Extremely Rare Deadly Balloon Tragedy Leads to Familiar Calls for More Regulation

Is more oversight truly needed, or just more risk awareness?


Hot air balloons
Richard Dickin/MCT/Newscom

This weekend's deadly hot air balloon crash in Texas—killing 16 people on board—has been declared the worst in North American history. There have been a handful of other balloon crashes with major fatalities—in Egypt (21 dead), Australia (13), and New Zealand (11).

Balloon accidents like the scope of what happened are certainly extremely rare. The Centers for Disease Control's statistics on fatal accidents lump all deaths from water, air and even space transport together. In 2013, the CDC recorded 1,569 deaths in all of these categories, compared to more than 170,000 deaths from all forms of ground transportation.

But given such a massive, high-profile tragedy, it should not come as a surprise to see the familiar question as to whether government regulation and oversight could have or should have prevented such a crash. Feeding their concerns: The pilot, Alfred Nichols, had a history of driving while intoxicated arrests and spent time in prison for a drug crime arrest.

Now, having said that, nobody actually knows at this point whether Nichols was impaired when he was flying or was any way responsible for the crash. Nevertheless, the crash has revealed that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does not oversee balloon pilots as strictly as they do airplane pilots. The reasons should seem obvious: While flying a balloon has its risks, it's not in the same league as flying a plane.

And so comes the question of whether there should be additional regulations and rules placed upon those who want to fly hot air balloons. From Reuters:

At Monday's briefing, Robert Sumwalt, who is heading the investigation for the National Transportation Safety Board, said that unlike airplane and helicopter pilots, balloon pilots are not required to apply for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) medical certificates.

That process screens applicants for drug or alcohol-related convictions and certificates are renewable every six months, Sumwalt said in response to a reporter's question.

"That goes back to the issue of oversight of commercial balloon operators, he said. "We do see this discontinuity, this disparity in this level of oversight requirements."

The NTSB urged the Federal Aviation Administration in April 2014 to require commercial balloon operators to have a letter of authorization similar to that required of pilots of tour planes and helicopters, which includes drug testing.

It was the FAA that, believe it or not, declined to increase the oversight on balloonists under that rather rational response that they didn't believe it would increase operational safety. The FAA believed the risks were low because of the amount of ballooning that happens in America is relatively low and also concluded that ballooners understand the risks of the activity.

So the FAA actually pushed back against regulating ballooning further. The NTSB was not happy with the outcome. In their own response to the FAA's decision, the NTSB noted that they had called for the change in April of 2014, and by March of 2016 there had been 25 additional balloon crashes with four fatalities. Those stats, though, actually bolster the FAA's argument. Is four deaths over two years truly evidence that there needs to be drug testing of all balloonists? Does this one admittedly large tragedy actually change the math at all?

But one other thing to think about: Do people who go out to fly in a hot air balloon actually know that balloon pilots aren't being tested for drugs or having their background checked for those types of arrests? Or does the average American assume, given how many other occupations require such checks and tests, that this oversight is already happening? Do the consumers truly know the actual risks involved with flying in a balloon or are they just trusting that the federal government has taken certain actions to assure safety?

So the question is maybe not more oversight, but more transparency? Of course, even regular drug testing doesn't guarantee that a balloon pilot won't be stoned or drunk for any particular flight, but knowing that a pilot isn't being tested regularly (and this is assuming the companies aren't testing pilots themselves) might cause one to ask some relevant questions before climbing aboard.

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  1. We’re losing to Egypt???

  2. We need common sense balloon control.

    1. IT IS BALLOON!!


      1. no need or high capacity balloons…

  3. I heard Trump “shut it down.”

    1. I heard about this balloon crash. Have you heard about this crash? Terrible thing. Tragic. Awful. Not a lot of people have heard about it. How can we let balloons just crash like that? Why don’t they stay in the air? A very famous balloonist called me this morning and asked me “Mr. Trump what can we do about these balloon crashes?” Well let me tell you, once I take office, we won’t see a single fatal balloon crash. We’ll shut down these balloons until our national balloon experts know what’s going on. A lot of people have said that drunk immigrants are flying these balloons. I don’t know if that’s true. A lot of people talk about it. I can tell you one thing, folks, that balloons Will. Not. Crash. when I’m president. That I guarantee. We can’t have these balloons going around killing people. We need some control of the situation.

      1. That’s spot on, Hugh.

      2. You forgot the part about where you question whether maybe it was caused by a shot from a book depository building. Maybe by Ted Cruz’s old man.

        1. See at this point I feel like he’s more likely to impugn Paul Ryan or Mike Pence or someone else who’s presumably on his side. Maybe Chris Christie again just to publicly degrade him further.

