Thursday, May 18, 2017

Petition calls for stronger oversight of hot air balloons after deadly crash: Balony Kubicek Spol Sro BB85Z, N2469L, Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, fatal accident occurred July 30, 2016 in Lockhart, Caldwell County, Texas

Members of the National Transportation Safety Board and others leave after a press conference, August 1st, 2016, near the site of a hot air balloon crash that killed 16 people on July 30th, 2016 near Maxwell, Texas in Caldwell County.

Family members of two San Antonio victims who died in last summer’s hot-air balloon crash that killed 16 people near Lockhart are launching a petition to the White House that calls for tougher federal oversight of balloon pilots, who are currently exempt from drug tests and medical exams.

“We don’t want all those victims to have died for nothing,” said the petition’s primary author, Patricia Morgan, whose daughter and granddaughter from San Antonio both died July 30 when a commercial hot air balloon piloted by Alfred “Skip” Nichols struck high-voltage power lines.

Morgan said she has little confidence the Federal Aviation Administration will do anything to make hot air balloons safer, and she had tried with no success to discuss her concerns with Sen. John Cornyn, Sen. Ted Cruz and other Texas lawmakers.

The lack of a response by Cruz’s office was particularly frustrating, she said, because Cruz is a member of an aviation subcommittee that oversees the FAA.

Morgan said Cruz’s deputy chief of staff, James Christoferson, finally called her Thursday morning after the San Antonio Express-News asked Cruz’s office why no one had contacted her.

Morgan said Christoferson expressed his condolences and said the senator is interested in working with the FAA to enact stronger safety measures for the balloon industry. Christoferson told her no one responded to her email because a privacy form hadn’t been filled out.

“I’m glad somebody has reached out,” Morgan said. But she also wondered why lawmakers aren’t already doing more.

“I feel like, why do they even have to react to my email? Why isn’t something being done? It’s almost been a year and we haven’t heard anything.”

Libby Hambleton, a spokeswoman for Cornyn, said the senator’s staff members plan to speak with Morgan after learning she had tried to get in touch with them.

“Sen. Cornyn visited the site of the hot air balloon crash days after the incident with Caldwell County Judge Ken Shawe and Sherriff Daniel Law,” Hambelton wrote in a statement to the Express-News. “Sen. Cornyn’s staff was working with the National Transportation Safety Board every step of the way, and his staff engaged with local officials and attended the victims’ memorial on the Senator’s behalf.”

The balloon crash near Lockhart was the deadliest in U.S. history. A San Antonio Express-News investigation published in March found that hot air balloons suffer higher crash rates than other types of aircraft. But unlike most pilots, balloon pilots aren’t required to undergo drug testing or take medical exams.

Nichols wasn’t legally allowed to drive a vehicle because of a string of DWI convictions and he never reported the infractions to the FAA. But even when the agency found out about his criminal history, officials didn’t discipline Nichols and they allowed him to keep his commercial pilot’s certificate.

After the crash, federal investigators discovered Nichols had been on prescription medications that included oxycodone, Valium and Prozac. Several of those drugs had warnings not to operate heavy machinery and were prohibited by the FAA. But for balloon pilots, the agency relies on an honor system to make sure they’re fit to fly.

Morgan said the petition is an attempt to prod officials to beef up FAA regulations governing balloons that date to the 1930s. Morgan’s daughter, Lorilee Brabson, and her granddaughter, Paige Brabson, died in the balloon crash.

“If antiquated FAA rules were brought up to date, this accident was totally avoidable,” the petition states. “Hot air balloon pilots are not required to be drug tested nor have medical exams as other tour operations. It is time for FAA to ensure all tour passengers have oversight and the same safety benefits as passengers of helicopter and airline tour operations. All Lives Matter.”

The White House’s online petition system, called “We the People,” was launched by the Barack Obama administration in 2011 and touted as a way for the public to draw attention to important issues. If a petition received 100,000 signatures within 30 days, it often received an official response.

But it’s unclear whether the Trump administration will respond to future petitions or even continue the program. President Donald Trump also signed an executive order in January requiring federal agencies such as the FAA to eliminate two regulations for every regulation they enact.

Before the crash, the FAA had rejected calls by the National Transportation Safety Board and FAA safety inspector Wayne Phillips to increase oversight of commercial hot air balloons, some of which can carry enough passengers to fill a commuter plane.

Two lawmakers have called for greater oversight of the balloon industry and have openly criticized the FAA: Texas state Rep. John Cyrier, R-Lockhart, and U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin. Morgan said she hasn’t yet spoken with them but plans to send them the petition.

Morgan said she doesn’t know if the Trump administration will take the petition seriously. But if it helps prod officials to make ballooning safer, she said it’s worth a try.

“What else can we do?” she asked.

Story and photo gallery:

Aviation Accident Preliminary Report - National Transportation Safety Board:

NTSB Identification: DCA16MA204 
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Saturday, July 30, 2016 in Lockhart, TX
Aircraft: KUBICEK BB85, registration: N2469L
Injuries: 16 Fatal.

This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed. NTSB investigators traveled in support of this investigation and used data obtained from various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.

On July 30, 2016, about 0742 central daylight time, a Balony Kubicek BB85Z hot air balloon, registration N2469L, crashed into a field after striking high voltage powerlines near Lockhart, Texas. The 15 passengers and pilot onboard were fatally injured and the balloon was substantially damaged due to impact forces and post-crash fire. The flight was operating under 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91 as a sightseeing passenger flight.

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