What Is FAA Hiding from the Public? And Why??

FAA, like many federal agencies, has a nasty habit of expending lots of time and money working to keep the people in the dark. They are supposed to comply with FOIA laws, but instead they redact the hell out of what should be disclosed. Making matters worse, in recent decades it seems as though most in Congress are ‘too busy’ and/or ‘too inert’ to force FAA to follow the FOIA laws.

Every once in a while, we get a great chance to look past these barriers. Sometimes, FAA’s redactions become unmasked. When that happens, it is like sitting down with the devil, and sharing tea and a candid conversation. So much can be learned….

In this Post, a 27-page FAA memo is offered in two forms, redacted and unredacted. This memo documents how a safety investigation produced copious details and a strong recommendation for corrective action … which was then nixed by a higher FAA official. The heavily redacted copy was provided to an investigative report team. Seeing that so much data was hidden, they filed an appeal. An appeal response letter was eventually sent, rejecting the appeal, but somehow a copy of the unredacted 27-page was included in the appeal response letter.

Here are the two versions, presented as scrollable/downloadable/searchable PDFs. View them side-by-side. See for yourself what FAA chose to redact, when a reporter team tried to help the public understand how FAA was handling a dangerous safety failure involving commercial aircraft maintenance.

Click on the image below for a scrollable view. This is the heavily unredacted version, as initially sent by FAA (and after extensive review by numerous FAA managers). Click here to download the PDF file.

Click on the image below for a scrollable view. This is the full, unredacted version. Click here to download the PDF file.

The Background:

A few days ago, an aiREFORM Post encouraged readers to read the excellent investigative series done by the Tampa Bay Times. In the third article of the series, Nathaniel Lash showed how higher level FAA managers were over-riding the conclusions and recommendations of their field inspectors. The inspectors were investigating how a nut had detached causing an elevator jam, forcing an Allegiant MD80 to do a high-speed aborted takeoff at Las Vegas. This was an extremely serious situation that would have assuredly killed everyone on board, if the nut had failed while actually airborne. A similar failure caused the 1/31/2000 crash of Alaska 261, an MD83 that lost flight control near Santa Barbara and plunged into the Pacific, killing all 88 on board.

The similarities are in two troubling areas:

  1. the casual failure by maintenance crews to properly execute their tasks and to follow needed steps that would identify and fix failures (so as to ensure nuts do not fall off leading to catastrophic crashes); and,
  2. FAA’s gross failure at safety oversight, where key FAA officials knowingly allow maintenance crews to sidestep required procedures.

The latest Times article showed that FAA was found to be covering up dangerous maintenance failures performed by AAR on the Allegiant passenger jet. Note that AAR is a Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) operation; over the past decade, airlines have been reducing labor costs related to employing their own mechanics by increasingly outsourcing aircraft maintenance to MRO contractors. Costs may go down, but so do safety margins.

An Outstanding Investigative Series on Allegiant Failures and FAA Hiding Those Safety Issues From the Public

If you are increasingly concerned that FAA appears to be just a hack, a faux-regulator that does not really serve the people but instead enables the industry … you need to read these articles.

If you have felt yourself doubting the veracity of an FAA high official, as they spew glowing pro-NextGen claims while dodging the enormous failures and impacts (like David Suomi, at the Port of Seattle on 4/25/2016; to see the video, click here, then select the April ‘video’ tab, and ‘Item 3c – Briefing’ under the 4/25 meeting) … well, you need to take a look at these articles.

This is where agency corruption goes beyond being an annoyance, to become downright dangerous.

When the Nut is Not Secured…

This photo was shot during an investigation after an Allegiant MD80 was forced to do a high speed aborted takeoff. The castellated nut at the center of the photo has a twisted safety wire, to prevent the nut from detaching. The near-accident was caused by failure to secure the nut, creating a jammed elevator.

Despite FAA and industry efforts to confuse us all, this is not rocket science.

Given the speed and power in aviation, it is absolutely critical that parts not ‘come apart’ while operating.

