Hot air balloon rides are one of the more unique thrill-seeking experiences, and the balloons themselves were the first successful human flight technology, dating all the way back to 1783. But balloon rides can rapidly go wrong, as witnessed in July of 2016, when a hot air balloon in Lockhart, Texas crashed to the ground after striking high-voltage power lines. The crash killed all 16 people onboard the aircraft.
Preliminary investigations into the aircraft found no known deficiencies in the propane burner, and the cause of the crash is still unknown. However, experts in a public hearing in Washington have recently revealed that the pilot was under the influence of a wide variety of prescription medications at the time of the crash, including oxycodone and Valium. These drugs can cause slow reaction times in those who take them.
On the day of the crash, the pilot was informed during a weather briefing shortly before takeoff that the weather was not conducive to safe flight, a sentiment echoed by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) representatives as well as proprietors of other hot air balloon companies in the days following the crash.
Do Hot Air Balloons Need More Oversight?
The FAA does not conduct drug testing on hot air balloon pilots, a sticking point for investigators during the public hearing. Drug testing would have revealed the presence of some of the drugs the pilot had taken.
Additionally, the pilot’s online description said he was the owner of Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, despite never filing paperwork to incorporate his business or operate under that name. The pilot also had numerous impaired driving offenses on his record, including a DWI in Missouri and a driver’s license suspension in Texas that was active at the time of the crash.
Would additional oversight of the hot air balloon industry lead to less fatalities? In 2014, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairwoman Deborah Hersman wrote to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta urging the FAA to require balloon pilots to file a letter of authorization that would in turn increase FAA inspections, but Huerta responded that the amount of ballooning is so low that the step would not result in significantly higher level of operational safety.