope, was able to interview several ground handlers, talk to the owner of the company, and was able to identify some surveillance footage that perhaps has information that could be relevant,” Knudsen said.
They’ll look into many aspects including the balloon, gondola, weather, pilot and passengers– whether it be medical records, flight planning or training.
“We will even do a 72-hour background of the pilot’s activities to determine if there was anything in that time period that could have affected the pilots’ ability to operate the aircraft,” said Knudsen.
The NTSB said they’re committed to finding out what happened, so these type of accidents don’t happen again. The preliminary report will be available in two weeks.
Texas hot air balloon crash victims’ family frustrated with slow-moving safety changes nearly 5 years later
by: Avery Travis
Posted: Jul 1, 2021 / 08:55 PM CDT / Updated: Jul 2, 2021 / 04:19 PM CDT
[EDITED TO FOCUS ON FAA ASPECTS]
AUSTIN (KXAN) —
This month marks five years since Morgan lost both women in the deadliest hot air balloon crash in United States history. They were two of the 16 people, including the balloon pilot, who were killed in a fiery crash. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found the pilot was “as impaired as a drunk driver” when he flew the balloon into a power line. They said Alfred “Skip” Nichols had taken a mixture of prescription medications such as Prozac, Valium and oxycodone.
Morgan joined forces with federal lawmakers to push for changes to the way balloon rides are regulated. In the fall of 2018, U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) both worked on bipartisan legislation to require medical and physical exams for commercial balloon pilots, similar to what’s required for commercial airline pilots.
The legislation passed, but as the five-year anniversary of the crash approaches, Morgan is frustrated to see the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) hasn’t put any rules or regulations on the issue into practice.
“The FAA has delayed and delayed, even after the law, which I thought was explicit. They now claim they need a regulation before they can do anything,” Rep. Doggett explained. “Just a spirit of indifference.”
The NTSB is an independent government agency, which investigates accidents and crashes. They also make safety recommendations to the federal agency that regulates the aircraft industry, the FAA.
Just a few months ago, the NTSB submitted brand new safety recommendations targeting hot air balloons and other paid passenger operations, such as vintage aircraft flights and parachute jump flights. They asked the FAA to consider requiring more oversight into the safety management of these operations.
At a board meeting in March, the NTSB said “these operations, which carry thousands of passengers for compensation or hire each year, are not held to the same maintenance, airworthiness, and operational standards as air carrier, commuter and on-demand, and air tour operations.”
A spokesperson for the FAA sent KXAN documents acknowledging the latest NTSB recommendations. The document states it “will assess the feasibility of these safety recommendations.” It said the agency would provide an update by the end of the year.
“When we first started working and looking into this, we realized the FAA was slow,” he said.
The FAA spokesperson told KXAN the pilot in the Albuquerque crash did have a medical certification, like the 2018 legislation would require. Authorities are still investigating this crash.
“I don’t know how many more lives may be lost, because they have delayed and ignored the recommendation of the National Transportation Safety Board,” Doggett said.
He emphasized the medical certification was “just the start,” but urged the FAA to take action on the latest NTSB recommendations, as well….
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