So, what happens when aircraft mechanics fail to include a cotter pin or safety wire, as in the photo at right? Well, in this example, a hundred or so aircraft occupants are damned lucky they did not end up dead in a post-impact fire in Las Vegas. What exactly happened? While accelerating for takeoff, the nose lifted up on its own and the crew suddenly discovered they had zero elevator control. They cut the power to bring the nose back down and, luckily, had enough runway remaining to come to a safe stop and taxi back to the gate.

…Safety Eventually Breaks Down

This particular incident has far bigger repercussions. It was one of many incidents that caught the attention of Nathaniel Lash and other reporters, who did an outstanding investigative series, published by the Tampa Bay Times. Here are links to archived PDF copies of the three articles:

The third piece just came out, and it includes an interesting twist. It appears that FOIA was used, and that FAA heavily redacted their response documents. A formal appeal was filed and, eventually, an appeal response letter was sent back by FAA, denying the request to reveal the redactions. BUT… a fully unredacted copy was enclosed with the appeal response! So, now we can see what FAA chose to initially redact (which itself can be extremely revealing).

Was the fully unredacted report enclosed by accident? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps it was enclosed by someone who had seen too much. FAA employees are real people, often feeling trapped in a corrupt and soulless bureaucracy, and silenced by the fear of losing their paycheck. Sometimes real people become sick and tired of all the lying and propaganda, and feel it is their duty to bypass the corrupt intentions of higher FAA officials; sometimes they make little ‘mistakes’ with big consequences. Lucky for all of us, not all FAA employees are afraid of the agency’s ‘culture of fear’. Some really do blow the whistle, and sometimes they do this in very subtle ways.

Also, for those who really want to dive deep, check out the 27-page unredacted report.

[QUOTE]: FAA’s Culture of Corruption & Cover-Up

Aside

QUOTE

“…Over and over, when the FAA is caught asleep at the wheel, those in charge rattle their sabers, fire low level individuals and allow the management that refuses to play by the rules to stay in power. Soon it all slouches back into a comfy system because the FAA does not like oversight, does not tolerate whistleblowers, and will say whatever it takes for the cameras to stop rolling and the members of Congress to stop having hearings. I know because I shined the light on FAA malfeasance and cover up for five years when I headed the independent oversight agency United States Office of Special Counsel (OSC)….”

– Scott Bloch, in a 5/29/2011 blog post about endemic FAA corruption

Click here to read the original blog post.

Dodging Accountability: those ‘Un-Readable’ registration markings on GA aircraft

While there are two ‘A’s’ in ‘FAA’, we can all rest assured that neither ‘A’ stands for ‘ACCOUNTABILITY’. This we know from the news which, on a nearly daily basis, shows a corrupt and scandal-riddled work culture, where officials are ever careful to not let their personal name be attached to their professional actions and inactions. The recent coverage of the ATC recruitment scandal is one example; FAA’s decades-old habit of excessively redacting names of all FAA officials in FOIA responses is another example; and a third example is illuminated in the excellent series of articles from last summer, by Mario Diaz at PIX11.

FAA’s culture of unaccountability goes further. It not only protects those employed by the agency, but it also insulates rogue pilots and others whom the agency is supposed to be regulating, to protect them from accountability, too. Thus, incidents like the 2012 helicopter harassment against an advocate for regulation of skydiving noise in Longmont, CO are effectively enabled by a dysfunctional FAA. Essentially, a rogue pilot can do whatever he wants, and he’ll get away with it so long as he can rely of FAA to not enforce.

Required Aircraft Registration Markings

One clear area of FAA failure has to do with the requirements to mark all aircraft with legible registration numbers. The two principal ways that accountability is dodged with these GA aircraft markings are:

  1. FAA’s rules allow for incredibly tiny letters; and
  2. Even when an aircraft is identified, FAA is habitually lax about enforcement against aviators (click here for the FreeRangeLongmont version of the 2012 harassment incident… and be sure to click through to see the supporting documentation!)

