On July 30, 2016, about 0742 central daylight time, a Balóny Kubíček BB85Z hot air balloon, N2469L, operated by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, struck power lines and crashed in a field near Lockhart, Texas. The pilot and 15 passengers died, and the balloon was destroyed by impact forces and postcrash fire. The balloon was owned and operated by the pilot, and the flight was conducted under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91 as a sightseeing passenger flight. The flight originated about 0658, just after sunrise, from Fentress Airpark, Fentress, Texas.
About 1 hour 50 minutes before launch, weather observations and forecasts that the pilot accessed indicated visual flight rules weather for airports near the planned route of flight but included observations of clouds as low as 1,100 ft above ground level and a temperature/dew point spread of 1°C (which indicated the possibility of fog formation although fog was not forecast). The pilot did not check weather again before launch; updated observations and forecasts available at that time indicated deteriorating conditions. A ground crewmember stated that fog was seen near the launch site.
The balloon launched about 0658, and the ground crew stated that they watched the balloon fly in and out of the clouds as they followed it until losing sight of it for the last time as it went above the clouds. A passenger photograph taken about 4 minutes before the accident showed the balloon flying above a dense cloud layer that appeared to extend to the horizon. The balloon impacted power lines while descending, about 44 minutes after launch.
To be able to see and avoid obstacles during landing, balloon pilots must ensure weather conditions are compatible with the limitations of balloon maneuverability. The accident pilot had the opportunity to make decisions regarding the flight based on the weather conditions at three points on the morning of the accident: before launch, en route, and near the end of the flight. At each of these points, there were indicators that the weather may not be conducive to safe flight. Updated forecast information before launch showed that conditions were deteriorating; the pilot could have decided to cancel the flight. En route photographs showed that fog and low clouds were visible along the flight route; the pilot could have decided to select a suitable landing location while still in visual contact with the ground. Lastly, once above clouds that obstructed the view of the ground, the pilot decided to land in reduced visibility conditions that diminished his ability to see and avoid obstacles.
The probable cause of this accident was the pilot’s pattern of poor decision-making that led to the initial launch, continued flight in fog and above clouds, and descent near or through clouds that decreased the pilot’s ability to see and avoid obstacles. Contributing to the accident were (1) the pilot’s impairing medical conditions and medications and (2) the FAA’s policy to not require a medical certificate for commercial balloon pilots.
We made two safety recommendations to the FAA.