**Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that according to Balloon Fiesta officials, only some of the pilots attending Balloon Fiesta are required to hold a second-class medical certificate.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Some of the more than 500 pilots who are expected to participate in the 2023 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta were required to take an extra step before they were approved to be a part of the event this year. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires commercial hot-air balloon pilots to hold a second-class medical certificate while flying passengers, like commercial airplanes and helicopter pilots.
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The rule was adopted in November of 2022 to increase safety. Pilots participating in the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta who provide a balloon ride for compensation or hire were required to obtain a second-class medical certificate per the FAA regulation.
The requirement applies to all ride balloon/Rainbow Ryders ride pilots, contracted special shape pilots, corporate balloon pilots that are being paid by the sponsor, banner pilots being paid by Balloon Fiesta and media-VIP-government relations pilots paid for by Balloon Fiesta. “Balloon Fiesta went ahead and made sure that every pilot who receives an invitation to fly at Balloon Fiesta has the proper paperwork to participate in all the events,” said Tom Garrity, spokesperson for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
Commercial balloon pilots were previously exempt from the FAA medical certification requirement. In 2018, Congress directed the FAA to revise the medical certification standards for commercial balloon pilots. The rule also addressed a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendation that the FAA remove the exemption.
NTSB first made the recommendation for balloon pilot medical certificates after a hot air balloon carrying 16 people including the pilot crashed into power lines outside Lockhart, Texas, in July 2016, killing all aboard. NTSB said investigators found that the FAA did not detect the pilot’s history of drug and alcohol convictions for nearly 30 years.
A similar incident happened in Albuquerque in June 2021 when a pilot and four passengers died when the pilot failed to clear power lines and crashed. A report from NTSB said the pilot’s use of impairing and illicit drugs contributed to the fatal accident.