NTSB Predicted Deadly Texas Balloon Crash Scenario In 2014, But FAA Rejected Safety Regulation Recommendations

As the investigation into what caused Saturday’s deadly balloon crash in Texas is underway, questions are being raised over whether the deadliest hot air balloon accident in U.S. history could have been avoided had the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) listened to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Former NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman wrote a letter to the FAA in April, 2014, recommending that the air traffic control agency tighten regulations for hot air balloon operators, over concerns that not doing so would risk a “high number of fatalities in a single air tour balloon accident,” according to USA Today.

In the letter, Hersman wrote that balloon operators do not face the same requirements as commercial plane and helicopter operators, including maintaining a letter of authorization (LOA), which activates periodic inspections to ensure that flights are conducted properly. Deborah Hersman felt that should change because hot air balloons use heated propane gas to float in the air. Unfortunately, the FAA did not agree.

NTSB Predicted Deadly Texas Balloon Crash Scenario in 2014, But FAA Rejected Safety Regulation Recommendations
Former NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman, testifies on Capitol Hill on Aviation Safety. [Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images]

“The NTSB concludes that passengers who hire air tour balloon operators should have the benefit of a similar level of safety oversight as passengers of air tour airplane and helicopter operations.”

As recently as March, the NTSB criticized the FAA for its inaction and repeated its recommendation, citing 25 balloon accidents that have occurred since the 2014 letter was written. Now that the National Transportation Safety Board’s fears have become a reality, the Federal Aviation Administration will now have to defend its decision to repeatedly reject the NTSB’s regulatory recommendations.

“We are concerned that, if no action is taken to address this safety issue, we will continue to see such accidents in the future.”

The Texas hot air balloon crash occurred at approximately 7:40 a.m. Saturday in a Caldwell County, Texas, field. It is believed that the balloon hit the high-capacity power lines surrounding the field and that the propane fueled balloon caught fire and crashed. All 16 people on board perished, including a newly married couple, reports CNN. Witnesses said the flames were so high they almost reached the bottom of the power lines.

The NTSB’s safety recommendations to the FAA may or may not have prevented the Texas balloon crash, but it does raise questions about the safety of hot air balloons, the need for tighter regulations, and why it takes fatalities before a regulatory agency will implement safety measures that will make air travel safer for passengers. Hot air balloon pilots must be certified and the balloons must be certified for airworthiness. Hot air balloons used for commercial use must be inspected after 100 hours of flight time or yearly, reports USA Today.

Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB spokesperson said that there is physical evidence that the balloon hit power lines before the crash and is also trying to determine whether fog was a factor. Part of the investigation will include whether the balloon operator filed a passenger manifest, although it is not a requirement for hot air balloon operators.

There are a number of reasons why a balloon accident can occur; mother nature and power lines are the most common factors, says Dean Carlton, president of the Balloon Federation of America, who also says that hot air ballooning is safe and fun and that Saturday’s crash was “very rare.” While Saturday’s tragedy was horrific, the biggest hot air balloon accident occurred on February 26, 2013, in Luxor, Egypt, when 19 tourists died after the balloon caught fire and plunged 1,000 feet to the ground, reports the Daily Mail.

The NTSB has investigated 760 U.S. hot air balloon accidents between 1964 and 2016, 67 of them were fatal. Since the National Transportation Safety Board sent its recommendation letter to the Federal Aviation Administration in 2014, 25 balloon accidents have occurred.

[Image via Shutterstock]