Hot air balloon from disaster had a previous ‘hard landing’

The hot air balloon involved in a deadly crash near Lockhart on July 30, 2016, seen in a November 2014 photo. (Courtesy: Gaylynn Djafarzade)
The hot air balloon involved in a deadly crash near Lockhart on July 30, 2016, seen in a November 2014 photo. (Courtesy: Gaylynn Djafarzade)

AUSTIN (KXAN) –-Update, Aug. 2, 2016, 4:50 p.m.

New details in the 2014 hard landing of a Heart of Texas Balloon Rides craft reveal Alfred “Skip” Nichols was not the pilot of the balloon that crash landed and sent three passengers to the hospital, according to an incident report obtained by KXAN.

The report names pilot Michael McGrath, 55 at the time, as the pilot of the balloon involved in the hard landing. McGrath told officers the passengers appeared to be in the proper position as the craft made its landing, but one woman fell over.

Nichols told officers he was flying a different balloon that day, and he had already landed at another spot. Nichols said he was on the scene with the working crew to pick up the balloon and passengers. He presented a temporary certification to officers at the landing site. Nichols said his company was traveling to Texas seasonally only, according to the report.

A brief report obtained from the Federal Aviation Administration says the balloon pilot landed hard because the balloon retrieval team parked its vehicle in the way of the descending balloon and the pilot had to avoid hitting the vehicle trailer.

One passenger said the craft appeared to be coming down fast, and she felt the basket hit the ground three times before stopping.

The landing, which sent three to the hospital, occurred in a soccer field across from Hemp Hill School.

The passenger basket landed about 20 to 30 feet from the FM 150, and there were divots in the ground where it made contact, according to the report.

There were 16 passengers on the flight, six complained of injuries; three were transported to Seton Hospital, the report states.

Original story

Federal Aviation Administration records show a hot air balloon that crashed into power lines near Lockhart, killing all 16 on board Saturday, had a “hard landing” two years prior.

It is not yet clear who was piloting the craft on Aug. 3, 2014, when it landed hard in a church soccer field in Kyle, Texas. The rough landing injured two female passengers, who were taken to a hospital by ambulance, according to FAA records.

The model of balloon involved in the hard landing matches the one from Saturday’s tragic disaster. Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloons was operated by pilot, Alfred “Skip” Nichols. FAA historical records show ties between the balloon company involved in the accident Saturday and the 2014 incident.

According to an incident report, the balloon retrieval team parked its vehicle in the path of the landing balloon, and “this caused the pilot of the balloon to land short and abruptly in order to avoid contacting the back end of the balloon trailer with the gondola.”

“Our records show no records of accidents, incidents or closed enforcement actions against Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, or pilot Alfred G. Nichols,” an FAA spokesperson said in an email.

FAA records show Nichols’ certificate for the balloon began Aug. 7, 2014, just four days following the hard landing incident. No other owners for the balloon are listed in FAA records.

In a Facebook post Sunday night, the company announced they were suspending operations:

It is with extraordinarily heavy hearts that we announce the suspension of operations at Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides.
The horrific crash near Lockhart, Texas has taken from us our owner and Chief Pilot, Skip Nichols, as well as 15 passengers, all of whom saw what was planned to be a special day turn into an unspeakable tragedy.
At this time, no information has been shared with us by the investigating authorities; it is for that reason we are unable to speak with the families of the passengers, but we do want you to know that we are with you in spirit and prayer and share your grief. There are simply no words to express our profound sadness at this event that has taken away so many of our loved ones.
With our greatest sympathy,
Sarah Nichols
Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides”

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