We are all quite familiar with the license plates placed on the rear (and in many states on the front, too) of all registered trucks and automobiles. The purpose is to ensure drivers are accountable for their driving behavior. Identifying marks, legible from a reasonable distance, were intended to enable citizens and/or law enforcement officials to establish the registered owner (and hopefully the actually driver) after an accident or after any illegal driving actions.20150804cpy.. CA license plate sample, 65mm font, 'OutaTime'

The standard in the U.S., adopted in 1956, calls for plates that are 6″ by 12″. Typically, these have letters that are 2.5-inches (65mm) tall. A 1960 engineering study by the University of Illinois recommended adoption of a numbering system and plate design “…composed of combinations of characters which can be perceived quickly and accurately, are legible at a distance of approximately 125 feet (38 m) under daylight conditions, and are readily adapted to filing and administrative procedures.” The study also concluded that plates need to be readable from at least 125-feet away, and that a 14″ plate width (not just 12″ wide)would improve legibility, by ensuring letters are not excessively thin or mashed together.

The same logic is also supposed to apply to aircraft. However, states, local jurisdictions and Courts all defer to FAA as the final authority in charge of aviation safety. As such, it fell upon FAA to establish regulations for the proper marking of aircraft, to ensure they are identifiable, and to ensure the operators are accountable.

So, what did FAA do? They crafted a set of rules that virtually guarantee that any unsafe pilot or excessively noisy aircraft will be unidentifiable. And, even when they are identified, FAA tends not to enforce the rules, anyway.

The bulk of ‘General Aviation’ includes personal aircraft, many of which are kit-built by the owner/pilot. The vast majority of all small GA aircraft require 2″ tall registration letters; only a small number of GA require larger letters, either 3″ or 12″ tall. Think about that. Given that highway engineers opted for 2.5″ tall letters to be properly legible at 125-feet on our roadways, logically the minimum height to read the registration number of an aircraft at least 1,000-feet above the ground should be eight-times 2.5″, thus 20″ tall. Yet, the only small aircraft required to be marked with the full 12″ letters are those factory-built fixed-wing types after 1982 (and rotorcraft after 1983), and those kit-built models that cruise at speeds in excess of 180 knots. According to FAA’s rules, somebody flying an early 1970’s Learjet or Citationjet is legal, so long as they show 2″ tall letters on the sides of their engines. So, is it any wonder that drug-runners have become partial to using older small airplanes to move their product around?

An Example of Non-Enforcement

Here’s an example: a 1984 Cessna Turbo Stationair said to be based in Ohio, for which a custom paint-job was done. Nice looking plane, and plenty of power to get to remote lakes when outfitted in floats. But, take a look at the registration numbers. A licensed professional aircraft painter did this job, then advertised their good craftsmanship online, and the FAA officials simply looked the other way. The same FAA that jumps on hobbyists who use 6-pound quadcopters flown maybe 100- or 200-feet above the ground to shoot real estate aerial photos nowhere near any airports, and with zero risk of impacting regular aviation … that same FAA pays no mind to the fact that FAA-licensed pilots and the FAA-certified professionals who service their FAA-registered aircraft are routinely ignoring numerous FAA’s regulations, such as the need to have legible letters with a contrasting background.20150803scp.. C206 with camouflaged aircraft numbersN235HM earlier pic from web, marked SEP-2006

And to the right is an earlier photo, prior to the custom paint-job. Both paint jobs do a wonderful job of camouflaging the aircraft callsign. And had this aircraft been built just two years earlier, in 1982, that camouflage would surround letters only 2-inches tall!

For the record, FAA’s regulations on marking aircraft are contained at Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) at Chapter I, Subchapter C, Part 45, Subpart C. The specific language in 14 CFR at Section 45.21(c) includes: “…Aircraft nationality and registration marks must … have no ornamentation, … contrast in color with the background, … and be legible.” So, if this floatplane were to buzz a group of people on the water – even if by accident – chances are that, despite FAA’s regulations, the impacted people would not be able to identify the aircraft or pilot. In the best-case scenario, a decent pilot would never learn of his carelessness, would fail to sharpen his skills, and would continue a bad and unsafe habit. In the worst-case scenario, a rogue pilot would ‘get away with it’ – and feel further empowered – all the more likely to repeat use of his aircraft to endanger and harass people.

