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The Dallas Morning News

Oversight of balloon pilots sorely lacking

Profile image for Denton Record-Chronicle Editorial
Denton Record-Chronicle Editorial

Community groups love to build annual festivals around towering, colorful hot-air balloons and the thrilling rides in the passenger baskets underneath them.

Highland Village in Denton County, Gainesville in Cooke County and Plano in Collin County all promote family-friendly balloon festivals.

But there is something you should know about the balloon pilots. Unlike fixed-wing airplane and helicopter pilots, the men and women who operate the hot-air balloons are not required to get regular medical checkups.

We often agree a lot of federal, state and local government regulations are unnecessary and amount to little more than make-work for bureaucrats. But the requirement that hot-air balloon pilots get regular medical screening is a very necessary regulation.

For example, we all recall the tragic 2016 balloon crash that killed the pilot and 15 paying passengers at a festival in Lockhart. Albert "Skip" Nichols, the balloon pilot, had a lengthy criminal history involving drugs and alcohol.

An autopsy revealed he had been taking a cocktail of prohibited drugs, including oxycodone and valium. He also had depression and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. These medical conditions contributed to his poor decision-making, according to a National Transportation Safety Board investigation.

The NTSB found the Federal Aviation Administration's medical certificate exemption for balloon pilots contributed to the Lockhart crash. But the FAA continues to assert the balloon industry functions fine under a system of voluntary self-regulation.

We stringently disagree. It should be pointed out Nichols was not a member of the Balloon Federation of America, which functions as an industry trade association. Therefore, he would have been beyond the reach of the federation's voluntary suggestions that pilot's get tested for drug and alcohol use.

In a remarkable rebuke of the FAA, NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt recently accused the FAA of "shirking its responsibility" to protect the flying public.

The regulatory standoff between the NTSB and the FAA means it's time for Congress to step in and make it legally mandatory that balloon pilots get regular medical screening just like airplane and helicopter pilots.

Testimony of witnesses at the Lockhart crash revealed Nichols elected to fly despite a forecast of low clouds and fog that convinced many other local balloonists to cancel flights. NTSB investigators found Nichols also had chances to land the balloon before conditions grew worse, but instead chose to fly the nine-story tall balloon above the clouds, preventing him from seeing hazards closer to the ground.

As he attempted to land, Nichols flew into high-voltage power lines that severed the basket from the balloon envelope, killing himself and his 15 paying customers.

This is not a close call. We support members of Congress who want to ensure public safety by making sure that balloon pilots are required to obtain medical certification.