WASHINGTON– Federal regulators require pilots of hot air balloons carrying fare-paying passengers to pass an annual medical exam, similar to the requirement for pilots of commercial airplanes and helicopters.
The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday passed a long-delayed final rule that includes the requirement for a medical certificate, which includes an examination by an FAA-certified examiner.
Congress approved the requirement in 2018 and ordered the FAA to pass a rule detailing the requirement by the spring of 2019. When that deadline came and went, lawmakers accused the agency of ignoring Congressional directives.
Balloon pilots had long been exempt from this requirement. The FAA instead followed voluntary guidelines set by an industry trade group. The National Transportation Safety Board, however, has recommended ending the exemption.
Safety board members criticized the FAA after a 2016 accident in Texas that killed all 16 people on board, the deadliest hot air balloon accident in US history. Investigators determined that the pilot was likely impaired by various medications when he crashed into a power line. The man had told his psychiatrist that he had stopped taking his antidepressant medication, and the psychiatrist documented the man’s mood as “not good”.
Robert Sumwalt, then chairman of the safety board, questioned why the FAA approved voluntary requirements drafted by a balloon industry trade group instead of tightening regulations.
Last November, the FAA released a proposal to require medical certificates. About 200 people and groups commented before the agency released its final rule.
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