It’s Even Worse for Helicopters

Read this quote carefully, as this is FAA’s binding regulation for rotorcraft markings, copied from 14 CFR 45.29(b)(3): “(the markings) …must be at least 12 inches high, except that rotorcraft displaying before April 18, 1983, marks required by § 45.29(b)(3) in effect on April 17, 1983, and rotorcraft manufactured on or after April 18, 1983, but before December 31, 1983, may display those marks until the aircraft is repainted or the marks are repainted, restored, or changed.” The underline is added to emphasize, in essence, for all helicopters built prior to 1984, the owner must increase the numbers from 2″ tall to 12″ tall ONLY IF the owner chooses to ‘repaint, restore or change’ the numbers. It is as if regulators (and Congress?) wanted to carefully avoid upsetting operators in the pipeline, soon to take delivery of their new helicopter (why should they be burdened with a rule that makes their helicopter potentially identifiable?). Absurd, and yet so typical of the ambiguous mish-mash built into so many FAA regulations.

 

ANALYSIS: 2015-01-16.. Forced Landing of an Air Tour Flight Near Halawa Falls, Molokai

A Cessna Skyhawk flying an apparent air tour lost engine power and crashed in rough forested terrain, while touring near Halawa Falls in the northeast part of Molokai. The tour passengers were a Japanese couple and their daughter. News reports indicate that the pilot and two passengers had minor injuries, but the mother was hospitalized with serious injuries.

20070819scp.. C172 forced landing field on Lanai, pilot pic (M.Richards)

The pilot, happy for his good luck. (click on image to view article/source)

The pilot, 35-yr-old Michael Richards, had previous experience with forced landings while flying this same aircraft type. On August 16, 2007, he was doing an instructional flight with N5207D, a C172, when he lost engine power; all three survived (the instructor, his student, and an observer/student). Then, on June 24, 2014, Mr. Richards and a student lost power at 2,000-feet and made a forced landing with N66540, ending up in a plowed pineapple field, near the Waipio Costco.

The most recent forced landing was with N5660E, a C172 registered with an operator named Hawaiian Night Lights LLC.

20070819scp.. C172 forced landing field on Lanai (M.Richards)

(click on image to read article about another forced landing, involving the same pilot, in 2007)

Is the Safety Oversight Missing?

Interestingly, neither the 2007 nor the 2014 forced landings are included within the NTSB aviation accident database. They clearly should have been. On the same day as the 2007 Hawaiian incident, another student pilot had a hard landing at an airport in Keystone Height, FL; that incident, far less significant (and far more common) than an in-flight engine failure, was investigated and added to the NTSB database [LAX07CA256]. And, on the day before the 2014 Hawaiian incident, another C172, in Miami, FL, had a hard landing when the pilot’s seat slid during touch-and-go pattern practice. It was written up at NTSB [ERA14CA331].

So, it will not be a surprise if neither NTSB nor FAA produces an investigation and report for the latest incident. They should. These are commercial activities. Just like the ‘instructional flights’ sold to tourists on ultralights are ‘commercial’ and generally overlooked by FAA. In fact, two died ten months ago in Kauai, the latest in a long history where both pilots and paying passengers have died in commercial flight accidents.

An agency that takes civil action against those who use low-altitude drones to capture real estate or news photos, should be far more concerned with ensuring safety in commercial air tourism. Get the data on these incidents, share it widely, and clean up Hawaiian air tourism before the next fatality happens.


See also:

It’s Black Friday … and Tens of Thousands of RC Aircraft Likely will be Purchased

Which means a lot more work for the nearly 45,000 employees at the FAA.

