The deadliest hot air balloon crash in U.S. history occurred at sunrise on Saturday.
Monday afternoon, the National Transportation Security Board held its final on-scene media briefing on the site in Lockhart, Texas. There are several possible factors at play in the crash, including a 20-minute delay in taking off before the crash, and fog in the area. In the briefing Robert Sumwalt, a member of the NTSB, reported some of the initial findings of the investigation, including evidence that the balloon was attempting to land.
At this point, it’s clear that the balloon hit power lines about thirty miles south of Austin, crashing into a field in Caldwell County, Texas. The power lines have signs of multiple points of contact, arcing, and abrasion for 30 feet along the lines. Although the identities of those on board haven’t been confirmed, all sixteen people, including the operator, died in the crash.
“Do we have any indication of why the balloon flew into the power lines? At this point, we do not, and that is going to be a very difficult question to answer,” Sumwalt said.
Running into power lines is one of the main causes of fatal hot air balloon crashes, mainly due to the chance of the basket catching fire. When a hot air balloon hits a power line, there is a chance passengers can be electrocuted, but it’s the sparks jumping off the line that can set these dangerous fires.
It is still unclear if the balloon piloted by Alfred “Skip” Nichols caught fire because it crashed into the lines, or if the fire on board had started earlier — which is one of the things that will be investigated by the NTSB. Sumwalt reported that the balloon had an annual inspection in September, based on the logbook that was not on board at the time of the crash. It will take about a year to finish the analysis of the accident.
During the preliminary investigation at the scene, the team from NTSB talked to the ground crew for the hot air balloon. Although there was patchy fog on the ground before launch, weather was clear when the balloon took off. The crew also launched several test balloons to test wind conditions, and Nichols had called the flight service station for a weather briefing on Friday night. Despite previous reports of delays leaving for the trip, Sumwalt clarified that at this time they have not found anything out of the ordinary during takeoff.
In examining the envelope of the balloon, they have not uncovered any signs of prior damage, and the top vent was open, which indicates that the pilot was attempting to land. The ground crew had also received a location update from the pilot, at 7:26 a.m., which they told Sumwalt is usually a sign that Nichols was landing. The NTSB hasn’t found anything that explains why the crash would have occurred.
The National Transportation Security Board has been trying to get the Federal Aviation Administration to get stricter regulations on hot air balloon flights. Due to a number of accidents in commercial hot air balloon flights (although none as deadly as the accident this weekend), the NTSB asked the FAA for stricter regulation of hot air balloon flights. The key request was to make balloon pilots get letters of operation from the FAA, similar to those required for commercial plane and helicopter pilots.
The FAA decided not to adopt the NTSB recommendation, saying that they did not believe that this would reduce the number of accidents. Sumwalt feels the discontinuity between the recommendations for hot air balloons and other commercial pilots very strongly.
“We do not feel that the FAA’s response to our recommendation was acceptable,” he said.
With the rise of hot air ballooning, including people trying to balloon up into space, stronger regulations are hopefully imminent.