New Medical Requirements Proposed For Commercial Balloon Pilots


The FAA has proposed a new rule that would require commercial hot air balloon pilots to hold second-class medical certificates when operating for hire. As the regulations stand, balloon pilots are exempt from the medical requirement under 14 CFR 61.3(c)(2)(vi). According to the agency, the change will address the directive laid out in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 to revise medical certification standards for commercial balloon pilots along with an NTSB recommendation to remove the exemption.

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

As the proposed rule (PDF) is currently written, the new requirement would not apply to pilots conducting flight training in balloons. The agency is expected to publish the official draft of the rule in the Federal Register this month. Once published, the rule will be open for public comment for 60 days.

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Kate O’Connor works as AVweb's Editor-in-Chief. She is a private pilot, certificated aircraft dispatcher, and graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

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  1. In general I am always against all things government but I can see this as possibly making sense.

    Prior to signing on to the idea I’d want evidence that there have been events involving loss of life that occurred due to a medical incapacitation AND that could have been prevented by ordering medicals on the balloon pilots.

  2. I own and fly balloons–AND ultralights, gliders, helicopters, seaplanes, and turbine airplanes–This is my 60th year of flying, and I’m an FBO with 52 years of experience, and have given over 8000 hours of flight instruction. I can think of NO instance where a pilot of a balloon was medically incapacitated and caused a fatality–DESPITE the fact that many balloon pilots (AND ultralight pilots, AND Sport pilots, AND glider pilots) engage in the sport BECAUSE they are unable to get a medical certificate. NO regulation, and a safety record no different than pilots with a medical.

    There was similar unfounded “concern” that ultralight pilots and Light Sport pilots would be falling out of the skies due to lack of a medical certificate. Didn’t happen. There was similar “concern” that the “Driver’s License Medical” would also be the start of a wave of pilot incapacitation. Didn’t happen.

    Closer to Private Pilot operations, GLIDER PILOTS have never needed a medical–and THEY haven’t been a problem, even with so-called “powered gliders” (including jet gliders).

    As my medical examiner at Mayo Clinic quips–“Odds are good that you aren’t going to tip over TODAY–but tomorrow, ALL BETS ARE OFF! EVERY “concern” that the FAA has voiced about the need for medical certification by non-commercial pilots has proven false–FURTHER straining their credibility on OTHER aviation matters. Time to quit while they are ahead on this issue.

    What’s NEXT–medical certificates for SKYDIVERS?

    • I would even go as far to say, how many pilots have *knowingly* avoided seeking medical treatment for a condition that would disqualify them for a 1-3rd class medical so they don’t have to report it on their medical application? We know this number is non-zero (e.g. the Germanwings pilot with depression). It’s possible that now requiring commercial balloon pilots to hold a 2nd class medical when they previously didn’t need any (and were free to seek medical treatment as necessary without having to worry about medical certification) will actually *decrease* safety.

    • That’s the sort of information I would want if I was making the decision. In order for me to promote medical certification I’d first want proof that there is a problem with balloon fatalities due to medical incapacitation that would have been PREVENTABLE with a certification process. I doubt this is the case.

      BTW I’d LOVE a balloon ride someday.

      When I lived in the Bay Area many years ago there was a balloon instructor in Byron who could sign off a lighter than air endorsement. I would have loved to have done that.

    • Jim, it’s important to consider that the medical certification requirement applies only to commercial operations (with the exception of flight instruction). If you’re not flying for compensation or for hire you do not need a medical. As a regulator, the FAA holds commercial operators to a higher standard because the paying public expects as such.

  3. You watch, after this new requirement is implemented, next will be a requirement for commercial ballon pilots to be under a drug testing program, just like all other commercial pilots carrying paying passengers!

  4. Got to remember the current administrator came from the airlines, the same airline organization that fought tooth and nail just like the FAA did against completely dropping the third class medical requirement.

  5. Once again—HOW MANY accidents were due to pilot incapacitation?

    Of far bigger concern to most people giving balloon rides is the very SIZE of the big balloons. Some of the baskets carry 14 or more passengers. Given that there are no restraints in most balloons, how do you keep that many passengers from being injured in a high-wind landing?

    What most people don’t realize is the tremendous inertia of a big balloon. It’s not only the weight of the basket, the contents, fuel, envelope, and passengers—but the very air trapped within the envelope has mass/weight. Even a 4 passenger balloon weighs nearly 400 pounds for the envelope—that much again for the basket, burners, and fuel—add in another 7-800 pounds for people and you have 2300+ pounds to stop—PLUS that huge “sail” of an envelope. It takes a big and experience crew to stop it—you had better find a BIG area! Now, imagine stopping something 3 TIMES THAT BIG!

    If anyone at FAA knew anything about balloons, they would realize the folly of “medical issue” being a problem—and emphasize training on big balloons.

    After all, we differentiate AIRCRAFT by size (over 12,500#) and “heavy” jets—why not balloons?

  6. That very weight mentioned ALSO becomes a factor in takeoffs and landing. Not only does it impede climb performance, but that same weight and inertia needs to be arrested in landing.

