By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Lyle Alexander, aviation safety inspector for the FAA in Scottsdale, says commercial balloonists are on the "honor system."
"To fly a balloon or a glider you don't have to pass a physical exam and have a medical certificate," he says. "However, the rule goes on to say that you are in violation of the law if you fly when you don't have the physical ability to fly it.
"Basically the balloons and gliders are on a honor system."
Another FAA rule: Applicants are allowed to take their FAA check-out flights in a small balloon, which then qualify them to pilot giant commercial balloons that take considerably more strength and skill to fly.
"You can learn in what amounts to a Cessna, and the next day after you get your license you can fly a 747," says Fred Ferguson, a Valley balloonist who is also an expert witness in the passengers' lawsuit.
"This needs to be changed."
"The FAA doesn't know much about balloons," says Ferguson.
It was easy for Jeff Sherman to repeatedly get licensed by the FAA, even if he did have handicapped plates on his van.
The FAA did take brief notice of Sherman's physical problems in 1991, according to a document obtained by New Times. The medical records said Jeffrey Sherman suffered from a "foreshortened arm," that he had endured multiple bone surgeries, that his doctor worried about possible addiction to prescription painkillers.
When asked why the agency continued to let Sherman fly at the very time it had knowledge of his medical problems, William Shumann, spokesman for FAA's Western Pacific region, responds: "To fly a balloon or glider one does not need a medical certificate. . . . he had demonstrated he could fly a balloon."
Prior to the September 1996 accident, the FAA got another warning that Sherman might not be a safe pilot. Elonica Poggi, a Phoenix lawyer, says she warned the agency that Sherman was taking prescription drugs, including methadone.
But the agency did not immediately revoke Sherman's license or ask him to submit to drug tests.
It wasn't until a few days before the big crash during the Phoenician flight that the FAA suspended Sherman's license for 60 days. The suspension had nothing to do with drugs. It had to do with Sherman allowing a parachutist to jump out of his balloon in cloudy conditions in the flight path of the Chandler airport.
Even though his license was suspended, Sherman did the Phoenician gig anyway--in direct violation of FAA rules. Randy Long claims he did not know Sherman's license was suspended when he asked him to help pilot the Phoenician guests.
Of course not. The FAA doesn't publish the list of suspended pilots' licenses.
"Obviously we don't publish certificate actions against airmen," Shumann says.
"There's a volume of them."
Shumann says states don't publish lists of suspended drivers' licenses, either, and the FAA is in an "analogous" situation.
The FAA has no plans to strengthen requirements for licensing commercial balloon pilots, says Shumann.
"Frankly, we don't see the need," he says.
By at least 1993, there were clear signs that Jeffrey Sherman's mental and physical problems were intensifying.
In 1993, Sherman took his neurologist, Arnold Sadwin, and Sadwin's daughter, Donna, up in his large balloon. The Sadwin family lived on the East Coast and was vacationing in Arizona.
In a telephone interview, Arnold Sadwin recalls that it was a breezy day, perhaps too breezy for ballooning. Sherman landed the balloon hard and fast, causing Donna to fall, breaking an ankle and fracturing several vertebrae. Under FAA regulations, Sherman was obligated to report the accident, but he did not.
Sadwin had flown with Sherman before, and had always found him to be a careful pilot. There had never been any sign of drug abuse.
But now Sherman was behaving oddly.
Sadwin says he repeatedly telephoned and wrote Sherman, asking for insurance information, but Sherman never responded. In desperation, Donna Sadwin in 1995 sued Naturally High and Sherman, and obtained an out-of-court settlement from Sherman's insurer.
Sadwin says he wishes Sherman no harm.
"The man needs help," he says.
Elonica Poggi, Donna Sadwin's attorney, says that after the lawsuit was filed, Sherman denied there'd ever been an accident in the first place--or that anyone had been hurt.
"Mr. Sherman absolutely is insane, in my opinion," Poggi says.
Poggi learned from Sherman's medical records and testimony that he regularly used methadone and other drugs to control his pain.
She says after the 1995 lawsuit was filed, she notified the FAA of Sherman's drug use--long before the accident with the Phoenician guests.
"I guess we don't have the protection we think we have, do we?" Poggi says.
Naturally High was named in two other Superior Court lawsuits prior to the Phoenician mishap. Both cases were filed in 1995. In one case, two passengers won a $900,000 judgment from Sherman's balloon company because one of Sherman's pilots "recklessly crashed the balloon." In the second lawsuit, a Connecticut woman alleged that Sherman negligently allowed the balloon to crash. Sherman did not respond to the lawsuit, and the woman won a $12,136 default judgment for her medical expenses.
Neither of the accidents was reported to the National Transportation Safety Board.