Fatal Texas Balloon Crash Raises Questions about Licensing and Oversight
- September 16
- Evans & Herlihy
- Personal Injury
An investigation into the July 30 balloon crash in Texas that killed the pilot and 15 passengers revealed some troubling facts about the pilot’s history – facts that would’ve likely made a commercial airline pilot ineligible to fly. But pilots of hot air balloons are not held to the same standards as airline and helicopter pilots.
According to NBC News, pilot Alfred “Skip” Nichols had been arrested multiple times in Missouri for driving under the influence of alcohol, and one court found his driving privileges should be suspended until June 2020. He had also served time in prison on a drug charge and served a second prison sentence after being arrested for drunk driving while he was on parole.
It is unclear whether drugs or alcohol played a role in the fatal balloon crash, but the accident has brought to light the need for stricter Federal Aviation Administration oversight.
Pilots must disclose on their license application any prior drug-related convictions, but they are not required to report drunk-driving convictions. A conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol is instead supposed to be included on the FAA medical application. However, balloonists and glider pilots are not required to undergo FAA medical exams as other types of pilots are – they only need to provide a statement saying they have no medical defect that would interfere with their piloting abilities.
As of two years ago, balloon accidents had killed 114 people since 1964. Common factors included collisions with trees, buildings, and power lines.
Witnesses say the balloon Nichols was piloting was flying too low when it hit power lines and caught on fire. It wasn’t the first time he had collided with an object while flying, according to a report by The Associated Press – in 2013, his company settled a lawsuit stemming from what he called “a controlled landing” in 2009. The woman who was injured in the accident said she was one of eight passengers on board the balloon when Nichols told the group he had run out of propane and needed to land. The balloon went down quickly, into a patch of trees.
The Better Business Bureau received at least 36 complaints about Nichols’ company, Manchester Balloon Voyages, between 1998 and 2001, with many customers stating Nichols canceled their rides with no notice and never refunded their money.
It may take time – possibly years – to determine all of the factors that contributed to the fatal July 30 crash. When the National Transportation Safety Board investigated a fatal balloon crash that occurred in Houston in 1989, it didn’t release its final report until four years later. That report stated the contributing factors were the pilot’s inexperience, misjudgment about whether the balloon could clear a set of power lines, and the poor condition of the balloon itself. The pilot had completed only nine of the required 24 hours to qualify as a pilot in command.
Protection from Harm
When in good condition, and operated by responsible, licensed pilots, balloons may not pose a risk to occupants’ safety. Before making a reservation for a balloon ride, customers may wish to consult the Better Business Bureau and ask to see proof of the pilot’s license and balloon inspection records.