Pilot of Deadliest Balloon Crash in US History Knew About Bad Weather; Eight Prescription Drugs Found in System

Washington, DC – The pilot of the hot air balloon that crashed in Lockhart, Texas, on July 30, had taken several prescription drugs that would slow reflexes and impair judgment, said experts who testified at the National Transportation Safety Board hearing on Friday, December 9.

At the investigative hearing, officials examined the circumstances of the accident and safety issues in commercial hot air ballooning. They also reviewed pilot Alfred “Skip” Nichols’ decision to fly when the cloud cover was at 700 feet and the forecast showed no chances of the sky clearing.

While attempting to land, his balloon hit high-voltage power lines and burst into flames, killing all 16 people aboard.

“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,” said Robert Sumwalt, of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and chairman of the board of inquiry for the crash.

Skip Nichols-hot air balloon pilot (Source: Facebook-Skip Nichols)
Skip Nichols
(Source: Facebook-Skip Nichols)

“The pilot had a record of multiple medical and psychiatric conditions as well as multiple prescription medications, which were detected in toxicology,” said Hearing Officer Bill English.

Dr. Philip Kemp, a toxicologist, explained that Diazepam (Valium) and Oxycodone, found in Nichols’ system were at regular dosage levels, however, both can significantly depress central nervous system that would “inhibit decision-making, cause drowsiness, and interfere with the ability to operate a motor vehicle or aircraft.”

On the day of the scheduled flight, at 5:06 a.m., Nichols got the weather report, which indicated clouds at 1,200 feet above the ground. According to Sumwalt, the weather briefer had cautioned the pilot about it.

“When the pilot received a weather briefing, the weather briefer said, ‘Yeah, those clouds may be a problem for you… don’t know how long you plan to stay, but…’ and then the pilot replied, ‘Well, we just fly in between them. We find a hole and we go.’”

When the balloon took off around 6:59 a.m., the cloud cover dropped to just 700 feet. A passenger’s photograph taken before the accident showed that the balloon was flying above a layer of clouds, and obstructed part of the view of the ground.

Six hot air balloon pilots at the hearing testified that they would not have flown in those conditions.

Scott Appelman, owner of Rainbow Ryders, the largest hot air balloon company in the United States said that going in and out of the clouds is not an option. “It’s not a comfortable feeling as a pilot being up there and being faced with that type of choice.”

Nichols' balloon (Source: handout)
Nichols’ balloon
(Source: handout)

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspector James Malecha also said that it was not safe or prudent.

“Definitely, not a safe practice,” said Andy Baird, general manager of Cameron Balloons.

Baird also said that pilots must stay away from power lines and choose other less risky options, even if it means damage to aircraft or some injury, but still those are far better options than contacting powerlines.

In Missouri, Nichols had been convicted on three charges of driving while intoxicated, one excessive blood alcohol charge, and one felony drug distribution charge.  In Texas, his driver’s license was suspended, and he wasn’t allowed to drive a vehicle, yet he had his commercial balloon pilot’s license since 1993, which allowed him to fly passengers. He was the owner and sole pilot of the balloon, which could fly more passengers on one ride than the number flown on a small commuter plane. The FAA had investigated Nichols in 2013 when the agency was alerted to his drunk driving history.

A balloon with a 16-passenger capacity is one of the largest recreational balloons, and the FAA has no specific requirements for its operation. One challenge in flying it, according to an expert is that “as the balloon gets larger, there is going to be a slower response time.”

One investigator asked whether pilots feel pressured to not cancel a flight, especially if passengers have experienced cancellations before. Pilots replied that safety is always a priority and half the times they have to cancel due to bad weather.

NTSB Hearing (L to R) Dr. Mary Pat McKay, Robert Sumwalt, and Dave Bowling
NTSB Hearing (L to R) Dr. Mary Pat McKay, Robert Sumwalt, and Dave Bowling

The NTSB has been urging the FAA for stricter regulations and oversight in hot air ballooning; however, even two years ago, the FAA rejected the Transportation Board’s recommendations, despite a warning about the potential for a high number of fatalities in a single air tour accident.

It will take months for the NTSB to finalize its report, but whether this watershed event in ballooning will prompt the FAA to enforce better safety regulations and oversight remains to be seen.

“We can’t turn back the hands of time and prevent what happened that tragic  Saturday morning, in Lockhart, Texas,” Sumwalt said. “But our commitment at the NTSB is to learn from this accident so that we can keep it from happening again.”
Parties to the hearing included representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration, the Balloon Federation of America, and Kubicek Balloons that manufactured Nichols’ balloon.

Medications in Nichols’ system at the time of crash.
Source: Central Texas Autopsy report for
Alfred Guilispie Nichols, IV Diazepam 130 ng/mL

Nordiazepam 180 ng/mL
Bupropion 62 ng/mL
Hydroxybupropion 340 ng/mL
Diphenhydramine 65 ng/mL
Cyclobenzaprine 20 ng/mL
Oxycodone 8/1 ng/mL
Methylphenidate 5.0 ng/mL
Ritalinic Acid 180 ng/mL

These requirements mandatory for plane pilots are not needed for balloon pilots

1.Letter of Authorization

This gives FAA better oversight as it come from the local FAA office—it describes operational limitations and ensures periodic surveillance check

2.Medical Certificate
Looks at history of drug and alcohol abuse and psychological disorders

3.Drug and alcohol testing
Random tests for those who fly passengers

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