The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has confirmed that the hot air balloon crash in Central Texas that killed 16 on board, struck power lines before catching on fire and plummeting to the ground. Investigators also said it was cloudy at the time and there may have been fog in the area when the crash happened, but is it unclear at this time if weather was a factor. All victims have been recovered from the site.
While investigators have finished sifting through the crash site and expect to release a preliminary report in the next couple of weeks, the final results are expected to take a year. Part of the investigation will include looking at the pilot, balloon operations, and the inspection records of Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides. Additionally, they will speak with ground crews that followed the flight in order to learn more about conversations between them and the pilot.
Investigators recovered from the wreckage the pilot’s iPad and several passenger cellphones and cameras. Because the items were heavily damaged there may not be any recoverable data to help in the investigation. The NTSB asks that anyone with photographs or video of the incident to turn them over to agency by emailing witness@NTSB.gov.
The pilot was identified as Alfred “Skip” Nichols. FAA records show he was a certified pilot who lived in Missouri before moving to Texas. In 2000, Nichols was arrested for a felony driving while intoxicated charge. The case was resolved two years later when he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor version of the charge. A report from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch stated that in 2008 the Better Business Bureau warned customers about doing business with Nichols. It is unknown if alcohol was a factor in the crash.
The crash comes two years after the NTSB recommended increased regulation over the hot air balloon industry, according to Robert Sumwalt, the lead investigator of this crash. Despite the fact that balloon pilots must be certified and their balloons regularly checked by authorities, the NTSB said recent studies of accident data showed the current lack of surveillance checks and other oversight contributed to “operational deficiencies” in commercial hot-air balloon flights. Some went up in the air despite risky weather, while others failed to follow the flight manual. The NTSB urged the FAA to address these deficiencies, as well as recommended that the FAA treat hot-air balloons carrying passengers the same as helicopters and planes by subjecting tour operators to more regulation. The Balloon Federation of America said that the industry’s self-regulation was sufficient and that the FAA was already overburdened with responsibilities. The FAA rejected the NTSB recommendations, saying ballooning risks were low.
Since the 2014 recommendations, 25 balloon accidents have resulted in 4 fatalities and 25 serious injuries. Now we have the deadliest balloon crash in U.S. history, taking the death toll to 20 in the last two years. Could these fatalities have been prevented if the FAA had implemented stricter regulations of hot air balloon tour operators two years ago? What does the FAA say now?
According to Lynn Lunsford, a spokeswoman for the FAA, it is too early to say whether the FAA would reconsider the NTSB recommendations until more evidence is gathered and the agency examines the case.
While there is no guarantee that stricter regulations would have prevented this crash and subsequent fatalities, there is no substitute for safety. Lack of safety regulations and adequate enforcement are issues that show up across of wide range of industries — automotive, medical, pharmaceuticals, aerospace, and more – not just with the ballooning industry. It is no surprise that big businesses are often resistant to stronger safety requirements because their number one concern is protecting their bottom line. They claim that such regulations are not necessary and will hurt job creation.
Although injuries and fatal accidents from balloon rides are small in number, no one wants to end up being a statistic. Without federal regulations, who will ensure that inspections are done, that pilots aren’t taking risks, and that proper training measures are put in place? For the safety of all of us, doesn’t it seem only practical that the ballooning industry be subjected to tough federal safety standards?
What do you think? Should there be more federal oversight of the hot air balloon industry?
Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.
Attorney, certified civil mediator, and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Betrayal Series. Mark Bello is also a member of the State Bar of Michigan, a sustaining member of the Michigan Association for Justice, and a member of the American Association for Justice.