LOCKHART, Texas (KXAN) — The pilot of a hot air balloon that crashed near Lockhart this summer, killing everyone on board, had prescription drugs in his system that would slow reaction time and impair decision-making processes, the National Transportation Safety Board heard Friday.
Officials with the NTSB in Washington D.C. talked to experts for six hours as a part of their investigation into the July 30 crash that killed 16 people near Lockhart. The hot air balloon crashed after hitting high-voltage power lines.
During a recap of the crash, the NTSB reported pilot Alfred “Skip” Nichols’ toxicology indicated he had multiple prescription medications in his system.
Dr. Philip Kemp, senior research toxicologist, said the diazepam — what most know as Valium — in Nichols’ system, as well as oxycodone, were taken by Nichols at levels consistent with regular use. Dr. Kemp said Valium and oxycodone, very significant central nervous system depressants, would “inhibit decision-making, cause drowsiness and sedation and interfere if you will, with the ability to operate a motor vehicle or aircraft, in this case.”
John Duncan, director of flight standards with the Federal Aviation Administration, said during the hearing, “Generally, a pilot has to be fit to fly. They have a responsibility to not take appropriate medications and be properly rested to do the things they’re supposed to.”
The FAA was alerted to the drunk driving history of Nichols and the agency investigated Nichols in 2013, according to records obtained by KXAN.
The agency says they do not have plans to change regulations for hot air balloons despite the deadly crash and requests from the NTSB. Unlike airplane pilots, balloon pilots are not required to hold a FAA medical certificate, which is the paperwork that requires the disclosure of offenses like a DWI, according to the NTSB.
Friday’s hearing also focused on the conditions the day of the crash. The NTSB says the balloon’s pilot got a weather report at 5:06 a.m. At the time, clouds were 1,200 feet above the ground. By 6:59 a.m. when the balloon lifted off, the cloud ceiling dropped to just 700 feet.
“When this accident 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,'” Robert Sumwalt, the NTSB chairman of the board of inquiry for the crash, said.
When asked their thoughts on the pilots response, each of the half dozen hot air balloon pilots testifying all said they would not have flown in similar conditions.
“Going in and out of the clouds really is not an option and it’s not a very comfortable feeling as a pilot being up there and being faced with that type of choice,” Scott Appelman, owner of Rainbow Ryders Hot Air Balloon Company, said. His company is the largest hot air balloon operator in the United States.
As for the balloon crashing after hitting high-voltage power lines, it’s something the pilots in attendance say they should have never been near.
“If there’s any doubt in your mind and you suspect there are power lines ahead, or if you know there are power lines ahead, and there’s any doubt in your mind that you can’t clear them, the option is to rip out, risk damage to the aircraft, risk hurting someone with a broken leg, but it’s a far better option than contacting the power lines,” Andy Baird, owner of Cameron Balloons, said.
The NTSB says their final report will take months to complete, but could have ramifications across the hot air balloon industry.
“We can’t turn back the hands of time and prevent what happened that tragic morning, 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.”
From 2002-2012, data from the National Transportation Safety Board shows 16 people died in hot air balloon crashes in the United States. Previously the most recent deadly Texas balloon crash was in Mesquite, Texas in August 1992.