Note from BFA President Pat Cannon
January 1, 2022
I know that many of you have been waiting for the BFA’s response to the NPRM proposing a second class medicals for commercial balloon pilots. While the BFA is still in the process of constructing its comments to the NPRM, we thought that it was appropriate to outline for you the areas where the NPRM is calling for comment and some thoughts regarding those areas. Hopefully this will assist you in making your own comments on the NPRM to the FAA.
First, regardless of your position on the ruling requiring a second class medical for commercial balloon pilots, the mandate from Congress via the house bill to fund the FAA in 2018 will undoubtedly result in a medical certificate requirement for commercial balloon pilots. The FAA is under strict rules to follow the mandate. However, don’t let this deter you from commenting on the NPRM as there are other areas of concern where your input will count and these may be just as important as they relate to future possible rule changes from FAA.
Let’s start with your response to FAA regarding second class medicals. In the NRPM, the FAA states that they are responding to the NTSB’s recommendations. This statement has issues, because the NTSB recommended in the final accident report on the Lockhart accident that commercial balloon pilots who fly passengers for hire should have a second class medical. BFA will comment heavily on that. The FAA also stated that their hands are essentially tied by the wording of the Congressional mandate that the medical apply to all commercial pilots regardless of type of commercial activity. The FAA admits that even though they are aware of only a relatively small number of commercial ride companies they found on line, they don’t really know how many commercial pilots are actively engaged in commercial flying. The BFA has advised the FAA since the Lockhart accident that the actual number may be as many as 3000 commercial pilots and all of them under the proposed rule would be required to qualify for a medical if they want to exercise their commercial privileges. Thus, the BFA has taken issue with the inclusion of all commercial pilots. Examples are, flying banner balloons, flying in corporate balloon programs and special shapes, as these operations represent very little risk to the flying public.
In another section of the NRPM, it states that compliance with the medical rule would be required within 180 days. This is clearly not enough time for as many as 3000 pilots to apply for and receive a medical. With such a large influx of pilots, some of whom have never applied for a medical and some of whom will require a special issuance or medical flight test, 180 days is unrealistic. At least 1 full year should be allowed for pilots to comply with the rule. We urge you to comment on this extension of time.
We also have a very great concern of the overreaching consequences of this ruling should it result in pilots becoming disenfranchised with ballooning because of this ruling. If we experience a large number of pilots decide to leave the sport, the watershed effect could be devastation to the future of ballooning including the effects of fewer commercial pilots to train new pilots, even though instructional activities are currently exempted from the medical certificate requirement. This may also have an extremely adverse effects on manufacturers, repair stations, and even insurance for a still smaller market.
Finally, there are two areas not covered in the Congressionally mandated rule and those are the issues of drug testing and LOAs or Letter of Authorizations issued to balloon pilots and/or balloon ride companies. Please read this carefully. The FAA wishes you to comment on random drug testing and would want to know to which commercial balloon pilots this should apply. It is inferred that passenger carrying flight of a certain size company or balloon size could be considered. The same would hold true of the LOAs issued to ride pilots or companies to operate. The BFA will likely recommend against either of these two proposals. While it is recognized that the last fatal accident involved a pilot who was alleged to be using illicit drugs (the NTSB has not issued a final report), random drug testing would be almost impossible to assign, track and verify on such a large population of pilots who do not operate from established business locations. In the case of the Lockhart accident, drug testing would not have shown the kind of results that would have been reportable to FAA for illegal substances. The pilot’s autopsy did not indicate illegal drugs. Likewise, LOAs would create a logistical nightmare for both operators and the FAA. The process of issuing, verifying, tracking and oversight would tax the FAAs system enormously and would cause a breakdown of the reason for the LOA issuance in the first place. This is completely impractical to consider and is unnecessary.
Please remember in your comments that the requirement for a second class medical would not have stopped either accident or their associated fatalities, because in both cases, the pilot either held or previously held an FAA medical certificate. Both pilots had failed to complete the application properly by withholding required disclosures. Failure to complete the application completely and truthfully can result in possible revocation of a pilot’s certificate and, if investigated could have prevented these two tragic accidents, without the need for 2nd class medical.
I hope that this will help you understand how the BFA views this NPRM. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to your regional director for assistance.