Statesman analysis: Pilot error cited in 70 percent of balloon crashes

An American-Statesman analysis of every fatal hot air balloon crash investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board since 1964 shows that officials found numerous safety issues, ranging from improperly modified equipment to lack of helmets for passengers, among the 71 flights that ended in 135 deaths.

Pilot error of some sort was cited by the safety board in nearly 70 percent of the fatal crashes. In some instances, investigators found pilots flew in adverse conditions and failed to adequately check weather reports. In others, they found passengers had never received preflight safety briefings.

Two years before Saturday’s catastrophic crash near Lockhart, which killed 16, the board had called for stricter safety oversight of the growing commercial hot air balloon industry.

INTERACTIVE: Analyze 71 fatal hot air balloon crashes since 1964

In a 2014 letter, it called on the Federal Aviation Administration to regulate balloon tour operators much as it does airplane and helicopter tour operators. The FAA has so far refused the NTSB’s safety recommendations, arguing that balloonists “understand the risks and general hazards associated with this activity.”

On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, who represents Caldwell County, called on the FAA to adopt the NTSB recommendations.

“It’s difficult to say whether had (the NTSB recommendations) been in effect it would have prevented this incident,” Doggett told the Statesman. “But more oversight is needed.”

Helmets and medical checks

The Statesman analysis shows that Saturday’s crash shared similarities with previous fatal balloon flights:

  • More than half of deadly balloon accidents — 40 — involved striking power lines, resulting in fire, electrocution and fuel tank explosions.
  • At least 18 fatal accidents occurred during sightseeing tours.
  • An additional nine occurred during air shows.

Yet the data shows that ballooning deaths, until Saturday’s crash, had generally been decreasing over the last two decades. There were 32 balloon deaths during the 1980s and 31 in the 1990s. But during the 2000s, deaths fell to 15, and in the first six years of this decade there were just six before Saturday.

Despite the overall decline in deaths, the NTSB warned in 2014 that the use of larger baskets, which could hold 20 or more passengers, could result “high number of fatalities in a single air tour balloon accident” if operators “continue to conduct operations under less stringent regulations and oversight.”

In several crashes, investigators found companies didn’t provide helmets to passengers, which might have led to death and injury. The FAA “strongly recommends” helmets, as do industry flight manuals, but it doesn’t require them. After a 2002 crash in Nevada, the NTSB concluded that the pilot’s death and passenger’s head injuries would have been “mitigated” by protective headgear.

After a deadly 1999 California crash, “The operator stated that his company had helmets, but that they were kept ‘in the office’ and were not used,” the investigative report says.

In at least one fatal accident, a pilot’s medical condition might have played a role, highlighting what industry insiders and critics call a loophole. Unlike helicopter and airplane tour operators, balloon operators aren’t required to get medical screenings.

In that 2014 Pennsylvania incident, a pilot died after losing his balance and falling out of a basket. Investigators couldn’t definitively say whether the fall was due to his medical conditions, which included diabetes, but they asked the company’s officials if it would consider medical screening for its pilots in the future. The company declined.

The question of medical screenings also emerged after the Lockhart crash.

As pilots pursue their first FAA medical certificate, they must disclose whether they have had any drunken driving convictions. Court records show that the pilot of Saturday’s crash had at least one such conviction before he applied for a license in 1996, which could have prevented him from getting an airplane or helicopter license.

INTERACTIVE: Lockhart hot air balloon crash victims

In all, pilot Alfred “Skip” Nichols had racked up four DWIs, and a drug distribution conviction, before Saturday’s crash and had his driver’s license revoked in Missouri. Balloon operators are required to notify the FAA of any alcohol- or drug-related offenses after licensing, though it’s not clear if Nichols had reported his infractions. Airplane pilots get regular medical screenings that include alcohol and drug checks. Balloon pilots are exempt.

The NTSB recommendations aren’t aimed at that disparity. But the board says they would result in more oversight of pilots and tour companies to ensure they are following proper procedures. The board called on the FAA to require balloon pilots to provide letters of authorization to local FAA offices, as their helicopter and airplane counterparts are required to do. Such letters would result in “periodic surveillance checks” to make sure equipment is maintained properly, safety checklists used, safety briefings given and appropriate flight planning conducted.

“Passengers who hire air tour balloon operators should have the benefit of a similar level of safety oversight as passengers of air tour airplane and helicopter operations,” NTSB chair Deborah Hersman wrote to the FAA.

The regulatory agency responded that while it doesn’t oversee ballooning in the “traditional sense,” it regularly attends ballooning events where inspectors check pilot credentials and review airworthiness of balloons.

The response didn’t mention sightseeing tours that operate outside of air shows.

Nightmares in the sky

Federal investigations also reveal the terror and destruction caused when balloons hit power lines, and how quickly weather changes can send a balloon into harm’s way.

Hot air balloons don’t have steering wheels; they are steered by wind direction and velocity. Pilots use propane burners to maneuver the balloon — more heat causes the balloon to rise, and releasing heat through a vent with a rip cord causes it to fall — into more or less favorable wind conditions. Most flights consist of a balloon serenely floating above the landscape. But even what might be considered light gusts can wreak havoc on the balloon’s flight path.

During a New Mexico balloon show in 2008, a balloon carrying a pilot and passenger hit power lines after it “encountered an updraft from the low level winds” according to witnesses. The power lines severed the balloon’s fuel line, which “began spewing liquid propane,” according to the NTSB report. “The basket caught fire and the occupants fell to the ground.”

Witnesses complained that festival organizers had ignored increasing winds that made landing hazardous. “I could not believe that the balloon fiesta officials had not cancelled their competition,” one witness told investigators.

In Oklahoma City in 1995, two people were killed when their balloon drifted into power lines above a highway, a crash the NTSB attributed to the pilot’s failure to “maintain obstacle clearance.”

Witness accounts show how devastating a power line strike can be.

One witness said he saw “a blinding blue-white flash of electricity followed about a half second later by the explosion” of propane tanks. As the basket burned, witnesses saw another explosion and “a tank spun up in the air spewing fire.”

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