After years of warnings regarding hot air balloon regulations, the United State’s worst hot air balloon accident on record occurred Saturday morning in Central Texas, killing all aboard.
The balloon was operated by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides and departed with 15 passengers at about 7:00 am on Saturday, despite a planned launch time of 6:49 am. Included in the 16 killed on board the balloon was Heart of Texas owner and Chief Pilot, Skip Nichols.
Less than an hour after departure, the hot air balloon tripped power lines near Lockhart, Texas and a witness who lived near the crash site called 911 to describe a scene that looked “like a fireball going up.” From its launch site to its crash site, the balloon traveled about 8 miles, with the basket that contained the passengers and pilot landing about 3/4 of a mile from the balloon itself.
At this time officials have not determined the cause of the crash, though one witness claims to have seen the balloon hit power lines before falling to the ground and bursting into flame. Reported foggy conditions in the area of the accident are also being investigated.
A team from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will investigate the crash, and because of the crash’s designation as a “major accident,” the FBI will help examine the evidence.
Previously, the worst hot air balloon accident in U.S. history was a 1993 crash that occurred near Aspen, Colorado and killed all six people on board. The cause of that crash was the wind that blew the balloon into a nearby power line complex and severed the basket. Worldwide, the worst hot air balloon crash in history took place in Luxor, Egypt in 2013. In that crash the balloon caught fire and fell more than 1,000 feet to the ground, killing 19 people.
Saturday’s crash was foreshadowed over two years ago when the NTSB warned the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) via letter to strengthen regulations in the hot air balloon tourism industry. In the letter, the NTSB expressed concern about the possibility of “a high number of fatalities in a single air tour balloon accident.”
“Our hearts go out to the families of those lost in this horrific tragedy. The investigation and prosecution of this case must include a review of the oversight and licensing of hot air balloon companies. How many more deaths will it take before the FAA finally acts on the NTSB’s warnings? These operations routinely charge more per person than many airline tickets, with virtually zero oversight.”
In March of this year, the NTSB followed up on their concerns and again urged the FAA to follow their recommendations. The NTSB pointed to 25 balloon accidents that had occurred since their original letter in April 2014, and worried that if the FAA did not take action “we will continue to see such accidents in the future.”
Victims of Saturday’s hot air balloon crash are continuing to be identified, but a pair of newlyweds is among the dead. Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides has since suspended operations.