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….”