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U.S. safety board criticizes FAA, pilot on deadly U.S. balloon crash

U.S. safety board criticizes FAA, pilot on deadly U.S. balloon crash
U.S. safety board criticizes FAA, pilot on deadly U.S. balloon crash

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The National Transportation Safety board on Tuesday faulted U.S. aviation regulators and the pilot in the July 2016 Texas balloon crash that killed 16 people, the deadliest U.S. aviation accident in more than seven years.

The hearing comes after the Federal Aviation Administration said earlier this year no new balloon regulations were needed, despite a long-standing push by the board to require more oversight of the operations.

The balloon hit a power line and plummeted in flames into a pasture near Lockhart, about 30 miles (50 km) south of the state capital Austin. It was the deadliest crash ever involving a hot air balloon in the Western Hemisphere, according to the Balloon Federation of North America.

Investigators said the pilot and owner of the balloon, Alfred "Skip" Nichols, 49, who was killed in the crash flew in weather conditions below required visual flight rule minimums and did not disclose a series of drug and alcohol related arrests dating back to 1987. He did not have a valid driver's license at the time of the crash and had been incarcerated twice.

NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said at a board hearing on Tuesday Nichols "was literally and figuratively operating under the radar." He said the FAA was not providing adequate oversight.

"I am disappointed that the FAA appears to be shirking its responsibility," he said.

Balloon pilots are not required to obtain a pilot medical certificate, but cannot operate if they have certain medical conditions.

The NTSB said the FAA should require medical certificates for balloon pilots and find "more effective ways to target oversight" of balloon pilots "that pose the most significant safety risk to the public."

In July, the FAA said its investigation found the pilot made a series of errors during the flight, had numerous disqualifying medical conditions and was under influence of drugs at the time of the crash.

The FAA rejected suggestions that more regulations are needed. Pilots who "consistently demonstrate willful noncompliance with federal aviation regulations pose a safety risk that cannot be controlled through additional regulations," the FAA report said.

The FAA on Friday touted the Balloon Federation of America's voluntary program to suggest higher safety standards. They are not enforceable by the FAA.

The NTSB said the pilot had tested positive for Oxycodone in his system, along with medications for an array of conditions like attention deficit disorder and depression.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

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