Hot Air Balloon Accident Reignites Regulations Debate

Hot Air Balloon Accident

News reports indicate a hot air balloon that crashed over the weekend in Texas killing 16 people was piloted by a man with four DUI convictions. Critics claim this reflects an oversight in FAA regulations.

Details of the Fatal Hot Air Balloon Accident

Alfred “Skip” Nichols had four DUI convictions, spent time in jail twice and had a long history of customer complaints dating back to 1997. Nichols was a recovering alcoholic who was also the pilot of the hot air balloon that crashed over the weekend in Texas killing 16 people.

When pilots apply for a ballooning certification with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), they are not required to disclose any prior drunken driving convictions, only drug convictions, said Patrick Cannon, a spokesman for the Balloon Federation of America trade group.

Balloon pilots also do not have to get regular medical exams from FAA-certified examiners. They are only required to write a statement certifying that they have “no medical defect” that would limit their ability to pilot a balloon.

In this way the requirements for a hot air balloon pilot are much less stringent compared to those of a plane or helicopter pilot. However, lives are still at stake whether it’s an airplane, helicopter, or even a hot air balloon.

For years, officials have criticized the level of oversight for balloon tour operators. In 2014, the National Transportation Safety Board urged the Federal Aviation Administration to strengthen safety standards for balloon tour operators and bring them up to par with standards for airplane and helicopter air tour operations, CBS Austin affliate KEYE reported.

As for this latest accident, investigators said they do not yet know why the balloon operated by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides hit high-tension power lines before crashing near Lockhart about 60 miles northeast of San Antonio.

FAA Hot Air Balloon Certification Requirements

According the Federal Aviation Administration ( FAA)  this is some information needed  to needed to obtain a certification.

  • An airworthiness certificate is an FAA document which grants authorization to operate an aircraft in flight.
  • A registered owner or owner’s agent of an aircraft may apply for an airworthiness certificate.
  • Only FAA Aviation Safety Inspectors and authorized Representatives of the Administrator are authorized to issue an FAA airworthiness certificate.
  • The FAA can revoke an existing airworthiness certificate in any category  if the aircraft no longer meets its approved design and/or is not in an airworthy condition
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