          1. He’s not going to insult Chris Christie just to please libertarians.

            1. (He’ll insult Chris Christie just because he can.)

              And Chris Christie will still kiss his XXX ring.

      3. I wasn’t sure who you were imitating until I got to “drunk immigrants”, then I knew… you’re doing my ex-father-in-law.

        1. Your ex-father-in-law is now your mother-in-law, amiright?

          1. The sun never sets on Transgender jokes.

            *golf clap*

  4. An early news report said that it’s safer to land in fields but that the passengers prefer to land on highways so they don’t have to walk so far. The highways are where the power lines are, of course.

    I’m hardly knowledgeable on ballooning – just repeating what I heard.

  5. OK, look, you put people in a basket made of twigs — otherwise known as campfire tinder. Then you put a big nylon balloon over them. Then you light a fire in the flammable basket so that the flammable balloon takes them up and suspends them 1000ft above the earth. What could go wrong? Regulation, schmegulation. Stay the hell out of those things!

    1. Would have been safer if they had been trying to jump into a net from 25,000 feet without a parachute.

  6. You can also sorta check how long a particular company has been selling rides; probably not long if they crash.
    BTW, ‘navigating’ the things means searching various altitudes to find wind blowing in the direction you want to go. The guy we flew with pointed out trees, birds, hills which deflected the winds and other indicators of wind direction and he put us down within a couple of feet of the recovery vehicles.

  7. Do the consumers truly know the actual risks involved with flying in a balloon or are they just trusting that the federal government has taken certain actions to assure safety?

    Wow, this is *aaaaaaaalmost* saying that ballooning should be more tightly regulated because people *assume* it already is.

    As for more transparency – the regulations for running a balloon are freely available. Its not up to the Federal government to shove them into people’s faces if they don’t have the curiosity to look them up or, you know, *ask* the people running the balloon.

    And looking them up isn’t difficult. This isn’t 1986, we’ve got this thing called ‘internet’ now. You can look up the regs from the comfort of your own home.

    1. Honestly, I would never think of asking the balloon owner about regulations or procedures. I’d mostly figure that if the guy was climbing in with me, he probably wasn’t too worried about the safety either.

      Now if he showed up in nomex fire suit and wearing a parachute, maybe I’d ask few questions.

      1. I for one want to return to the good old days when they filled the damned things with hydrogen.

      2. I’d mostly figure that if the guy was climbing in with me, he probably wasn’t too worried about the safety either.

        Also, if I had to pick a mode of transportation that didn’t intrinsically require sobriety, hot air balloon would be towards the top. Seems like ‘died as the result of a drunken fishing (boat) accident’ should outnumber ‘died as the result of a hot air balloon accident’ by a bajillion to one.

        1. I can’t remember where I read it, but the number of accidental drowning deaths where the victim’s fly was unzipped and with a BAC > 0 was an astonishing percent. Basically I learned that if you want to keep from drowning while boating, forget about life vests. Buy a Little John instead.

          1. HHHWHAT?! Ohhkay!

            1. EEEAYAAYUH!!

      3. But would you assume that it *must* be federally regulated and thus OK?

        1. Um, I would never think about whether it was federally regulated. The only time I have ever considered whether any activity is federally regulated is when I’m drunk and coming up with my million dollar ideas. Then I do worry about the Feds fucking up my sure fire retirement plan.

          If you asked me as some sort of bet whether I thought it was federally regulated, I’d probably guess yes. But that is only because you were pestering me to enact you labor (or however that goes).

          1. Shackford suggested ‘more transparency’ under the assumption that people will assume its Federally regulated and thus safe. And by it not being so these people do not fully apprehend the risks they are taking and so they should be warned (the more transparency).

            I think that anyone who *assumes* (rather than finding out) is assuming that risk and there should be no duty to inform. Because once you open that can of worms then you will have 900 page forms to fill out prior to notify of all the other regulatory agencies that don’t regulate that activity.

    2. You can look up the regs from the comfort of your own home.

      Because of the libertarian moment, you can look up the regs from your smartphone while in a balloon, 3500′ in the air.

      *btw, that’s funny on several strata*

  8. Can’t let a good tragedy go to waste!

  9. Photo provided by Dick Dickin.

  10. My take: Scott is in Big Balloon’s pocket.* Pathetic.

    *Big Balloon’s pocket is also a euphemism for being inside of Winston’s mom’s vagina.

    1. Yeah, I’m there right now. Everyone says hi.

      1. The echoes must be deafening

  11. Can’t wait to tune in to CSPAN and see a week of congressional hot air balloon hearings, followed by a blue ribbon panel investigating balloon safety, finally culminating in the BS Act, otherwise known as Melinda’s Law.