    Imagine the pilot of a “heavy” balloon trying to land over an obstacle—the pilot needs a steep descent, so let’s the envelope cool. The problem again is INERTIA—the pilot of a large balloon has to arrest thousands of pounds sinking fast—if the pilot waits until the obstacle is crossed, there is no way to arrest the sinking balloon before hitting the ground—HARD! In a 4 place balloon, you MAY START THE BURN AT 50 feet—depending on load and temperature. With a BIG balloon, you may have to start burning at 200 feet—resulting in the need for a much bigger landing area needed. Yes, you can vent—but that ALSI takes time (and much More time in a big balloon)

    Can your ground crew help once on the ground? A LITTLE—provided they can get access to the field before landing AND that there isn’t a low level wind shift—AND that there are enough of them (a rule of thumb is that it takes about the same number of ground crewmen as there are passengers). All in all, there ought to be a “type rating” for large balloons—a far bigger problem than the silly “medical” non-issue!

    And FAA “rule writers” wonder why they are the object of so much derision!

    • I also fly balloons, fixed wing recip’s and turbines myself and I have been saying that for years. Large balloons over 120,000 cubic feet should require some sort of type rating. This is where the concerns are. This one size fits all proposed rule just doesn’t work. The Promise

      • Continue

        The premise of this rule was to protect passengers. However there are facets of commercial ballooning where passengers are never carried. For example promotional balloons that carry a corporate logo are flown with no passengers or non-paying invited guests. Again the FAA has not thought this all the way through.

        • The statutory directive did not give the FAA broad latitude to pick and choose what types of commercial operations should require a medical certificate. From the 2018 FAA Reauthorization…

          (a) SHORT TITLE.—This section may be cited as the ‘‘Commercial Balloon Pilot Safety Act of 2018’’.
          (b) IN GENERAL.—Not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Administrator shall revise section 61.3(c) of title 14, Code of Federal Regulations (relating to second-class medical certificates), to apply to an operator of an air balloon to the same extent such regulations apply to a pilot flight crew- member of other aircraft.

  7. I don’t have a dog in this fight but why now? Has there been a problem with commercial balloon pilots having accidents due to medical conditions? I think the answer is no. Typical of government, a solution looking for a problem.

  8. Whereas I guess a commercial operation is a commercial operation and if one must have a class2, then all should….I guess. However, the value of that class 2 is very suspect for identifying so many serious potential health issues. I had a very current class 2 and had been blessed as healthy. I then, almost by accident, discovered I had full 95% blockage. Required triple bypass and two stents. I was ready for me and my current class 2 to flop over dead at any moment. Then a friend and recently retired FedEx Capt, who owned and flew frequently his personal Aztec, he took his truck down to the local Ford dealer for an oil change. While sitting in the truck, he flopped over very dead with a massive heart attack. Had his current class2 right there with him in his pocket. So basically, no guarantees with any of these medicals. I say no medicals. Let us all be responsible for our health. Don’t feel good, go to your doctor without fear of being grounded forever. Get it fixed. And when you and your doctor agree you’re good to go, go, doing it responsibly.

  9. I agree that the medical is probably a non issue but, if there are enough negative comments, will they scrap the whole thing, including the safety pilot correction for BasicMed? Maybe positive feedback about that should be included in our comments so it doesn’t get tossed out, too.

  10. “FAA requirement for medical certificates when there is no demonstrated problem=“A solution in search of a problem.”—OR, “BALLOONARY BUFFOONARY!”🤪

    And they wonder why they aren’t taken seriously!

  11. I have to believe this proposed rule is an attempt to apply the pharmaceutical no-fly list to balloon pilots carrying passengers for hire. If and when passengers are injured or killed, the inevitable lawsuits could be used to shine a light on whether the FAA was doing its part through exercising appropriate oversight – appropriate being somewhat undefineable. Some factor that can be tied to a pilot’s suitability to perform the job takes the FAA off at least one hook.

  12. Balloons have been flying since 1783–238 years. I’m sure there must be ONE example of balloon pilot incapacitation, but I haven’t found one yet.

    It’s a false and foolish premise to base your life on what MIGHT happen–if that were the case, one should never leave the basement!

    Benjamin Franklin famously said “Those who would give up essential liberty , to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither liberty OR safety!”

    Is THIS what the country has become? Unfortunately, it seems so.

  13. So rather than dissemble, CAN YOU cite an accident in a balloon that this proposed law would have prevented?

    Time for legislators INHOFE and GRAVES to confront the feckless FAA once again and drag them back to reality—and while they are at it, cut the FAA budget—obviously, there are “staffers” there with too much time on their hands!🤪

    IF we are to be “governed”—it would be only right that we have competent and experienced people proposing laws—and that’s obviously not the case in this proposal. It reminds me of another government institution subject to much derision—the Army. A universal description went something like this—“We, the unwilling, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much for so long, with so little, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing…”

    I’m not against ALL laws—I proposed that there needs to be a law for “heavy” balloons—just as there is with airplanes. Unlike this I’ll-considered proposal, there HAVE been accidents with heavy balloons.

    This is an excellent example of government over-reach—if we can’t beat THIS perfect example of government gone awry—proposing laws for problems that do not exist—the country is INDEED doomed.

  14. The Balloon Federation of America confirmed it today–NOT ONE EXAMPLE of a commercial balloon crash due to pilot incapacitation! (as broadcast on AOPA Live)

    “But I’m not a balloonist” you say………Reminds me of the 1946 confession:
    “First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out, because I’m not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists–and I did not speak out, because I’m not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I’m not a Jew. Then they came for me–and there was no-one left to speak for me.”

    If the FAA gets by with this egregious example of “regulating” where there IS NO PROBLEM–there is NOTHING they can’t regulate because they “FEEL” the need to do so. That is NOT Democracy!