Answers, oversight remain in short supply

Answers, oversight remain in short supply

A year after balloon disaster, families still await FAA action

By Kathi Bliss

Editor/POST-REGISTER

 

Sometimes, it feels as though it’s been years. At other times, only days.

For the families left still reeling after the July 30, 2016 balloon crash that killed 15 passengers, the passing of time is a fluid concept – one not made any easier by the refusal of the Federal Aviation Administration’s refusal to accept responsibility for the crash.

The subsequent National Transportation Safety Board investigation following the crash in Maxwell last summer revealed that witnesses had reported the balloon’s owner and pilot for a variety of drunken driving offenses and other circumstances which by all rights should have grounded him, industry experts testified.

Instead, he was given a warning and allowed to continue to fly, up until 7:42 a.m. on Saturday, July 30, when the balloon crashed into the high-test power lines in rural Caldwell County, killing everyone aboard.

According to documents released by NTSB in December, the pilot had a “witches brew” of prescription medications in his system, at levels that would have permanently grounded any commercial airplane pilot.

A loophole in the FAA code, however, allows commercial balloon pilots to be exempted from annual medical examinations – an exemption that the survivors and legislators alike believe cost the 15 passengers in the balloon their lives.

“If the FAA had done their job, this wouldn’t have happened,” said Congressman Lloyd Doggett last week. Recently, Doggett added amendments to a more sweeping piece of FAA legislation that would change the requirements for commercial balloon pilots, in an effort to make the skies safer. The first of the two amendments asks for a change in the law to

require annual medical examinations for commercial balloon pilots. The second would require them to receive Letters of Authorization from the FAA Flight Standards Office; Letters of Authorization address not only pilot qualifications and aircraft safety, but also drug and alcohol abuse prevention procedures.

Nearly all other licensed commercial pilots already submit to these standards.

Though the bill has been passed out of committee, it is unclear whether the House will take action before they break in August, and whether the amendments will survive the process when the bill comes to the floor.

In the Senate, Senator Ted Cruz has also filed legislation attempting to address the issue, following up on a failed petition drive spearheaded by Patricia Morgan, who lost her daughter and granddaughter in the crash.

“The Commercial Balloon Pilot Safety Act is based on a simple premise: that those we trust to pilot our loved ones through the skies meet simple and appropriate standards of medical fitness, whether they¹re piloting a jet, a propeller plane, or a hot air balloon,” Cruz said in a written statement this week. “While we cannot turn back time on the tragedy that occurred in the skies over Lockhart one year ago, the least we can do is ensure standards of accountability and safety so that an accident like this one does not happen again. Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the families of the victims of this crash.”

Both Doggett and Congressman Blake Farenthold stated they would be in support of Cruz’s Bill, should it pass out of the Senate and to the House.

“I had considered filing something similar, but I was waiting for the outcome of the NTSB hearing,” Farenthold said last week. “And I hope that the upcoming hearing finally gives some closure to the families. But regardless of the cause of this crash, I think it’s obvious that you don’t need anyone with [the pilot’s] issues taking people up in the sky.”

As time passes, NTSB continues the daunting task of investigating the accident, an investigation that Farenthold said is moving faster than he was initially told it would.

The final hearing on the investigation is slated for Oct. 17, 2017, NTSB said in a statement last week. Pending the outcome of the investigation, the NTSB will “offer any safety recommendations to prevent future accidents.”

In 2013, the NTSB recommended that the medical requirements for hot air balloon pilots be changed, but the FAA, bolstered by the ballooning industry’s insistence that the change was unnecessary, declined to follow that recommendation.

If the legislation before Congress this summer is successful, the Administration will have no choice.

kathibliss@post-register.com

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