NTSB Welcomes New FAA Medical Rule for Hot Air Balloon Pilots

Congress mandated the medical certificate rule based on a 2018 NTSB recommendation after a hot air balloon carrying 16 people crashed into power lines, killing all aboard.

The commercial balloon industry estimates it conducts 100,000 to 250,000 passenger rides each year. Adobe Stock

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said it welcomed the new FAA ruling requiring commercial hot air balloon pilots to hold at least a second-class medical certificate when flying paying passengers, as is already required for commercial airplane and helicopter pilots. 

The FAA first proposed the rule in November 2021. 

At the time of the announcement last week, Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen said, "Passengers can now rest assured that commercial balloon pilots must meet the same strict medical requirements as other commercial pilots."

In a statement, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy called it a "promising step" but suggested that the FAA should do more work to govern air tours.

"I remain concerned about passenger safety on commercial balloon flights," Homendy said. "We've seen the deadly consequences of unscrupulous air tour operators time and again. We need strong FAA oversight of all revenue passenger-carrying flight operations."

The U.S. Congress mandated the rule based on a 2018 NTSB recommendation after a hot air balloon carrying 16 people, including the pilot, crashed into power lines outside Lockhart, Texas, on July 30, 2016. Everyone aboard died.

According to the NTSB's statement, their investigators at the time said the FAA didn't detect the pilot's record of drug and alcohol convictions for nearly 30 years because he wasn't required to undergo any such screening that comes with typical pilot medical examinations.

Still, the NTSB would like to see the FAA do more. It said in a statement that it "has a long history of concerns about the safety of various revenue passenger-carrying operations, including sightseeing flights conducted in hot air balloons, helicopters, and other aircraft as well as parachute jump flights."

According to the agency's statement, those operations are not scrutinized similarly regarding "maintenance, airworthiness and operational requirements as other commercial flight operations."

Michael Wildes holds a master’s degree in Logistics & Supply Chain Management, and a bachelor’s degree in Aeronautical Science, both from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Previously, he worked at the university’s flight department as a Flight Check Airman, Assistant Training Manager, and Quality Assurance Mentor. He holds MEI, CFI & CFII ratings. Follow Michael on Twitter @Captainwildes.

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