In all, 16 people died, including pilot Alfred “Skip” Nichols, in what was called the deadliest hot air balloon crash in U.S. history.
At the time, the 49-year-old pilot was described by many, including ex-girlfriend Wendy Bartch, as “a good pilot who loved people.” Nichols’s best friend, Alan Lirett, told the Associated Press that Nichols was a “great pilot,” adding, “There’s going to be all kinds of reports out in the press, and I want a positive image there, too.”
But some troubling facts began to surface. The AP found that Nichols had received a DWI in Missouri years earlier, something he should have reported to the Federal Aviation Administration but didn’t.
An investigation of the crash by the National Transportation Safety Board has uncovered much more troubling details that show Nichols should not have been flying that day, and that he potentially should never have been allowed to fly in the first place.
The NTSB held a hearing Friday to discuss the investigation.
A toxicology report found that on the day of the crash, Nichols had seven drugs in his system, according to documents released by the agency.
Some of them, including diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and the muscle relaxant cyclobenzaprine, are medications that pilots are not supposed to take before flying, according to ABC News.
The others, such as diazepam (Valium), oxycodone and methylphenidate (Ritalin), would legally prevent a pilot from obtaining the medical certificate needed to fly an aircraft.
The only catch is that hot air balloon pilots don’t require this sort of certificate. Even so, the Federal Aviation Administration suggests that pilots not fly while using them, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Nichols also had a fairly extensive criminal past, mostly related to alcohol and drug use.
Records from Missouri’s St. Louis County showed that he pleaded guilty at least twice to DWIs, alongside a number of other vehicular infractions, such as operating a motor vehicle after his license was revoked. (According to Bloomberg News, he was convicted of five DWIs.)
His driver’s license was revoked in 2010, and he wasn’t eligible for a new one until 2020. Yet he still flew hot air balloons.
In addition, FBI records obtained by the Wall Street Journal found that Nichols was arrested several times for felony drug possession — twice in 1987 and once in 1998 and 1999.
The FAA requires a pilot to report drug convictions and motor vehicle violations to the agency within 60 days of their occurrence, but as ABC noted, Nichols never did.
The FAA learned of at least one of his convictions but did not pursue legal action.
In a July 29, 2013, letter sent to the late pilot by the FAA, the agency stated that it would not pursue action because of its Stale Complaint Rule, which means the FAA can dismiss a complaint if the offense occurred more than six months before the filing.
Finally, the NTSB investigation revealed a 2013 psychologist report that stated that Nichols had a history of depression alongside alcohol and substance abuse.
Part of it read, “He now works in reservations but often makes errors due to distractibility and forgetfulness,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
Although Nichols did not need a medical license, he did undergo a medical exam in 1996. During it, he did not disclose his convictions or the state of his mental health, according to Bloomberg News.
At Friday’s hearing, the issue of the FAA increasing its regulations of the hot air balloon industry was raised.
“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 Friday, Bloomberg reported.
When asked at Friday’s hearing whether the FAA should alter its requirements and make hot air balloon pilots obtain a medical certificate, FAA Federal Air Surgeon James Fraser said it should, according to ABC.
“I feel a medical evaluation is a part of the holistic plan to keep the national airspace safe,” he said.
After the hearing, Sumwalt told ABC that this event might nudge the FAA to change its rules.
“Unfortunately, sometimes it takes blood to get change,” Sumwalt said. “And we want to make sure there are changes made before there’s more bloodshed.”
Not everyone agreed, however. Dean Carlton, president of the nonprofit Balloon Federation of America, said no further regulations are needed.
“The oversight is adequate,” he told Bloomberg. “It’s the responsibility of the balloon pilots and the association to continually enhance that safety.”
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