Why? Because FAA is way behind in developing the drone regulations Congress has mandated, and this failure is putting the U.S. way behind other countries where drones use far less fuel and create far less noise to get certain jobs done. Also, because FAA liberally defines the ‘National Airspace System’ to include not just at legitimate aviation locations such as places where quiet drones could monitor rush-hour traffic at 500- to 1,000-feet altitude (instead of those noisy traffic watch helicopters and planes), but also at absurd places far below real aircraft, like:

  • the 400-foot altitude that the neighbor kid carefully stays within while flying his radio-controlled model airplane … all with clear approval of FAA, up until a couple months ago;
  • the 100-feet of airspace above your house, which you might enjoy using with an aerial camera drone, to capture nice aerial photos of your garden or home project;
  • or even (arguably) the classroom air between your son and his target when he decides to launch a spitwad (which NTSB recently decided can be treated as an ‘aircraft’, and is thus subject to FAA regulations).

20141125.. RadioShack ad, RC quadcopter and heloHere’s the Radio Shack ad for today’s big sale. The quadcopter in the upper-right corner, with the glow-green rotors, costs only $60 and is for kids 12 and older.

The red helicopter in the upper left costs only $15, and claims to be for kids 8 and older! Which makes one wonder: will FAA be sending inspectors to elementary school auditoriums to discuss with third-graders, ‘How Kids can Help to Keep the National Airspace System Safe’?

Rotor Blade tree pruning and the Height-Velocity Diagram for the MD500 Helicopter

Two recent helicopter accidents, involving commercial contractors, highlight the need for improved safety standards. In an accident that happened in Ohio, on July 29th, a helicopter crashed while doing aerial tree pruning, needlessly injuring a helicopter pilot. In the other helicopter accident, near Wenatchee, WA on July 23rd, a pilot was killed when he crashed while flying low over trees to air-dry a cherry crop. Both accidents would not have happened if FAA and NTSB were properly regulating the helicopter industry.

20140729.. pic demonstrating rough limb pruning by Rotor BladeThis Ohio accident shows a system used by a company (Rotor Blade) to trim off tree limbs to form tall facewalls, such as along powerlines. As shown in the photo of a pine tree at right, the quick pruning is rough, leaving large stubs.

The cutting system is a tall stack of blades, said to spin at roughly 5,000 rotations per minute. The blades appear to be between 24-30″ in diameter.20140729.. pic demonstrating large blade system used by Rotor Blade20140729.. pic demonstrating MD500 takeoff by Rotor BladeIn the accident in Ohio on 7/29/2014, the Rotor Blade helicopter had been hired to prune the forest edge along a new recreational trail. The MD500 lost power and fell into the trees. The pilot was injured, but likely would have been killed, if not for the way the trees slowed his crash.

According to the Height-Velocity Diagram created by the manufacturer and approved by FAA, the pilot was clearly supposed to avoid operations such as this tree pruning. The red ellipse marks the approximate flight parameters for tree pruning: at roughly 100-ft altitude and with slow speeds, typically less than 5-10 knots … which is right in the most dangerous area of the cross-hatched ‘AVOID’ portion of the diagram! Note that the recommended flight profile (marked in green) indicates the helicopter should have been travelling with a speed of at least 60 knots when at the 100-ft altitude for pruning.
20140730.. Height-Velocity Diagram for MD500, with markups
A similar height/velocity diagram for the Bell 206 helicopter makes the same point: pilots are to avoid low/slow operations, such as using helicopters to dry cherries.

So, Why do Accidents Like this Continue to Happen?

Mostly because FAA and NTSB continue to ignore this inappropriate use of helicopters. The pilots fly to make money and build flight hours that help them eventually get better jobs. If they protest the safety, the operator just replaces them with another pilot. The pilots cut safety corners and just ‘hope’ that nothing bad happens while they are flying their jobs. Meanwhile, the insurance companies and the operators do just like FAA: they pretend to not notice the safety problems. If anything happens, hey, blame it on the pilot. And the public agencies who hire these dangerous contractors? They, too, look the other way, assuming that by hiring a contractor, they are not culpable for the injuries and fatalities that eventually result. It is sort of a ‘safety trickle-down’, where the margin of safety reduces to near-zero.

Is There a Better Way?

