Hot air balloons offer an unparalleled view of the world around us. Balloon passengers float peacefully over landscapes in a woven wicker gondola, enjoying a view unattainable to most. Hot air balloons are an attractive draw for many who enjoy wine tours, proposals and other memorable events from the basket high in the air. But are they really safe?
A tragic balloon accident in Texas in late July has drawn new attention to the hazards of ballooning. Sixteen people were killed when their gondola struck a power line and caught fire. Unfortunately, balloon accidents are not as rare as people might think. Statistics from the National Transportation Safety Board indicate there have been 760 hot air balloon accidents in the United States since 1964. In those accidents, 967 people have been injured and 73 people have been killed. Thirty seven of those fatalities have taken place since 2000. What makes ballooning so dangerous?
Ballooning is a poorly regulated industry
According to industry experts, hot air ballooning is a loosely regulated industry. Despite repeated pressure from the NTSB to enact tighter regulations on the industry, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has steadfastly refused to enact tighter regulations. Unlike helicopter pilots and commercial plane pilots, who must maintain a letter of authorization that reports on periodic inspection of how flights are conducted, hot air balloon pilots do not.
Existing FAA regulations only call for hot air balloon pilots to complete a flight review every two years. Balloons themselves must be inspected for every 100 hours spent in the air.
Why the greater need for regulation?
Unlike planes and helicopters, which have sophisticated steering mechanisms and are powered by robust engines, balloons have limited mobility. They are maneuvered by a pilot using hot air to adjust the elevation of the balloon to take advantage of shifting wind directions. This can be challenging with changing weather conditions and other obstacles, such as power lines.
Tighter regulations would increase the oversight into sightseeing balloon operations, forcing the industry to take greater measures to ensure that pilots are qualified and passengers are safe. But even with tighter regulations, there will be pilots who ignore them or take negligent risks.
Anyone seriously injured in a crash of a hot air balloon or other airborne craft should talk to an aviation attorney. Aviation attorneys have a detailed understanding of the federal regulations governing aircraft as well as what is needed to prove negligence and recover damages from liable parties.
The choice of a lawyer is an important decision that should not be based solely on advertising.