This past weekend Texas saw the worst hot air balloon crash in U.S. history. Near Lockhart, early Saturday morning, a balloon went up with a group of tourists –16 in the gondola, including the pilot. All were killed.
Residents say a little before 8 a.m., they heard a series of what sounded like popping noises and described something like a fireball near large power lines.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott released a statement about the incident:
“Cecilia and I extend our deepest condolences for all those who have been affected by today’s heartbreaking tragedy. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families, as well as the Lockhart community. The investigation into the cause of this tragic accident will continue, and I ask all of Texas to join us in praying for those lost.”
The National Transportation Safety Board has investigated only 67 fatal hot air balloon crashes since 1964. Jeff Chatterton, with the Balloon Federation of America, says hot air ballooning has a long history of safety.
“This is the biggest lighter-than-air disaster since the Hindenburg,” Chatterton says. “The very fact that we’re talking about an accident from the 1930s would give you reference to how completely shocking and rare an accident even is.”
The Safety Board has urged the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to tighten up regulations on balloon pilots and pilots for hire, but the FAA didn’t change its policies. Chatterton says ultimately it’s up to the FAA to decide what to regulate and what to enforce, but Chatteron says the Balloon Federation is ready to make whatever changes are needed to improve safety measures.
“We have pledged our full and complete cooperation,” he says. “We’re the ones who step into those baskets every day. We’re the ones who make our livings in those baskets and we’ve a vested interest in making sure that the flight experience that we provide is not only world-class but absolutely safe.”
Alfred “Skip” Nichols, the pilot identified on board the balloon that crashed Saturday, was certified to fly. But reports show both the company, Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, and the pilot himself were not favored by the Better Business Bureau.
Chatterton says that like fixed-wing pilots, hot air balloon operators go through rigorous classroom testing and practical in-air testing. But those who want to get a commercial rating go through a more intense licensing process. The regulations require much more experience.
One of the biggest risks for pilots and passengers are power lines, Chatterton says common sense dictates operators stay away from them. But the balloons can be difficult to maneuver.
“Balloons go where the wind takes them,” Chatterton says. “The job of the hot air balloon pilot is to understand what the wind conditions are. That’s why hot air balloons fly only first thing in the morning or just before sunset. That’s when the winds are the most calm, the most controlled, the most predictable.”
Post by Beth Cortez-Neavel.