Medical certification now needed for commercial balloon pilots - Albuquerque Journal

Medical certification now needed for commercial balloon pilots

Hundreds of colorful balloons launch from Balloon Fiesta Park during the 50th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in October. Commercial hot air balloon pilots will now be required to have a second-class medical certificate. (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Commercial hot air balloon pilots will now be required to have a second-class medical certificate, which includes an annual examination by a medical professional approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The rule is similar to what commercial fixed-wing aircraft and helicopter pilots are already required to have.

The new requirement was announced Wednesday, the same day a final draft of it was posted to the FAA’s website.

That rule, however, is not expected to have any effect on the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, said operations director Sam Parks, who has a commercial license that he uses to teach people to fly.

“The medical certificate is something that pilots would have to obtain on their own. It’s just another document that we would require, like an insurance certificate or their pilot’s license,” Parks said. “It’s another box on their application that they’ll have to check.”

The new rule will affect only commercial pilots who carry paying passengers, which is about half of the pilots who fly in the Balloon Fiesta, Parks said.

“We have a great many pilots who are private pilots, they’re not commercial certificated, and this will not affect them at all.”

He added that only 38 pilots at the Balloon Fiesta “are under our license agreement to sell rides, and that’s through Rainbow Ryders.”

Consequently, Parks said, “the Balloon Fiesta is not anticipating this to have any adverse effect on our pilots.”

Scott Appelman, founder and president of Rainbow Ryders, agrees.

“We already require our pilots to have medical certifications and we’ve been doing that for the last seven years,” he said. “So we’re already compliant with the new FAA requirement.”

Balloon Fiesta spokesman Tom Garrity said a medical certification for pilots “was not something that was historically required, however the Balloon Fiesta will, of course, comply with any FAA rule,” and there is ample time to update pilot applications for fiesta.

According to the FAA website, Congress in 2018 directed the FAA to revise the medical certification standards for commercial balloon pilots and remove their exemption.

An Associated Press story out of Washington, D.C., on Wednesday said the new rule was supposed to have been adopted by the spring of 2019. When the FAA failed to meet that deadline, lawmakers accused the agency of ignoring Congress’ directions.

The final draft of the new rule, titled “Medical Certification Standards for Commercial Balloon Operations,” mentions two high-profile balloon crashes, both involving power lines and pilot impairment.

In June 2021, five people in a hot air balloon in Albuquerque were killed after the balloon gondola struck power lines, severing the envelope from the gondola, which fell about 100 feet to the ground. A toxicology report found that the pilot had marijuana and cocaine in his system at the time of the crash.

In July 2016, the deadliest hot air balloon crash in U.S. history occurred in the central Texas community of Lockhart. A balloon with 16 people hit power lines, fell to the earth and caught fire. All aboard were killed. According to National Transportation Safety Board investigators and a toxicology report, the pilot had Valium and oxycodone in his system and was taking a host of prescription medications for treatment of various medical conditions.

During an earlier public comment period, testing for alcohol and drugs was proposed as part of the medical examination and certification process. That proposal was not adopted because “such a requirement goes beyond the scope of the statutory mandate,” according to the final draft. Consequently, even if the new rule had been in place at the time of the crashes, the use of drugs by the pilots in both crashes would not have been detected.

However, because the pilot in the Texas crash was being treated for a number of conditions and taking a cocktail of prescription medications, which according to the final draft are “known to cause impairment,” the medical certification process could have uncovered that, possibly leading to denial of medical certification.

Also required under the new rule, an applicant must “authorize the FAA to access the applicant’s National Driver Register records.” That database tracks drivers whose license has been revoked, suspended, canceled or denied, or who have been convicted of serious traffic offenses.

“Even if the applicant fails to disclose these convictions on the medical certificate application, the FAA receives a report from the NDR, providing an additional safeguard and mechanism for verifying the accuracy of the information provided by the airman,” the provision states.

In the case of the Texas crash, the pilot “had a 20-year history of drug and alcohol convictions,” according to the final draft.

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