FAA warned of potential for many hot air balloon deaths

The envelope of a hot air balloon that crashed in Texas is shown deflated in a field. (Courtesy WOAI)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Warning about a potential for high-fatality accidents, safety investigators recommended two years ago that the Federal Aviation Administration impose greater oversight on hot air balloon operators, government documents show. The FAA rejected those recommendations.

A hot air balloon with 16 people aboard crashed Saturday in Central Texas. Authorities say it’s unlikely anyone survived. It was not immediately known whether it was a tour balloon.

In a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in April 2014, the National Transportation Safety Board urged the FAA to require tour companies to get agency permission to operate, and to make balloon operators subject to FAA safety oversight.

“The potential for a high number of fatalities in a single air tour balloon accident is of particular concern if air tour balloon operators continue to conduct operations under less stringent regulations and oversight,” then-NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman wrote. Hersman pointed to a 2013 commercial balloon tour accident in Egypt that resulted in 19 deaths.

Although “such an accident has yet to occur” in the U.S., she wrote, “based on the number of recurring accidents in the United States involving similar safety issues, the NTSB believes that air tour balloon operators should be subject to greater regulatory oversight.”

The FAA’s Huerta responded that regulations were unnecessary because the risks were too low.

“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,” Huerta responded last November.

The NTSB had based its warning on three prior balloon accidents that it had investigated.

Those investigations highlighted “operational deficiencies in commercial air tour balloon operations, such as operating in unfavorable wind conditions and failure to follow flight manual procedures,” Hersman’s letter said. The board noted that balloon tour operators aren’t subject to the same safety oversight as somewhat similar airplane and helicopter tour operations.

Speaking to The Associated Press just before leaving for Texas to lead the crash investigation, NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said he was studying the board’s recommendations from previous hot air balloon accidents.

Sumwalt said the NTSB team was still trying to gather basic information about the Texas crash.

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