NTSB Wants Medical Certification Exemption Tossed After Texas Hot-Air Balloon Crash

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has called on the Federal Aviation Administration to remove its medical certification exemption for commercial hot air balloon operators, saying it contributed to a July 30, 2016, balloon crash in Texas that killed 15 passengers and the pilot. The board found on October 17 that the balloon pilot’s “pattern of poor decision making,” combined with his own impairing medical conditions and medication use, led to the crash.

On the day of the accident, the balloon hit power lines before crashing and burning in a field near Lockhart, Texas. The pilot, Alfred Nichols, launched in fog and then descended through clouds that impaired his ability to see and avoid obstacles, according to the NTSB. Nichols took Valium and oxycodone that likely affected the flight, investigators said. He flew with enough Benadryl in his system to have the equivalent blood-alcohol content of a drunken driver, investigators said.The weather forecast about two hours before the 7 a.m. launch of the balloon showed clouds as low as 1,100 feet above the ground. A crew member for Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides said there was fog near the launch site. A passenger photograph taken about four minutes before the accident showed the balloon flying above a dense cloud layer that extended all the way to the horizon. The balloon hit power lines while descending about 44 minutes after launch, which caused the basket to separate from the balloon itself, allowing the burner assembly to cause a post-crash fire.

“This pilot should not have been flying — never mind carrying paying passengers,” said Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the board. “The pilot’s poor decisions on the day of the accident were his and his alone, but they affected those who flew with him.” Nichols had previously operated balloon-ride companies in Missouri and Illinois. Numerous customer complaints against Nichols’s companies were reported in those states dating back to 1997. Customers told the Better Business Bureau that their rides would get canceled at the last minute and their fees never refunded.Nichols also had at least four conditions for drunk driving and had twice spent time in prison.

Nichols was able to fly the balloon that day because Federal Aviation Administration rules don’t require a medical certificate for commercial balloon pilots like they do for commercial airline pilots. This loophole eliminates the potential opportunity for an aviation medical examiner to identify the pilot’s potentially impairing medical conditions and medications. Had a medical certificate been required, the FAA would also have had an opportunity to identify the pilot’s history of drug- and alcohol-related traffic offenses, the NTSB said. The board has approved two recommendations to the FAA. It called on the agency to remove the medical certificate exemption for commercial balloon operators and urged it to find ways to better provide oversight of balloon operators

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