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Report: Missed opportunities led to 2016 Texas balloon crash

Posted March 11

— U.S. regulators ignored expert warnings that hot-air balloons like one that crashed in July in Texas, killing 16 people, have higher accident rates than other aircraft and similar fatality rates, the San Antonio Express-News reported.

The newspaper (http://bit.ly/2mNbc6n ) relied on government documents and internal emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, as well as testimony given at a federal hearing on the hot air balloon crash near Lockhart. The balloon hit high-voltage power lines and crashed July 30, 2016.

The Federal Aviation Administration doesn't require balloon pilots to take drug tests or undergo medical evaluations like other pilots. It relies on an honor system that the pilot of the doomed balloon, Alfred "Skip" Nichols, foiled. Nichols obtained his balloon pilot's license in Missouri in 1996. At a National Transportation Safety Board hearing in Washington in December, medical experts testified Nichols was taking medications that should have precluded him from flying.

The Express-News' analysis of federal aviation accident reports found that pilot error is the top cause of balloon crashes in the United States. Of more than 140 private and commercial balloon crashes since 2005, pilot error was listed as the cause in more than half, with nearly one in five involving a power line.

Evidence shows Nichols did check an aviation weather service, was told clouds could be a problem but replied, "Well, we just fly in between them."

Fifteen minutes into the launch, the balloon's ground crew lost sight of it.

More than three years before the deadly crash, Detroit-based FAA safety inspector Wayne Phillips, a licensed balloon pilot, proposed increasing regulations for balloon operators that included drug tests for pilots. The NTSB formally sent its own recommendation to the FAA in 2014.

"The potential for a high number of fatalities in a single air-tour balloon accident is of particular concern if air-tour balloon operators continue to conduct operations under less stringent regulations and oversight," NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman wrote to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.

Seventeen months later, Huerta responded that increased oversight wasn't necessary.

The FAA, in a statement to the Express-News, said there was no guarantee drug tests would have detected Nichols' prescription medications.

"Even if the pilot would have had his medical (certificate) revoked, the FAA has no mechanism to constantly watch pilots 24/7, and then physically restrain them from taking flight illegally," the agency said.

The NTSB asked Phillips in May 2015 to look at balloon crashes that had occurred since April 2014. Phillips, who declined to be interviewed by the Express-News, told the NTSB that out of 25 balloon accidents hew reviewed, 66 percent involved commercial operators and 28 percent involved some form of injury or death.

Robert Sumwalt, who chaired the NTSB safety hearing, said the FAA's lack of oversight speaks for itself.

"We have 16 people who are dead," Sumwalt said. "This pilot should have never been flying."

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