    1. hot air at a congressional hearing….hahahahahahaha

  12. We need to get involved and fuck everything up and make everything more expensive and fail to even slightly improve that which we set out to fix. In fact, it’s a pretty good bet that we’ll actually accomplish the opposite. You welcome. /Your government.

  13. I have flown in one. Scariest shit ever. Being over 6′ tall in that basket was…uncomfortable. The damn thing only comes up to mid thigh. I can’t stand ALL the way up or my head catches fire. Enjoyed the view, loved the champagne at the end, was even impressed by our pilot’s awesome ability to lay it down across a cul-de-sac, but NEVER AGAIN will I go up in a balloon. Fucking batshit insane that is.

    1. I thought I was the only one who thought that way! I’m 6’5″ and spent the entire ride as far away from the edge as possible. If I had been at the edge one accidental knock from another passenger could have sent me over. I’m surprised I’ve never heard of someone falling out due to their high center of gravity. BTW, I get the same feeling on long escalators with big drops over the side.

  14. Alcoholism is neither a disease nor a moral failing. It’s a compulsion and The Compulsion is Real. We need better treatments and of course, early intervention if we are to prevent tragedies like this in the future.

    1. you’re absolutely correct, you fucking sot

  15. “Knowing the only thing you can control in one of these fucking things is altitude might cause one to ask some relevant questions before climbing aboard.”


  16. I’m sure that the FAA pushed back due to massive budget cuts under Bush.

  17. Never let a tragedy go to waste when seeking more power and control over people, along with the desire to extort them through various fee’s and licensing.

  18. Albuquerque, home to the largest mass ascension in the world, gets a balloonist tied up around an electrical wire every couple years. I’m sure there are calls, but I can’t recall any major effort to pass legislation capitalizing on these accidents. Maybe it’s because accidents are so rare given that a couple hundred balloons go up every morning for a week and the same number come down safely a few hours later. Maybe it’s because landings are typically ad hoc, taking place in backyards and fields and sometimes in traffic. We’re used to it, it’s part of the charm. Or maybe legislators here understand that going after a city’s international claim to fame isn’t a surefire electoral winner. Shame the NTSB can’t be held to account.

    1. It’s because NM is the state where GayJay was governor. Coincidence? I think not.

      1. If he’d been paragliding off the crest I’m certain NM wouldn’t have tried to kill him the way Hawaii did.

  19. never let a tragedy go to waste?

  20. You know what color balloons usually are? Rainbow colored…

    Think about that.

  21. No one needs a balloon.

    1. Balloons would be one way for political criminals to get over the wall.

      1. Fact! And what about trampolines and catapults? President Trump, you must save us!

  22. Oh the humanity!! Oh the HUMANITY!!

  23. Always relevant.

    While some may see Staples’ unfortunate accident as a nominee for the Darwin Awards, his mother, Kathleen Staples, sees it as a call for stricter laws regarding who can and cannot handle explosives.

    “At least it’d be a little bit more than, ‘Here you go,'” the grieving mother told the Associated Press. “That’s an explosive. They didn’t just hand me a license and put me in the car.”

    1. Actually, they did. The driver’s license test is a joke (and, IMO should be removed – we already have insurance, let the insurance company set the standard), operating a motor vehicle safely is not that difficult (as the legions of morons who make is safely to and from work everyday could attest) and the driving tests are something you could pass with only a handful of hours of actual driving experience coupled with some paying attention for 16 years as you grow up.

    2. “It was a freak accident ? But Devon was not the kind of person who would do something stupid. He was the kind of person who would pretend to do something stupid to make people laugh.”

      And yet he was putting fireworks on his head.

      1. so you’re saying Devon was a freak? that’s so hurtful

  24. Inflate and crash. Glass-Steagall would’ve prevented this.

    1. stopit

      1. sorry.

  25. If the MSM wants to highlight parents calling out nominees for President, then they can cover this video.

    (you have to turn on the volume)

  26. Think about it. With stricter regulations on balloon travel that drunken wizard wouldn’t have gotten his gin blossom to OZ and poor, poor Tin Man never would have gotten his heart. NTSB is anti Tin Man and anti Scarecrow, and, well, fuck the Lion, cowardly bastard he was. Though admittedly the drunken incompetent wasn’t much help at all to Dorothy, but thankfully good witches exist.

    1. at least until you get them wet…never piss on a witch!

  27. I left my office-job and now I am getting paid 98 usd hourly. How? I work over internet! My old work was making me miserable, so I was forced to try something different, 2 years after…I can say my life is changed-completely for the better! Check it out what i do…


  28. Tragic Products, Inc. presents

    Skip Nichol’s Fiery HOT Texas Style BBQ Sauce

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