Medical certification is now required for commercial balloon pilots

Hundreds of colorful balloons take off 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 health care professional licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

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

The a new requirement was announced on Wednesdayon the same day, a final version of it was posted on the FAA website.

That rule, however, shouldn’t affect the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, said operations manager Sam Parks, who has a commercial license he uses to teach people how to fly.

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

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

“We have a large number of pilots who are private pilots, they are not commercial certified, and it will not affect them at all.

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

Therefore, Parks said, “Balloon Fiesta does not expect this to have a negative effect on our pilots.”

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

“We already require our pilots to have medical certifications and we have done so for seven years,” he said. “So we are 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, but the Balloon Fiesta will, of course, comply with any FAA rules” , and there is plenty of time to update the driver applications for the fiesta.

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

An Associated Press article from Washington, D.C., said Wednesday that the new rule was supposed to have passed in the spring of 2019. When the FAA missed the deadline, lawmakers accused the agency of ignoring the Congressional directives.

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

In June 2021, five people in a hot air balloon in Albuquerque were killed after the balloon’s basket struck power lines, severing the basket’s envelope, which fell approximately 100 feet from the ground. A toxicology report revealed 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 US history occurred in the community of Lockhart in central Texas. A balloon with 16 people hit power lines, fell to the ground and caught fire. All on board 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 drugs for the treatment of various medical conditions.

During an earlier public comment period, alcohol and drug testing was proposed as part of the medical examination and certification process. This proposal was not adopted because “such a requirement goes beyond the scope of the statutory mandate”, according to the final draft. Therefore, even if the new rule had been in place at the time of the crashes, drug use 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 was taking a cocktail of prescription drugs, which the final draft says are “known to cause impairment,” the certification process could have discovered this, possibly leading to the refusal of a medical certificate.

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

“Even if the applicant does not disclose these convictions on the medical certificate request, the FAA receives a report from the NDR, providing additional assurance and mechanism to verify the accuracy of the information provided by the airman,” the provision reads.

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