Texas hot air balloon crash victims’ family frustrated with slow-moving safety changes nearly 5 years later

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — This week, Patricia Morgan looked up to the sky above her son’s Colorado home to see a hot air balloon.

“On the side it said: ‘Bucket List,'” she said. “That was on my daughter’s bucket list.”

Morgan remembers her daughter and granddaughter as the “dare devils” of the family, which is why they boarded a hot air balloon in Lockhart, Texas on a July day in 2016.

“It’s no longer the same,” she cried.

Patricia Morgan's daughter and granddaughter, Paige and Lorilee Brabson, pictured on the hot air balloon ride that ultimately claimed their lives in 2016. (Photo provided by: Patricia Morgan)
Patricia Morgan’s daughter and granddaughter, Paige and Lorilee Brabson, pictured on the hot air balloon ride that ultimately claimed their lives in 2016. (Photo provided by Patricia Morgan)

This month marks five years since Morgan lost both women in the deadliest hot air balloon crash in United States history. They were two of the 16 people, including the balloon pilot, who were killed in a fiery crash. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found the pilot was “as impaired as a drunk driver” when he flew the balloon into a power line. They said Alfred “Skip” Nichols had taken a mixture of prescription medications such as Prozac, Valium and oxycodone.

Morgan joined forces with federal lawmakers to push for changes to the way balloon rides are regulated. In the fall of 2018, U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) both worked on bipartisan legislation to require medical and physical exams for commercial balloon pilots, similar to what’s required for commercial airline pilots.

The legislation passed, but as the five-year anniversary of the crash approaches, Morgan is frustrated to see the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) hasn’t put any rules or regulations on the issue into practice.

“The FAA has delayed and delayed, even after the law, which I thought was explicit. They now claim they need a regulation before they can do anything,” Rep. Doggett explained. “Just a spirit of indifference.”

The NTSB is an independent government agency, which investigates accidents and crashes. They also make safety recommendations to the federal agency that regulates the aircraft industry, the FAA.

Just a few months ago, the NTSB submitted brand new safety recommendations targeting hot air balloons and other paid passenger operations, such as vintage aircraft flights and parachute jump flights. They asked the FAA to consider requiring more oversight into the safety management of these operations.

At a board meeting in March, the NTSB said “these operations, which carry thousands of passengers for compensation or hire each year, are not held to the same maintenance, airworthiness, and operational standards as air carrier, commuter and on-demand, and air tour operations.”

A spokesperson for the FAA sent KXAN documents acknowledging the latest NTSB recommendations. The document states it “will assess the feasibility of these safety recommendations.” It said the agency would provide an update by the end of the year.

“When we first started working and looking into this, we realized the FAA was slow,” he said.

Patricia Morgan's daughter and granddaughter, Paige and Lorilee Brabson, pictured on the hot air balloon ride that ultimately claimed their lives in 2016. (Photo provided by Patricia Morgan)
Patricia Morgan’s daughter and granddaughter, Paige and Lorilee Brabson, pictured on the hot air balloon ride that ultimately claimed their lives in 2016. (Photo provided by Patricia Morgan)

Representative John Cyrier (R-Lockhart) lives about four miles from the crash site and represents the area at the state legislature. He said there wasn’t much he could do to make change here in Texas, since the industry is regulated at the federal level.

Cyrier is an airplane pilot and flight enthusiast himself, so he said he knows how important physical competence is to being a pilot. He said he was “shocked” in 2016 to find out there weren’t requirements already in place for balloon pilots.

“When you do hear of other accidents that are very similar, it’s another reminder that people have lost their loved ones,” he said.

Less than a week ago, five people died in a hot air balloon accident in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Officials said the balloon hit the power line — separating the balloon-like part of the vessel, called an envelope, from the gondola where passengers stand. Bystanders captured video of the envelope as it floated in the sky after the crash, and KXAN’s media partners in Albuquerque report one man even tried using a fire extinguisher to help put out the basket when it was on fire.

The FAA spokesperson told KXAN the pilot in the Albuquerque crash did have a medical certification, like the 2018 legislation would require. Authorities are still investigating this crash.

“I don’t know how many more lives may be lost, because they have delayed and ignored the recommendation of the National Transportation Safety Board,” Doggett said.

He emphasized the medical certification was “just the start,” but urged the FAA to take action on the latest NTSB recommendations, as well.

“It was just like re-living the accident all over again,” Morgan said, noting the similarities in the two crashes — aside from the state-of-mind of the pilot.

“That angers me, because nothing gets done,” she said. “Unfortunately, I just don’t think FAA understands the horrific impact this has on everybody: all the families, the victims, everybody involved in the balloon industry. I continue to say, ‘The FAA shirks their responsibilities,’ and the NTSB has been on them for years and years and years. Still to this day, nothing’s getting done.”

Authorities begin their investigation at the Lockhart balloon crash site in 2016. (KXAN Photo)
Authorities begin their investigation at the Lockhart balloon crash site in 2016. (KXAN Photo)

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