CALDWELL COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — The hot air balloon pilot who died in a tragic July 30 crash in Caldwell County had legal problems related to alcohol, marijuana and his business, according to court records reviewed by KXAN.
Alfred “Skip” Nichols was piloting his hot air balloon near Lockhart on Saturday, when the craft collided with high-tension power lines. The disaster killed all 16 passengers. Nichols operated Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides.
Since the disaster, Nichols’ friends and family have publicly supported him.
“We’ve lost a really sweet individual. A lot of people will be affected. He was very well-known,” said Wendy Bartsch, an ex-girlfriend. “He was well-known because he helped people… if you ever needed anything, he would give it to you.” In the Associated Press interview, Bartsch also said Nichols was a recovering alcoholic, he was sober for the past four years and he never piloted a balloon after drinking.
Before coming to Texas, Nichols operated a balloon business near St. Louis, Mo.
Missouri court records show Nichols had multiple charges for driving while intoxicated, including a felony DWI charge in 2007. The felony charge was ultimately reduced to a misdemeanor years later. In addition, police arrested Nichols for felony possession of marijuana with intent to distribute in 1999.
According to court records, Nichols was stripped of his driver’s license, and he spent time in jail.
Nichols was also sued by a customer, following a July 2009 flight. Carroll Brcic said she was injured when the balloon Nichols was piloting crash-landed in a forest. Nichols had a group of passengers, but during the flight the balloon became “becalmed,” meaning it stopped moving laterally. Nichols said he moved up and down, gaining and losing altitude, in an attempt to find a breeze. In front of the balloon there were high-tension power lines.
“You don’t want to get near them, if you aren’t sure you have enough fuel,” Nichols said in the court documents, regarding the power lines. “You would much rather make a landing controlled with fuel than just fly until you are out of fuel hoping to get somewhere.”
After about an hour and 20 minutes, Nichols said he made the decision to land in a wooded area. Before landing, Nichols said he lowered the basket of the balloon to the level of the crown of the trees, which was about 70 feet high. Then, he pulled the basket along by grabbing tree branches and pulling the balloon forward to the best place to land.
Nichols described the landing as soft and uneventful.
Lee Patton, an attorney who represented Brcic, said Nichols disputed the characterization of the landing as a crash.
In a deposition obtained by KXAN, Nichols said he began flying in hot air balloons at the age of 15. He said received his license after logging more than 40 hours of required flights, among other requirements. At the time of the deposition in September of 2013, Nichols said he had logged more than 1,300 hours of hot air balloon flights.
Prior to running Heart of Texas, Nichols operated Love Song Balloon Adventures, Manchester Balloon Voyages, Air Balloon Sports and World Balloon Inc., which was a cold air balloon advertisement company, he said in court records.
Before the Brcic lawsuit concluded, Nichols said he sold Air Balloon Sports LLC due to debt in the form of gift certificates that needed to be flown.
Patton said Nichols had no insurance at the time of his client’s flight. The lawsuit was ultimately settled; however, Patton said Nichols had little money and few assets at the time.