Warning about potential high-fatality accidents, safety investigators recommended two years ago that the US Federal Aviation Administration impose greater oversight on commercial hot air balloon operators. The FAA rejected those recommendations.
Yesterday a hot air balloon carrying 16 people caught on fire and crashed in central Texas, and it appeared no one survived.
Authorities would not confirm the exact number of deaths in the crash, but Lynn Lunsford with the FAA said the balloon was carrying at least 16 people and the Caldwell County Sheriff's Office said it didn't look like anyone survived.
If 16 people were killed, it would be the one of the worst such disasters, possibly the worst in US history. The deadliest such disaster happened in February 2013, when a balloon flying over Luxor, Egypt, caught fire and plunged 300m to the ground, crashing into a sugar cane field and killing at least 19 foreign tourists.
In a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in April 2014, the National Transportation Safety Board urged the FAA to require tour companies to get agency permission to operate, and to make balloon operators subject to FAA safety inspections. "The potential for a high number of fatalities in a single air tour balloon accident is of particular concern if air tour balloon operators continue to conduct operations under less stringent regulations and oversight," then-NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman wrote.Erik Grosof with the National Transportation Safety Board said a full-bore probe would begin today.
Hersman wrote that, "based on the number of recurring accidents in the US involving similar safety issues, the NTSB believes that air tour balloon operators should be subject to greater regulatory oversight".
Huerta responded that regulations were unnecessary because the risks were too low.
Yesterday's crash happened in a pasture near Lockhart, which is about 48km south of Austin. The land near the crash site is mostly farmland, with corn crops and grazing cattle. The site of the crash appears to be right below a row of massive high-capacity electrical transmission lines. Aerial photos showed an area of charred pasture underneath power lines.
Margaret Wylie lives near the crash site and said she heard a "pop, pop, pop". She added: "I looked around and it was like a fireball going up," she said, noting that the fireball was under large power lines and almost high enough to reach the bottom of them.
Wylie, who called emergency services, said the weather seemed clear. The balloon was operated by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides.