Should The FAA Slap More Regulation On The Balloon Industry?


I was on AVweb news watch last week when a bulletin on a balloon crash in Texas came pixeling into my inbox. The headline said, “All 16 believed dead.” That can’t be right, I thought. And that’s been the reaction of nearly everyone in aviation whom I’ve talked to or corresponded with about this accident. How is that even possible?

It’s possible because there are giant commercial hot air balloons in the wild that can carry that many people and they operate with surprisingly little FAA oversight. Whether that’s good or bad is less material than the fact that the Lockhart crash will probably force the FAA to give the NTSB what it asked for in 2014: more regulation of the commercial balloon industry.

But on the strength of one horrific accident, is more regulation really needed? Is it reasonable to believe it would make a measureable dent in the accident record? My answer to both is no, but let’s run through the numbers.

Regular readers of this blog know of my insanely unhealthy obsession with mathematically derived accident rates. These are difficult enough to calculate accurately for GA aircraft because the denominator–hours flown—is always so iffy. It seems to be non-existent for balloons. So a reasonable hack at the unknown is to calculate accidents per 1000 registered aircraft.

For GA fixed wing, AOPA estimates about 160,000 airplanes in the U.S. That works out to between 7 and 9 accidents per 1000 registered aircraft and a fatal accident rate in the range of 1.3 to 1.7, for a couple of typical years that I checked. It reasonably tracks the NTSB’s overall and fatal accident rates based on hours-flown data.

The FAA has 4016 balloons on the registry. Most of those are hot-air designs, but some are gas balloons. Again, using a couple of typical years to calculate accidents per registered aircraft, I found an overall rate between 2.2/1000 and 4.0/1000. The fatal rate for those two years, 2014 and 2015, was 0.5/1000 and 0/1000, respectively. Now, here a gut check. Those balloon accidents got into the database mainly because they involved serious injury. I’m not so nave as to think all the balloon accidents are reported. No aspersions cast on our fellow aeronauts, but balloon operations are well-prepared to haul the crash away, chased as they are with a trailer for that very purpose. But serious injuries—one of the bulletpoint definitions of an accident—will require first responders, as will fatalities. Those are likely to be swept up by the NTSB. So I’ll acknowledge that not all balloon accidents appear in the records and using registrations is a crude measure, but it’s better than nothing. Also, we don’t know how many of those balloons are active; same applies for aircraft.

In absolute numbers, there just aren’t many fatal balloon accidents. There were two in 2014 and none in 2015 and no U.S. fatal balloon accidents in 2013, either. Still, the NSTB would like the FAA to exercise more stringent oversight of commercial balloon operations and in a letter to the FAA in 2014, then NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman all but foresaw the Lockhart accident.

What the NTSB had in mind was the same sort of letters of authorization required of air tour operators or perhaps Part 135 charter companies. This level of regulation sets off required equipment inspection, recordkeeping, training, pilot drug testing and defined operating limitations.

The FAA demurred, saying this: “Since the amount of ballooning is so low, the FAA believes the risk posed to all pilots and participants is also low given that ballooners understand the risks and general hazards associated with this activity.” Further, said FAA’s Michael Huerta, “The FAA lacks compelling evidence to believe that medications not approved by the FAA have led to balloon accidents.”

In my view, Huerta is right on one count, wrong on another. He’s right that the measured risk is low, given the small number of total accidents and miniscule number of fatalities. But I challenge the claim that those 15 people who climbed into the Texas balloon had a good feel for the hazards and risk. If they understood that a balloon that heavy would climb like a slug on a hot and humid July morning in Texas, they might have paused. I would have. In fact, there’s no way I’d ever get into a balloon basket with more than four people.

Read the accident reports and you can reach your own conclusion about relative risk, but even smallish hot air balloons are a handful in anything but the lightest winds. High-wind landings are almost certain to capsize the basket and that either causes the occupants to bounce around like dice in a throw cup or it ejects them to be dragged or run over by the basket. And when they’re ejected, the now-lighter balloon can climb clear of the surface, presenting a second opportunity for a fast touchdown as the pilot frantically attempts to dump hot air through the crown vent. And balloon baskets, compared to airplane cabins, have zero crashworthiness. The common injury in hard landings is broken ankles and legs. Over a beer sometime, I’ll regale you with how much that hurts. On the plus side, as I’ve detailed above, the numerical risk appears relatively low.

And it’s not clear to me that further regulation of the commercial balloon industry would drive it any lower. Far more so than flying fixed-wing airplanes, safe ballooning requires such a canny sense of wind and weather that much is necessarily left to chance. Ask any balloon pilot with much experience and you’ll hear stories of surface winds that came up out of nowhere, unforecast. And of hard landings and wild, high-wind drags through plowed fields across the furrows. It’s just part of the sport and I don’t see how it can be regulated away. Perhaps for large commercial balloons, defined ops specs might place performance limitations with regard to surface temperature at time of launch or other factors that give the flight a slight edge. But given how much of ballooning depends on fine-point judgment of unpredictable air masses, I just don’t see it making much difference. I think Huerta’s right; the juice ain’t worth the squeezing.

I suppose prohibiting high-capacity balloons that carry more than, say, six people, is an option. I wouldn’t oppose that. On the other hand, my view is that if people are willing to assume the risk and there’s no unusual hazard to people on the ground, they should be allowed to do what they want. The government has an interest in making sure they understand the risks, which can be done through the informed consent model. For the purpose of liability reduction, balloon operators routinely have their clients sign waivers similar to those we sign in skydiving. These basically affirm that the participant understands the risk, acknowledges that he or she can be hurled to the ground, electrocuted or burned to death and accepts the risk of that. It’s caveat emptor and carpe diem stitched into a dozen, harsh, legalistic paragraphs. One drop zone I jumped at actually required you to stand in a front of a video camera and acknowledge you understood and accepted the lunatic thing you were about to do.

The FAA is often accused of tombstone mentality in deciding what to regulate. That’s usually said like it’s a bad thing. But if it didn’t do so, we would be more buried in regulations than we already are and as commercial ballooning may be about to be. But in the wake of horrific, high-profile accidents, only nerds like me argue to, you know, look at the actual numbers. Optics rule all and that’s likely to happen following this accident, too.