Lockhart Balloon Crash: Worse Than We Imagined
High-profile aviation accidents usually get a public hearing in which the NTSB reveals what it knows and allows input from other parties on the road to establishing probable cause. Such hearings offer tantalizing factuals but they rarely reveal jaw-dropping lack of judgment. But rarely is not the same as never and this week’s hearing on the crash of a high-occupant hot air balloon in Texas last July that killed 16 people qualifies for jaw-dropping revelations. It also places both the FAA and NTSB in a can’t-win regulatory canyon.
I wrote about the Lockhart, Texas crash shortly after it occurred on July 30. A balloon carrying 15 passengers and a pilot struck power lines—possibly while attempting to land—and all of the balloon’s occupants died in the subsequent impact and fire. It was one of the most gruesome general aviation accidents ever and the highest death toll of any single GA accident I can think of for many years.
The hearing, held on Friday in Washington, revealed, for me, at least, that the accident was far more appalling than the original news reports suggested. The pilot, who had a history of medical and psychiatric conditions, plus DUIs and drug convictions, was found to have ingested seven drugs at the time of the accident, including three that the FAA considers disqualifying for flight status. None of that necessarily means he was incapacitated at the time of the crash, but it serves as a marker about his attitude toward regulatory guidance. He did not, for example, report his DUIs, nor did he report drug convictions he also had. Both of these are required under FAR 61.15, even though balloon pilots are not required to have medicals. Failing to report these things is grounds for suspension and willfully lying on medical applications is a felony.
While the drug use and obfuscation of DUI and drug history are bad enough, what’s worse is the pilot’s documented decision to fly despite adverse weather. An FSS briefer told the pilot that poor visibility and low cloud existed at his proposed time of flight, but he replied, “We find a hole and we go.” A photo recovered from one of the passenger cellphones shows the balloon floating above a layer of dense ground fog or low cloud.
Was the pilot’s judgment impaired by the cocktail of drugs he had consumed, including oxycodone, or was he just a pilot willing to operate on the edge, even with passengers aboard? From a regulatory standpoint, I’m not sure it matters because regardless of what the NTSB recommends, the FAA will have a hell of time making meaningful regulation for balloons that isn't just for appearances.
At the hearing, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said, "Unfortunately, sometimes it takes blood to get change. And we want to make sure there are changes made before there's more bloodshed." No one can argue the sentiment. The government, in representing the public, has a compelling interest to prevent a recurrence. But entirely ignoring the onerous burden of regulation that saddles general aviation, what kind of additional regulatory filter do we imagine would have prevented this tragic accident? Willful bad judgment has always been with us and always will be because in the end, the pilot still has to make go/no-go decisions. Being under the influence of drugs or alcohol may simply be a distractor irrelevant to the outcome. Or a leading indicator of an underlying personality ill suited for flying.
Federal Air Surgeon James Fraser said this at the hearing: “I feel a medical evaluation is a part of the holistic plan to keep the national airspace safe." Yet there's little convincing data to support this view or at least to show that any safety benefits are commensurate with the cost and effort of medical examinations. Perhaps pilot certificates could be issued with the proviso that the FAA can review the driver registry and/or criminal records. You authorize that when you sign the medical form. But no medical, no waiver.
The airlines and on-demand charter industries enhance safety through detailed operating specifications that have the effect of making pilots’ decisions for them, forcing a duty of care that might not otherwise be required. A single accident does not a trend make. I think it's inarguable that regulation is a critical part of the remarkable safety record U.S. commercial aviation has achieved. But it's also true that pilot judgment is the first and last defense against accidents.
I flew Part 135 on-demand charter for a while and flew one trip as copilot for another pilot moonlighting from an airline job. One blustery winter morning, a bunch of gamblers wanted a ride back from Atlantic City. It was clear, but the unplowed runway was covered in light snow being blown around by a gusty crosswind. Our ops specs didn’t preclude the trip; we could have launched. If we had pranged it, we’d have hung on the 91.13 hook. But we cancelled and the unhappy gamblers took the bus. But no one was advising or watching us make the decision. No dispatcher checked a box; no chief pilot office stood by to buck up the decision.
As I said in the previous blog, the NTSB wants more oversight for the balloon industry. But the accident rate is so low and there are so few fatalities that it’s impossible to imagine even the most stringent regulation moving the needle at all. With all due respect, I understand regulators must consider the political optics of such high-visibility accidents, but those of us in the industry aren’t compelled to believe that what they devise will have the vaguest effect, other than to add cost and overhead for operators. In general aviation, we've been struggling for years to rid ourselves of the Third Class medical requirement, yet the FAA clings to it with the tenacity of the universe's strongest known force: bureaucratic inertia.
I’ll admit I’m doing a bug-on-its-back here. I don’t have a response to this accident because bad judgment and irresponsibility are eternal if, fortunately, not that prolific. Perhaps require medicals for balloons carrying more than, say, four occupants or some other number that isn't 15. If there's any lemonade from lemons here, it may be this: If you’re tossing back a bunch of drugs, whether disqualifying or not, it may be worth taking a pause to consider if doing so is masking an even larger misjudgment. Or is itself a misjudgment. This is the insidious nature of subtle incapacitation due to sedating or psychotropic drugs. Personally, I feel blessed. Because I’m special, I can take as much of this stuff as I want and fly without worry. But you’re ordinary; you need to be careful.