Monday, December 12, 2016

Hot-Air Ballooning Needs Down-to-Earth Regulation

On the morning of Saturday, July 30, 2016, a group of sixteen people gathered in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Central Texas before sunrise for what they hoped would be a thrilling and memorable experience.  Several of them were married couples or newlyweds.  Ross and Sandra Chalk were 60 and 55 but recently married, while John and Stacee Gore were both in their 20s and celebrating their third wedding anniversary that week.  Others showed up as a result of a birthday present given by a loving friend or relative.  All fifteen passengers were trusting balloon pilot Alfred Nichols to take them up in his hot-air balloon, give them a wonderful experience, and return them safely to earth.  But two out of three wasn't going to be good enough.

As often happens on summer mornings in this part of Texas, low clouds drifted through the sky.  But after a short delay, Nichols decided to fly anyway, and around 7 AM, shortly after sunrise, the balloon took off with fifteen passengers and the pilot.

Photos taken during the flight show patchy clouds and fog beneath the balloon.  Evidently Nichols decided to land near Maxwell, Texas, about forty miles southeast of Austin.  Utility-company records show that at 7:42 AM, something happened to trip a protective relay on a high-voltage transmission line crossing a cornfield.  First responders soon discovered that the balloon became entangled in the transmission line, caught fire, and crashed, killing all sixteen people aboard, including Nichols.  This was the worst balloon crash ever in the U. S., in terms of fatalities, and subsequent investigations have revealed some unsavory facts about Nichols and about the industry in general.

At a hearing held Friday, Dec. 9 in Washington, D. C., the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) presented documentation and evidence about the crash, which is still under investigation.  Toxicology reports show that Nichols had seven different prescription drugs at detectible levels in his body.  Prior to the crash, he had been convicted in Missouri of four charges of driving while intoxicated, and at the time of the crash was not allowed to drive a car in Texas.  Nevertheless, he held a valid commercial balloon pilot certificate.  Weather reports from the day of the crash show that the cloud ceiling had lowered to only 700 feet at the time of launch, and other balloon pilots present at the hearing agreed that they would not have flown under such conditions.  Nichols appears to have been a disaster waiting to happen.

We may be seeing a pattern that is all too familiar:  a new activity or business arises with no or minimal regulation, a tragedy results in headline-grabbing deaths, and only after the tragedy laws are amended to more properly regulate the activity or business.  Although hot-air balloons were the first form of human flight to be invented back in the 1700s, balloon rides were so infrequent, and the number of people involved so small, that a light-handed regulatory environment seemed to have sufficed for decades.  But this tragedy may mark the point at which regulations will catch up with the larger volume of customers taking rides in larger balloons that present a greater danger to more people than ever. 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), recognizing these dangers, has established regulations for commercial hot-air balloon pilots, and makes them undergo rigorous tests, both on paper and practical ones in a working balloon.  But beyond that, pilots are largely left on their own to follow the elaborate advice in the 252-page Balloon Flying Handbook issued by the FAA.  Most commercial balloon operations are small, like the one-man show that Nichols ran, and lack the natural supervision that working for even a small charter-plane company would entail.  The solo nature of balloon flying, plus the fact that the same person piloting the balloon is probably the one who stands to profit the most if a full-capacity flight goes forward in hazardous conditions, means that there are built-in conflicts of interest in this type of flying that are not faced by pilots who work for major airlines, for example.  For this reason alone, one would hope that regulatory oversight would be at least as rigorous as it is for commercial charter-flight pilots of fixed-wing aircraft, not less.  As it is, however, there are not even any reliable statistics on how many flight hours are logged by commercial balloon pilots in the U. S., as some public-health experts researching the problem found in 2013. 

Part of the problem is that the regulatory question is caught in a turf war between the NTSB, which investigates transportation accidents of all kinds, and the FAA, which issues flight safety regulations and requirements for both flight equipment and pilots.  The NTSB has been pushing for tighter balloon-pilot regulations for years, but the FAA has so far refused to act, trusting to private balloon-pilot organizations to do self-enforcement.  In Nichols' case, at least, this kind of enforcement failed.

It's all very well to publish books of regulations and advice, but if enforcement is left solely up to the person who also stands to profit personally if the rules are flouted, the FAA is guilty of putting too much trust in fallible human nature.  Something along the lines of periodic background checks and even surprise drug tests should be implemented for commercial hot-air balloonists who take the lives of others into their hands.  Commercial balloons can carry as many as 32 passengers, and newspaper reports have pointed out that many charter and common-carrier fixed-wing aircraft don't carry that many passengers.  The bottom-line purpose of flight regulation is to protect the lives of passengers, and the FAA's creaky system for doing that for hot-air balloon riders crashed along with the sixteen people who lost their lives on that summer day.

Balloons tend to be associated in the public mind with fun, frivolity, and pleasant times.  The balloon Nichols was piloting had a big smiley face with sunglasses painted on it.  If people are going to continue to ride balloons for pleasure, we should make sure that they aren't putting their lives into the hands of someone who can't drive them to the takeoff point because of drunk-driving convictions.  I hope the FAA and the NTSB can work out their differences to revise hot-air ballooning regulations and policies so that the tragic crash last summer is the last one of that magnitude for a long, long time.

Sources:  I referred to reports of the NTSB hearing held Dec. 9, 2016 on the San Antonio Express-News website at and KXAN-TV at  The paper "Hot-Air Balloon Tours:  Crash Epidemiology in the United States, 2000-2011" by S.-B. Ballard, L. P. Beaty, and S. P. Baker, was published in Aviation Space and Environmental Medicine in 2013 in vol. 84, pp. 1172-1177, and is available online at 
  The FAA's "Balloon Flying Handbook" is available as a download at

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