Pilot In Fatal Balloon Crash Impaired By Drugs


The NTSB says a balloon pilot was likely impaired by cannabis and cocaine when he and four passengers died in a sightseeing flight in Albuquerque in June of 2021. In its final report (search WPR21FA242 here) on the accident, the board cited the drug use as a contributing factor. “The pilot’s cavity blood THC concentration was detected at 5.5 ng/mL, suggesting that usage was within the [previous] few hours. Some impairing effects of THC would likely have been present that would have affected the pilot’s ability to successfully operate the balloon,” the report reads. “Cocaine was detected in blood and urine at levels that suggested recent use. At the time of the accident, the impairing effects of the pilot’s use of THC and cocaine likely contributed to the accident.”

The pilot was aiming for a field to land the balloon when it clipped power lines. The lines arced and the canopy separated from the basket, dropping the occupants about 75 feet to a road below. It was the deadliest accident ever in New Mexico, which hosts an annual Balloon Fiesta every fall that attracts hundreds of pilots from around the world. In response to a series of accidents, the FAA mandated flight medicals for commercial balloon pilots in November of 2022. It has also worked with the Balloon Federation of America in setting up a volunteer accreditation program for commercial pilots.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. Years ago I was in a similar tourist balloon ride in Colorado. The operators were highly professional and conscientious about us and our safety.

    Sadly, some operators are not….

  2. What an asshole. As our companies DER for Drug and Substance Abuse, we see this more and more in the Aviation Community. Sadly, over the years even in the Military, I watched gents waste an outstanding career over drugs and to some degree alcohol.

    Hopefull the Balloon Federation of America will police its own and get these rouge pilots out of the Air.

  3. I’ve been flying for 60 years–airplanes, jets, gliders, rotorcraft, hang gliders, and balloons (I own two).

    The FAA actually believes that “safety will be improved” by requiring a medical–DESPITE the fact that though medicals have never been required for balloon pilots, they have an excellent safety record. The fact that many balloon pilots AND glider pilots engage in those sports BECAUSE they didn’t require a medical (yet had a safety record equal to or better than the rest of General Aviation) puts the lie to the need for a medical for non-commercial operations The FAA should be embarrassed by those examples!

    The FAA believes that balloon (and glider, AND ultralight/LSA) pilots are more afraid of the FAA (the requirement to have a medical) than they are of dying from flying while high on drugs. BEST EXAMPLE YET THAT THE FAA IS OUT OF TOUCH! Do they actually believe that pilots believe an FAA violation is worse than DEATH?

    What’s FAR MORE EFFECTIVE than FAA regulation? OSTRACIZE pilots that use drugs, alcohol, or disregard the safety standards set by the industry–or by their peers. Being shunned by peers is far more effective than the FAA regulations!

  4. I also wonder how making balloon pilots have a medical will catch those alleged to be taking illegal drugs. As far as I know there is no requirement for drug testing when being examined for a FAA medical other than the standard urine check for kidney function. The other thing I find amazing is that the NTSB took 2 years to come up with the same conclusion local law enforcement figured out in several weeks.

    • It won’t. But I all but guarantee some commercial balloon pilots will be violated for something they do or don’t put on their medical application form that has absolutely zero effect on safety. And probably discourage some balloon pilots from seeking medical treatment for known conditions that will affect safety and that they otherwise wouldn’t have hesitated to seek treatment for, before a medical was required.

      So actually, the medical requirement will likely have a net *negative* impact on safety.

    • No drug testing necessary. Drug users (& alcoholics) MUST divulge their substance abuse on their medical paperwork. We all know that has absolutely prevented anyone from flying fixed wing aircraft while high. It CERTAINLY will prevent the same in ballooning.

  5. The FAA is a typical regulatory government agency. Every time there is a tragic event, Congress and the general public scream “DO SOMETHING”, and the FAA must respond. And, they have basically two ways to proceed: Regulate the design of the balloons, or regulate the pilots who fly them. Since they can’t change the balloons, they become the proverbial one-trick pony – regulate the pilots. Throughout their history, their method of “regulation” has been medical certificates, which we all know is a sad joke. Basic Med has clearly demonstrated that fallacy, but still the FAA persists. It will be interesting to see if their “solution” actually has no effect on safety, or, as Gary B. speculates above, a negative effect.

  6. As an owner of multiple FBOs, I can say that Gary is absolutely correct–pilots avoid putting anything on their medicals that might be contra-indicated on issuance of a medical. Perhaps even MORE common , many pilots (myself included) may decline to seek medical treatment BECAUSE of the negative effect on medical certificate issuance.

    Even worse–we all know pilots that fly gliders, ultralights, or (formerly) balloons–or go BasicMed, or worse yet, simply fly without ANY medical certificate–a classic case of “Don’t Ask–don’t TELL!” Many have their own aircraft, and fly for years without issues. I’ve even known parachutists that took up the sport because they had problems getting a medical.

    Every once in a while, the proposal is made to have a calendar limitation on rules and regulations–a law would “sunset” or expire after a trial period. If the law served no demonstrated purpose, it simply expired–or would have to undergo the comment and rule making process all over again. (At the very LEAST, government is so busy “re-upping” EXPIRED laws that they don’t have the time to propose NEW ones!) This has the side benefit of helping to curb government expansion.

    As an FBO, I’ve known a lot of people that gave up flying. It isn’t because of the cost–many of those who gave it up could easily afford it–it was because of the onerous over-regulation–it just wasn’t worth the time, hassle, and legal exposure for many people to jump through the government hoops.

    Proposals abound on “How to promote aviation”–the best thing that could happen to aviation is to cut back the over-regulation. Ultralights, Light Sport, gliders, balloons, and even parachuting have far fewer “contacts” with government. Consider motorcycles–far more dangerous than driving a car–yet the industry thrives because government is no more restrictive on motorcycles than they are with automobiles.

    If the aviation industry really wants aviation to thrive–AND if the FAA really wants to improve safety–let’s get together and see what regulations we could eliminate!

  7. So…everyone who complained about the FAA would rather the druggies just go ahead fly whenever they wish? No other ideas at how to rid ourselves of these scoundrels?

    • Let’s see, the last statistic I have read said that less than 1 tenth of 1% of all drug testing of pilots results in a positive test. Just think of all the money spent on drug testing and only 1 tenth of 1% are positive? If the FAA had made drug testing mandatory for balloon pilots it probably would have killed the commercial balloon rides just like the way local airport sightseeing rides have been. And if the new NTSB chairperson had her way all pt 91 passenger carrying ops would be regulated out of business. There are all kinds of things the government could do and should be doing but the resulting political thread drift would probably shut this thread down!

    • Already mentioned—ostracize those who use illegal drugs. There is nothing like peer pressure to get people to conform. I’ve even seen it work in more dangerous sports—like skydiving (“do that again and you’ll be jumping by YOURSELF!”) or NASCAR (fellow drivers “had a chat” with a miscreant driver—“shape up or we won’t be on the track with you!”

      Peer pressure is far more effective than intrusive regulation by 3rd party “enforcers” that don’t have the experience of those they would regulate.

      Another example: If you are hunting or out on the target range—and someone handles their weapon irresponsibly—do you:
      A. Call the county Sherriff? Or
      B. Take the person aside and tell him “I saw you do something stupid—and I trust you will never do that again—we bring it up because we CARE about you—but if you do that again, you will no longer be welcome here!”

      Peer pressure WORKS—it is a force far more effective far better than a government agent.

      Ballooning has not had a drug problem for well over a century of ballooning—and got along astoundingly well with self-policing. The rest of aviation should take note.