In Wake of Texas Balloon Tragedy, Congress Considers Changes

In an attempt to avoid a recurrence of the 2016 Texas hot air balloon crash that killed 16 people, the U.S. House of Representatives last week approved a measure, proposed by Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett, that would require that all commercial hot air ballon pilots undergo medica checks before taking flight. More specifically, the wide-ranging bill would affect the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and would require that hot air balloon pilots undergo the same medical scrutiny that helicopter and airline pilots must undergo.

In proposing the amendment, Rep. Doggett noted, “The FAA should have corrected this long ago.” When the amendment was adopted, he added, “I am hopeful that no other family will ever suffer the same horror as this tragedy near Lockhart.” According to the Congressman’s office, the 2016 hot air balloon crash was the deadliest aviation disaster since 2009.

NTSB Chides FAA for Lack of Oversight

The vote follows a federal investigation of the deadliest balloon crash in history, in which regulators took the FAA to task for lax oversight. In their investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that the balloon’s pilot, Alfred “Skip” Nichols, was likely impaired by Valium, opioids and other drugs when he took off from a launchpad south of Austin. In fact, according to a medical officer with the NTSB, the effect of the Valium, oxycodone, and over-the-counter antihistamine Benadryl in Nichols’ system to mimic “the impairing effect of a blood-alcohol level” of a driver who was above the legal minimum for alcohol impairment.

During the meeting in Washington, DC, in which the NTSB revealed its findings regarding the July 2016 balloon crash, they took the opportunity to scold the FAA for its failure to properly oversee the ballooning industry. At the same time, they recommended that balloon pilots submit to the same medical checks as airplane and helicopter pilots.

To make matters worse, while Nichols had no alcohol in his system at the time of the crash, he had at least four prior DUI convictions on his record. According to investigators, the pilot had been given a weather briefing just before the flight, and was warned that clouds may be a problem, but he brushed off the warning. He reportedly said he would “just fly in between them.” The visibility was about 10 miles when the balloon took off from a Walmart parking lot near the small rural town of Lockhart, but had already diminished to two miles visibility by the time the balloon was in the air.

Better Screening Standards Needed

In their report, investigators also noted that Nichols told his psychiatrist three months before the crash that he was not taking his antidepressant medication. At the time, the psychiatrist documented his mood as “not good.” In all, Nichols was prescribed 13 medications and also was being treated for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, which investigators say also was a contributing factor.

According to the NTSB, there have been 124 hot ait balloon-related fatalities since 1964. One of the deadliest such crashes in the world happened in Feb. 2013, in Luxor, Egypt, when a balloon caught fire and plunged 1,000 feet to the ground, killing at least 19 foreign tourists. Here are some of the other tragedies that have occurred worldwide in the last few years:

• On Aug. 23, 2012, six people were killed and 26 injured when a hot air balloon carrying 32 tourists including some children, caught fire and crashed near the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana.
• On Jan. 7, 2012, a hot air balloon struck power lines near Carterton, New Zealand, and exploded, crashing to the ground and killing all 11 passengers aboard.
• On Oct. 14, 2009, four Dutch tourists were killed in Guangxi, China, after the pilots of a hot air balloon lost control and the balloon burst into flames and crashed.
• On Aug. 26, 2001, six people, including one child, were killed when their hot air balloon touched a power line in southwestern France.

Reform Could Prevent Tragedy

With the passage of this bill, Rep. Doggett hopes to bring about reform in an industry that hasn’t undergone very much oversight in the past. It is currently very difficult for customers and passengers to check the safety record of a hot air balloon pilot, even though some commercial balloons can carry as many passengers as a small communter plane.

The fact that Nichols was able to get an FAA pilot’s license, even though he had four DUI convictions in the state of Missouri is also troubling, especially given that he was not allowed to drive a motor vehicle in the state of Texas. The one thing that was clear from the NTSB investigation was that very little oversight was done in this case, and just some oversight might have prevented this tragic event.

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