Yes. Some jobs are practically done with helicopters, and some are not. This tree pruning system looks to be a bad idea. Why pay a company to do a fast but crude job pruning trees with helicopters, when it can be done to a much higher quality while employing trained professionals and using much less energy? If FAA and NTSB would press harder to reduce helicopter fatalities, the helicopter operators would not be allowed to fly this way. And, as a big benefit, there would be more real, physical jobs for tree-service professionals who are not aviators.

Helicopters: the Wrong Way to see Grand Canyon

Five days ago, a pilot employed by Papillon was killed when his/her helicopter rolled over while being repositioned on the floor of Grand Canyon. [article] The air tour passengers had already been off-loaded, so none of them were injured when the fatal accident happened. In the five days since, there has been no new information; neither FAA nor NTSB has released the gender, age or name of the pilot, nor have any weather conditions or other pertinent facts been presented to the Public. We are left to wonder why this tragedy happened, and could it happen again.

There have been many fatal air tour crashes around Grand Canyon. In fact, a careful analysis of news stories and the NTSB accident database reveals thirty significant accidents since 1980, some fatal and some non-fatal. A few were horrific, killing six, ten, and as many as twenty-five. Even the minor accidents hint at air tour practices that add unnecessary risk:

  • crowding too many helicopters together at remote landing spots,
  • parking helicopters too close to picnic tables,
  • worker fatigue, due to long workdays for the pilots and mechanics,
  • lack of maintenance oversight,
  • lack of FAA safety oversight, etc.

Here is a link to a list with short summaries for each of the thirty accidents. Each dated event has further links to online news articles and NTSB reports.

Passenger photo taken minutes prior to the 9/20/2003 crash. (NTSB)

Passenger photo taken minutes prior to the 9/20/2003 crash that killed seven. Analysis of this and other photos showed reckless flying and endangerment by the pilot. (source: NTSB Report)

One accident that really stands out happened in August 2001. A tour group from New York filled twelve seats in two Papillon helicopters. The flights had flown outbound from Las Vegas, spent around an hour in the canyon area, and they had taken off from Grand Canyon West Airport for the flight back to Las Vegas. Just a few miles west of their last departure point, the helicopters crossed Grand Wash Cliffs at roughly 5,500 feet, then quickly descended a thousand feet into the space below the tall cliffs. One of the helicopters crashed, and six were killed. The one survivor lost her husband and both legs, and eventually won a $38 Million settlement. A subsequent NTSB report noted there were no local recorded weather observations. In fact, the nearest official weather reporting station is nearly fifty miles south of Grand Canyon West Airport, and is not adjacent to the canyon; the only known weather fact is that it was a very hot day, around 106 degrees Fahrenheit.

The NTSB compiled a detailed investigative report, which included the following insight into the helicopter air tour industry:

  • Investigators interviewed many, including the Papillon manager at the South Rim (Tusayan), who told NTSB: “The mechanics said that Kevin was the only pilot that they felt comfortable with on test flights.” (underline emphasis added)
  • The report suggested that pilots may be motivated to add more ‘thrill’ to the flight to earn larger tips.
  • One passenger from an earlier air tour flight with the same pilot shared her concerns, and backed them up with a copy of her air tour video. She described what air tour pilots call the ‘Thelma & Louise Descent’, in which the pilot crests low over the top of a ridge, then dives into the empty space on the other side. In her testimony, the passenger said her pilot did the ‘Thelma & Louise Descent’ at Grand Wash Cliffs, a classic location for this maneuver. She testified the pilot asked them if they wanted to do the descent, and they all said ‘no’, yet he did it anyway.

There are many professional aviators who have no love for those who make money using aircraft as a form of ‘thrill ride’. For example, the Sundance helicopter pilot who crashed into a canyon wall in September 2003 (killing all seven on board) was known by the name ‘Kamikaze’, and pilots interviewed in that NTSB investigation expressed many concerns about his long history of risk-taking. There is even an online pilot discussion, where a British tourist seeks feedback, with the title: Helicopter over Grand Canyon – which company won’t kill me?

