FAA needs to do its job regulating balloon pilots

May 13, 2019
In The News

Sixteen people were killed in a 2016 balloon crash near Lockhart.

They died because the pilot, Alfred “Skip” Nichols, flew his commercial hot air balloon into high voltage power lines.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, we learned Nichols was unfit to drive but somehow OK to fly. He had a long history of drug- and alcohol-related traffic violations. He also had a long history of depression and chronic pain that he treated with a cocktail of medicine.

A required medical exam would have almost certainly grounded Nichols. But at the time, commercial balloon pilots had no such requirement.

That changed after this tragedy. Thanks to work from U.S. Reps. Lloyd Doggett and Will Hurd, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and former U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold,the Commercial Balloon Pilot Safety Act became law. This law gave the FAA 180 days to craft new rules that mandate medical exams for commercial balloon pilots.

It’s been more than 215 days and the Federal Aviation Administration has failed to do this. In the past, the FAA has been resistant to mandated medical exams for balloon pilots, saying there are not enough flights to warrant the action, but as Hearst investigative reporter John Tedesco has shown, hot air balloons are fairly dangerous forms of flight. The fatality rate for hot air balloons is on par with privately owned planes and helicopters. The crash rate is twice that of general aviation.

And again, there is the crash in Lockhart.

The FAA needs to do its job. Medical exams are now required for commercial balloon pilots. Make the rule and enforce it.