Slack Davis Sanger Aviation Expert Suggests Timing and Association of Skydiver Jumps Likely to be a Key Investigative Focus
Austin, Texas – Now that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigative team is on scene, new information is emerging regarding the January 14, 2024, fatal hot air balloon accident near Phoenix, Arizona. In that accident, the pilot and three passengers were killed. Another passenger was critically injured.
The balloon departed with a pilot and 13 passengers, but eight of those occupants were skydivers who exited the gondola as part of a planned jump. Witnesses interviewed by media describe the deflated envelope as “streaming” above the gondola as it descended vertically and rapidly before impacting the ground with the pilot and 4 riding passengers. Quoting the NTSB, media sources report that the balloon gondola impacted terrain following “an unspecified problem with its envelope.”
Aviation attorney Mike Slack, who has handled multiple balloon accident cases, explained that the envelope is the fabric container or bag attached to the gondola, which traps the heated air and provides the lift to the gondola. The gondola is a structurally reinforced basket where the pilot and passengers stand. Slack stated, “The NTSB will be very focused on the timing and potential association between the skydivers’ jump and the onset of problems with the balloon.” Slack further states, “If the envelope is compromised in flight and lift is lost, the gondola will impact the ground.”
The balloon, a Balony Kubicek BB85Z, is the same make and model balloon as the one that struck power lines and killed a pilot and 15 passengers near Lockhart, Texas, on July 30, 2016. According to the manufacturer’s website, the BB85Z is designed to carry a pilot plus 12-16 passengers. While there is no known involvement between the balloon and power lines in the recent Arizona crash, Slack commented that safety concerns over very large gondola capacities were raised by the NTSB in 2014, prior to the Lockhart, Texas accident, stating “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 [by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)].”
Since its April 2017 safety recommendations to the FAA, lax regulatory oversight of hot air balloon activities has been an ongoing concern for the NTSB. Despite a safety recommendation arising from the Lockhart, Texas accident for the FAA to close a loophole in the federal regulations exempting commercial hot air balloon pilots from holding medical certificates, the FAA took no action. Congressman Lloyd Doggett (Texas) and his staff included language in the FAA Reauthorization Bill of 2023, requiring the FAA to close the medical exemption loophole. The other safety recommendation issued by the NTSB in connection with the Lockhart, Texas accident specifically directed the FAA to “…review its policies, procedures, and tools for conducting oversight of commercial balloon operations to develop and implement more effective ways to target oversight of the operators and operations that pose the most significant safety risks to the public.” This recommendation was closed by the NTSB due to “unacceptable action” by the FAA.
Slack, who collaborated with Congressman Doggett’s staff in drafting language to end the medical certificate exemption, points out that the NTSB will review all aspects of the balloon flight, the operational practices of the company that conducted the flight, the maintenance and service performed on the balloon and the performance of the balloon, specifically the envelope that apparently failed. Slack says it is highly probable that the FAA’s failure to take the recommended action to increase its oversight of commercial hot air balloon operations is likely to be renewed during the Arizona investigation since the FAA’s prior response after the Lockhart accident was deemed unacceptable. Specifically, Slack suggests that mixed-mode flights, carrying skydivers and non-jumping passengers, in large-capacity gondolas could very well be a central focus of the investigation, especially if their findings indicate that the jumpers’ exit from the gondola compromised the safety and integrity of the balloon and contributed to the envelope’s failure.
Slack is the managing and founding partner of Slack Davis Sanger, L.L.P. based in Austin, Texas. He is board-certified in Aviation Law and Personal Injury Trial Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He is also a former NASA aerospace engineer who worked on the Apollo-Soyuz and Space Shuttle programs at the Johnson Space Center before becoming an attorney. To date, he has litigated or tried aviation accident cases in state or federal courts in 36 states.
Since 1993, Slack Davis Sanger has been representing aviation passengers nationally and internationally. To learn more about standards and regulations with hot air balloons or to speak with Mike Slack, please contact Marketing Manager Stephanie Eitrheim at Slack Davis Sanger at 512-225-5322 or email@example.com.