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Grand Canyon is an extraordinary place, but it is certainly not an appropriate venue for aerial thrill rides. We can only hope that the latest tragic fatality will precipitate reform and bring an end to this dangerous form of flying.
GCNP Grandview Trail hike pic

What should YOU do if you are coming to Grand Canyon?

One of the facts gleaned while reviewing more than thirty years of air tour accidents is that very many of the fatalities are from Asia, Europe, and other parts of the world. It appears that Grand Canyon vacations are planned to be very special trips. It also appears these tourists may have been sold the idea that an air tour is necessary to experience Grand Canyon.

In fact, this is completely wrong. Just your first view of Grand Canyon will amaze you.

And, frankly, the helicopter ride is thrilling and scary when you first take off, but after that it is mostly just a lot of monotonous flying. And the noise you have to hear while crammed in the helicopter cabin…? Yeah, all air tour passengers are issued headsets, to help block out the loud noise. Too bad for those in the park below, as the ‘thump-thump-thump’ noise carries everywhere, for many miles.

So, please DO NOT book an air tour before you embark on your vacation. Please wait until AFTER you arrive and see the place, to confirm if you really want to give so much of your money to an air tour operator. And even then, please ask yourself one more time, ‘do I really want to make this noise that diminishes the experience for so many other visitors?’

GettingAroundGCNPMake it your first priority to stand at the edge of the Canyon and see how incredible it is, right there. Then, check with the Grand Canyon National Park maps and just walk some of the miles of flat rim trails (or hike below the rim, if you are more adventurous). The views will amaze you. Ride the free shuttle buses, and get out and find your own quiet vista point while enjoying the sunshine and fresh air. Spend a few bucks and enjoy tea or a beer or a pleasant meal at a lodge on the South Rim, while gazing at the view. The experience is so much more rewarding without the noisy helicopter, the stuffy cabin air, and the bouts of flight-induced nausea.

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…if you would like a quick video tour, please see page two of this
Post, which has embedded links to four different videos….

FAA Needs to Improve Safety for Commercial Balloon Operators

20140509.. Commercial balloon fire, Richmond, VAA short Friday evening flight at a balloon festival in Richmond, VA ended tragically when the passenger basket impacted a powerline and burst into flames. Three died. The pilot was a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel who had been flying balloons commercially for ten years. One of the passengers was the director of women’s basketball operations; the other passenger was the  assistant head coach for women’s basketball.

Just one month earlier, NTSB had issued a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, containing safety recommendations A-14-011 and A-14-012. The two recommendations called on FAA to implement the following safety improvements:

  1. require commercial balloon operators to obtain a Letter of Authorization (LOA) from FAA; and
  2. have FAA’s principal operations inspectors include in their general surveillance activities commercial balloon operators that hold LOA’s, especially upon initial issuance of the LOA and then as necessary, particularly if the operator is involved in an accident.

As is typical for NTSB Safety Recommendations, the letter went far beyond just listing the recommendations. It also detailed the recent accident history, to explain WHY FAA needs to implement the Safety Recommendations. One example was a February 2013 accident in Egypt, where 19 of 21 on board died after the passenger basket caught fire. Two other examples cited cases where fuel control levers were accidentally jarred or fuel fittings were knocked loose on hard landings, causing fire-related injuries.

Bear in mind, the NTSB Safety Recommendations were issued a full month prior to the fatal accident in Richmond. The trade organization that advocates for commercial balloon operators, the Balloon Federation of America, responded to NTSB. So, weeks before the Richmond accident, here is part of BFA’s response to NTSB:

“…NTSB’s recommendation will not enhance safety, but will add another layer of unnecessary federal oversight to an already challenged FAA. Such a regulation would prove burdensome to the tour flight business owners and their pilots in both time and money to comply with the regulation. It would likewise stretch the FAA’s already thin resources of inspectors required to initially implement the program and then oversee its ongoing compliance and enforcement. Additionally such a regulation could require significant financial expenditure and investment of FAA personnel resources for the education and training of its inspector ranks, many of whom lack an extensive knowledge base of hot air ballooning and the unique business of balloon sight-seeing tour flights….”