Balloon Pilot Who Killed 16 in Texas on Drugs, Had Many DWIs

  • NTSB documents on July crash reveal loopholes in oversight
  • Accident was worst fatal U.S. aviation accident since 2009

The pilot of a hot-air balloon that crashed last summer in Texas, killing himself and 15 sightseeing passengers, had taken a cocktail of prohibited drugs before liftoff including the opiate painkiller oxycodone, according to government documents.

Alfred “Skip” Nichols was able to continue flying people for hire in spite of being convicted five times for driving while intoxicated and three times for drug offenses. The incident revealed lax regulations on balloon operators and a regulatory loophole that made it difficult to take enforcement action against him, according to documents prepared for a National Transportation Safety Board hearing.

Authorities investigate the crash scene on July 30.

Photographer: Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times via Redux

The hot-air balloon controlled by Nichols, 49, struck high-power lines near Lockhart, Texas, on July 30 and plunged to the ground, bursting into flames and killing all aboard. The death toll was the highest in a single U.S. aviation accident since 50 died in a 2009 commuter plane crash near Buffalo, New York.

Victims, some of whom posted photos on social media minutes before the crash, included a professor with the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research and his wife, and a mother and daughter taking the Sunday-morning flight as part of a Mother’s Day gift. 

‘Learn From Tragedy’

“The ultimate goal of this investigation is to learn from this tragedy so that we can keep it from happening again,” NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said in opening remarks at Friday’s hearing.

The NTSB will examine broad safety issues raised by the accident, including why Nichols took off in spite of a report of questionable weather. It will also consider how Nichols, who had served two prison terms for drug and alcohol violations and was also being treated for medical conditions that should have prohibited him from flying, slipped through the cracks and whether additional regulations are needed.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the industry, has so far declined to add tighter rules on balloon flights, in spite of an NTSB formal recommendation in 2014 to give balloon passengers “a similar level of safety oversight as passengers of air tour airplane and helicopter operations.”

Lower Risk

The FAA spends less time conducting inspections and oversight on balloon operations because it concluded they were a lower risk than other areas of aviation, John Duncan, director of the agency’s Flight Standards division, told the NTSB Friday. The agency is working with the industry on voluntary measures rather than attempting to adopt new regulations, he said.

"Changing the rules is very cumbersome,” he said. “A more effective and more timely way to deal with that is what these gentleman had been describing, and that is the community, recognizing that they would choose to operate with higher standards and require those standards.”

Prior to the accident, the FAA conducted a study of commercial balloon operations over 10 years and found only four deaths over the period, James Malecha, an agency safety inspector, testified.

The balloon industry doesn’t support additional regulations, Dean Carlton, president of the nonprofit Balloon Federation of America, said in an interview. The association estimates at least 100,000 to 200,000 people fly on commercial balloon rides a year.

“The oversight is adequate,” Carlton said. “It’s the responsibility of the balloon pilots and the association to continually enhance that safety.”

Crash scene near Lockhart, Texas, on July 30.

Photographer: Rodolfo Gonzalez/Austin American-Statesman via AP Photo

Investigative documents compiled by the NTSB detail Nichols’ multiple health problems and drug prescriptions, and also shine a light on why the FAA said it was unable to take punitive action against him after learning in 2013 of his driving convictions.

The NTSB’s own rules played a role. In addition to its accident investigation duties, the NTSB oversees appeals of FAA enforcement cases, and its rules prohibit the FAA from taking certain actions on infractions more than six months old.

As a result, an FAA special agent investigating the violations notified Nichols in 2013 that the agency wouldn’t pursue any penalty or license suspension related to his convictions. The most recent conviction was in 2010.

Depression, Fibromyalgia

Nichols suffered multiple medical problems including type II diabetes, depression and chronic pain from fibromyalgia. Some of those conditions should have prohibited him from operating an aircraft.

As part of his treatment, he was taking 13 prescription medicines, many of which are also prohibited for pilots at the controls. A toxicology test found seven different drugs in Nichols’ blood and urine that were prohibited by the FAA, including oxycodone and the sedative diazepam, also known as Valium. Such drugs can impair brain function and motor controls, according to the NTSB documents.

While pilots are prohibited from flying after taking those drugs, balloon pilots are exempt from having to receive the periodic medical checkups required for other commercial flight crews. Therefore, the agency was less likely to discover the drug use.

Similarly, the paperwork for those FAA-required medical exams is the chief way for pilots to disclose convictions for driving while impaired.

Medical Exams

Nichols had one such medical exam in 1996 and he didn’t reveal the first of his driving violations, a 1985 infraction in Missouri.

U.S. law requires pilots to notify the FAA of such infractions whether they get an agency-sanctioned medical exam or not. Nichols didn’t do so.

The pilot’s actions associated with the weather are also under scrutiny. While the balloon was supposed to fly only in clear conditions, photos taken on the craft shortly before the accident showed clouds obscuring the ground and the forecast had predicted clouds and fog.

In a recorded phone call with an FAA weather station, Nichols was told, “Those clouds may be a problem for you.”

“Well, we just fly in between them,” Nichols replied. “We find a hole and we go.”

Out of a panel of six balloon industry representatives at the hearing, all said they would not have flown that day based on the weather report Nichols received.

There have been multiple calls on the FAA to improve oversight of balloon operations. The NTSB issued two recommendations to the FAA in 2014 after a series of accidents. An FAA safety examiner wrote a lengthy memo in support of tighter safety controls.

Balloon pilots can get a license to fly people for hire with only 20 hours experience and don’t have to undergo the routine recurrent training required of other commercial pilots, according to the memo.

“The oversight of banner towing operations is of a higher FAA priority than the administration’s oversight of an industry that flies thousands of citizens annually,” the memo said.

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