FAA’s Failure To Respond To NTSB Safety Recommendations May Have Contributed To Texas Balloon Tragedy

by James T. Crouse on August 2, 2016

in Aviation Safety

Here we go again.  Another aviation tragedy and another National Transportation Safety Board recommendation that could have prevented the crash was not acted upon by the Federal Aviation Administration. This time a hot air balloon crashed Saturday in Texas killing sixteen people.  Initial reports are that the balloon crashed into high intensity power lines. Reports are that the balloon, operated by a company named “Heart of Texas,” caught on fire and was found burning on the ground when first responders arrived.

According to a CBS news story dated July 30, NTSB safety investigators warned two years ago that balloon accidents were imminent and recommended that  the Federal Aviation Administration impose greater oversight on commercial hot air balloon operators, government documents show. The FAA rejected those recommendations.

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 inspections.  The letter by then NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman stated: “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,” She referenced a 2013 commercial balloon tour accident in Egypt that resulted in 19 deaths and three other balloon accidents. The investigations of those accidents showed “operational deficiencies in commercial air tour balloon operations, such as operating in unfavorable wind conditions and failure to follow flight manual procedures,” Hersman’s stated.

Balloon tour operators aren’t subject to the same safety oversight as somewhat similar airplane and helicopter tour operations.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta responded that regulations were not necessary due to low risk: “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 in November 2015.

The NTSB called the FAA’s response to the two balloon safety recommendations as “open-unacceptable,” which means the safety board was not satisfied with the FAA’s response.

NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt, who will lead the investigation into the Texas crash, said he was studying the board’s recommendations from previous hot air balloon accidents.  “I think the fact that it is open-unacceptable pretty much speaks for itself,” he said.

The NTSB’s recommendations were issues because of its concern about the operational deficiencies identified in its investigations of accidents involving commercial air tour balloon operations. “Our concern is that such operations do not receive oversight equal to that of similar airplane and helicopter air tour operations.” The NTSB said it hoped that if commercial balloon operators were subject to greater oversight then they would devote more attention to safety.

Here is a link to NTSB Safety Recommendations.

Here is the link to FAA’s Responses.

Editor: But let’s not be too quick to judge.  Both agencies are understaffed.  The NTSB still is forced to rely too heavily on industry for technical expertise and the FAA relies too heavily on industry in the certification process.  The fox in the chicken coop?  Of course.  Still, the FAA has much more staff than the NTSB and needs to move on the NTSB’s safety recommendations.  A study should be done on how many ignored/dormant safety recommendations have resulted in lost lives.

Many thanks to John Eakin of Air Data Research, a tireless proponent of aviation safety, who contributed to this effort.  See John’s work at AirSafety Newsletter.


Leave a Comment

Previous post: