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Investigative Hearing: Investigative Hearing, Lockhart, TX Balloon Accident - Opening Statement
Robert L. Sumwalt
NTSB Board Room and Conference Center, Washington, DC

Good morning ladies and gentlemen, and welcome.

My name is Robert Sumwalt and I am a Board Member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

I am honored to serve as Chairman of the Board of Inquiry for this investigative hearing.

Today we are opening a hearing concerning the accident involving a hot air balloon operated by Heart of Texas Balloons, which occurred near Lockhart, Texas, on July 30, 2016.

Tragically, there were 16 lives lost.

This was the most deadly aviation accident in the US in 7 ½ years.

I offer our sincere condolences to families.

Please know the ultimate goal of this investigation is to learn from this tragedy so that we can keep it from happening again.

An investigative hearing such as this is one tool the NTSB may use to help complete an investigation.

The hearing is being held for the purpose of supplementing the facts, circumstances, and conditions surrounding this accident.

This process will assist the NTSB in determining the probable cause of the accident and in issuing recommendations to prevent similar accidents in the future.

This hearing also provides the opportunity -- not only for the commercial balloon community, but also for the public -- to see a portion of the investigative process.

During this hearing, we will examine witnesses and secure, in the form of a public record, facts pertaining to the accident and surrounding circumstances.

The purpose of this inquiry is not to determine the rights or liability of private parties, and matters dealing with such will be excluded from these proceedings.

I want to emphasize that this hearing is non-adversarial – it is a fact-finding examination.

Additionally, we will not attempt during this hearing to analyze the testimony received, nor will any attempt be made at this time to determine the probable cause of the accident.

Such analyses and cause determinations will be made at a later date by the full Board after consideration of all of the relevant evidence gathered during our investigation.

The final report on the accident, reflecting the Board's analyses and probable cause determinations, will be available to the public, as are all of our investigative products.

Today’s hearing will concentrate on the following three issues:

  1. Balloon operations
  2. Regulations and oversight
  3. Aeromedical factors

Now, let me introduce the NTSB’s staff who are playing a key role in the hearing.

Serving with me on the Board of Inquiry are:

  • Dr. Mary Pat McKay, NTSB Chief Medical Officer
  • Dr. Dave Bowling, Chief, NTSB’s Central Region

Members of the Technical Panel are as follows:

  • Tom Jacky, Aerospace Engineer (Aircraft Systems)
  • Captain David Lawrence, Senior Air Safety Investigator
  • Paul Suffern, Senior Meteorologist Investigator
  • Dr. Nicholas Webster, NTSB Medical Officer

Also seated with the technical panel is Bill English, who is the Investigator-in-Charge for this accident, and who is serving as hearing officer.

Colette Hurley is providing support for the audio visuals.

Eric Weiss from the NTSB's Office of Media Relations is here to assist in matters dealing with the news media.

From the NTSB’s Office of Transportation Disaster Assistance are Max Green and Stephanie Matonek. They are here to assist family members during the hearing.

NTSB Assistant General Counsel, Mr. Ed Kendall, is seated behind me and is here to provide legal support for the hearing.

Federal regulations provide for the designation of parties to an NTSB investigative hearing.

Those persons, governmental agencies, and organizations, whose special knowledge will contribute to the development of pertinent evidence are designated as parties.

The parties to this hearing have been designated in accordance with these regulations, and have been selected for their technical expertise in their respective fields.

Our rules of practice make clear that a party cannot be represented by anyone occupying a legal position, or anyone who also represents claimants or insurers.

I will now call the names of the parties to the hearing, and as I do, I will ask the designated party spokesperson to please give his name, title, and affiliation for the record:

  • Federal Aviation Administration - Jeff Guzzetti
  • Balloon Federation of America - Sam Parks / Scott Appleman
  • Kubicek Balloons - Petr Kubicek

Yesterday the Board of Inquiry held a prehearing conference in this Board Room.

It was attended by the hearing’s Board of Inquiry, Technical Panel, and representatives of the parties to this hearing.

During that conference, the parties were advised of the witnesses to be called at the hearing, the areas in which the witnesses will be examined, and the exhibits which will be offered in evidence.

They also had the opportunity to submit additional documentary exhibits they desired to offer at this hearing.

As we begin this morning, Mr. English will summarize the accident and the investigative activities that have taken place to date.

Following this, the first panel of witnesses will be called.

The witnesses have been selected because of their ability to provide the best available information on the issues pertinent to this accident investigation.

They have each been pre-qualified and their qualifications and biographical information are available on the NTSB website.

Each witness will testify under oath.

They will be questioned first by the NTSB Technical Panel, followed by the spokesperson for each party.

Parties will each have 5 minutes to question the witnesses.

After one round of questions, due to time constraints, a second round will be limited to pertinent questions that serve to clarify the record or to address some new matter raised as a direct result of prior questioning.

After the parties have questioned the witnesses, the Board of Inquiry will question them.

The NTSB does not determine blame or liability; this investigative hearing is a fact-finding proceeding with no adverse parties.

Therefore, cross-examination in the legal sense will not occur, and questions directed to the issue of blame or liability will not be permitted.

As Chairman of the Board of Inquiry, I will be responsible for the conduct of the hearing. I will make all rulings on the admissibility of exhibits and pertinence of proffered testimony, with the assistance of NTSB Assistant General Counsel, Ed Kendall.

All such rulings will be final.

The record of the investigation, including the transcript of the hearing, all exhibits entered into the record, and the presentations, will become part of the NTSB's public docket and will be available on the Board’s website:

Witnesses who have completed their testimony should be aware that they may be subject to recall should the need arise.

Therefore, witnesses should not leave unless they have checked with the Hearing Officer, Mr. Bill English.

At this time, I call on the Hearing Officer, Bill English, to go over housekeeping items, summarize the accident and the investigative activities, and describe the exhibits to be used during the hearing. Mr. English.