The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently heard expert testimony as part of their investigation into the Lockhart, Texas hot air balloon crash. The July 20, 2016 crash killed 16 people, including the pilot of the balloon. The balloon hit a high-voltage power line, caught fire, and then crashed.
During the testimony on Friday, the investigators learned that the pilot had a number of medications in his system, including: Diazepam, Nordiazepam, Bupropion, Hydroxybupropion, Diphenhydramine, Cyclobenzaprine, Oxycodone, Methylphenidate and Ritalinic Acid. These drugs, according to experts, should have precluded him from flying. According to one of the experts, a number of the drugs in the pilot’s system would inhibit decision-making, cause drowsiness and sedation and interfere with the ability to operate a car, much less a hot air balloon carrying 16 people.
And, as discussed in a previous blog, the pilot of the hot air balloon had pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated four separate times. He had also been convicted of and served prison time for a drug related crime. Several of the drugs in his system would have prevented him from getting a medical certificate. Unlike fixed-wing and helicopter pilots, however, hot air balloon operators are not required to have a valid medical certificate. They are largely unregulated.
The NTSB’s final report won’t be out for several more months, but it is clear that the body count should now be high enough to get the FAA’s attention with regard to regulating commercial hot air balloon operations.