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Congressman Lloyd Doggett

Representing the 35th District of Texas

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The Hill: Lawmaker urges crackdown on hot air balloon operations after fatal crash

October 19, 2017

A House Democrat is urging the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to crack down on hot air balloon operations following a deadly crash in Texas last year.

Federal investigators determined this week that the 2016 crash, which was the deadliest hot air balloon crash in U.S. history, was caused by the pilot’s poor decisionmaking, his medical conditions and medications, and a lack of federal oversight over commercial air balloon operations.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), who represents the district where the crash occurred, has been pushing the FAA to strengthen its hot air balloon laws and require that pilots get medical certificates before they are allowed to operate a hot air balloon.

“Commercial balloon pilots should be required to obtain medical certificates. This is not a burdensome requirement. And the FAA should more effectively oversee the operators that pose the most significant safety risk to the public,” Doggett wrote in a letter to the FAA on Thursday.

“Voluntary standards are no substitute for federal enforcement. Please do not wait for more to die before taking action.”

Alfred Nichols was operating a hot air balloon in unsafe weather conditions near Lockhart, Texas, last summer, when he struck power lines and crashed in a field. Sixteen people, including Nichols, were killed.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said that Nichols suffered from depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and that the combined effects of “multiple central nervous system-impairing drugs" likely affected his ability to make safe decisions. Nichols, who had a high amount of Benadryl in his system at the time of the crash, also took sedatives and opioids.

But unlike commercial airline pilots, commercial balloon pilots are not required by the FAA to hold a medical certificate of any kind. Nichols’s medical conditions “would likely have led an aviation medical examiner (AME) to either defer or deny a medical certificate,” a report said.

A medical examination would have made the FAA aware of the pilot’s history of drug- and alcohol-related offenses, federal investigators said. Nichols had at least four convictions for drunken driving, according to The Associated Press.

The NTSB also highlighted the FAA’s lack of oversight of potentially risky commercial balloon operations, noting it only has a voluntary standards program for hot air balloon operators.

“The FAA’s primary method of oversight — sampling balloon operators at festivals — does not effectively target the operations that pose the most significant safety risks to members of the public,” the NTSB report says.

Doggett called the FAA’s current policy “insufficient” and “troubling.” And while he is also pushing for legislative action, Doggett noted that the FAA has the ability to act immediately on the NTSB recommendations.

“The FAA must act now and adopt the safety recommendations made by the NTSB,” he wrote. “Continued rejection of NTSB’s recommendations risks condemning more unsuspecting families to death.”