FAA to make hot air balloon safety changes 5 years after Lockhart crash

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Federal Aviation Administration took the first step towards increasing safety requirements for hot air balloon pilots, in response to a deadly crash near Lockhart in 2016.

Sixteen people, including the balloon pilot, were killed in what would become the deadliest crash in U.S. history. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found the pilot was “as impaired as a drunk driver,” after taking prescription medications, when he flew the balloon into a power line.

Two years later, Congress passed a law to require a specific kind of medical license for commercial balloon pilots, in an attempt to provide more accountability for pilots and prevent these kinds of crashes.

“We want to be sure that each of those operators does not have a long history of drug and alcohol abuse that has happened in both the Lockhart and the Albuquerque tragedies,” said U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett.

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

The Austin lawmaker authored that legislation and said he was frustrated to watch the FAA — which is tasked with crafting these rules and implementing them — move slowly.

“I think they drug this out just about as long as they could,” he said.

He said he was heartbroken to see more lives lost in a deadly crash earlier this year in Albuquerque, New Mexico. According to a toxicology report, the pilot in this incident showed the pilot had THC and cocaine in his system, at the time his balloon hit a power line. An FAA spokesperson told KXAN this summer that this pilot did have a medical certification.

On Tuesday, the agency proposed the rule that would require these types of certifications. In a statement, a spokesperson explained they will file the proposal with the Federal Register sometime in November. Then, they will open a 60-day public comment period to get feedback.

Doggett said they could consider adding additional safety recommendations into the proposed rule. His office plans to submit comments.

Once the FAA reviews these comments, the agency will formalize the final rule and publish it.

  • Read the proposed rule here

In a statement, the FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said, “Balloon pilots are responsible for the safety of their passengers… This proposed rule would ensure that balloon pilots meet the same medical requirements as pilots of other commercial aircraft.” 

When Patricia Morgan heard the news, she immediately became emotional. She lost both her daughter and granddaughter in the 2016 crash.

“This has been heartbreaking for all of us who have fought so hard to get this done,” she said, through tears.

She said she’s been contacting lawmakers and government officials about the change for years.

“We don’t want others to have to sacrifice their children or sacrifice their lives because of laws that are not put into place,” she said.

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