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Oversight Scrutinized After Deadliest Hot Air Balloon Accident In U.S. History

Authorities investigate the site of a hot air balloon accident in Maxwell, Texas, on Saturday. All 16 people aboard the hot air balloon died after it hit tall, high-voltage power lines.
Aaron M. Sprecher
AFP/Getty Images
Authorities investigate the site of a hot air balloon accident in Maxwell, Texas, on Saturday. All 16 people aboard the hot air balloon died after it hit tall, high-voltage power lines.

After a hot air balloon crash in Texas on Saturday killed all 16 people aboard, revelations about the pilot's past are raising questions about the oversight of balloon operators.

The pilot had drunken driving and drug convictions that would probably have blocked him from getting an airline pilot's license, The Associated Press reports — but there are less stringent licensing requirements for balloon pilots.

The crash was the deadliest not just in U.S. history, but in the entire Western hemisphere, one expert tells Reuters. The basket of the balloon appears to have struck tall, high-voltage power lines in a field south of Austin and then burst into flames.

"The power lines have been there for years — they're like 15 stories tall," NPR's John Burnett reported on Here & Now. "And the pilot lived about 10 miles away .... he knew the route."

The question, John says, is why the balloon didn't clear the lines. The National Transportation Safety Board will investigate whether the cause was weather, pilot error or an equipment malfunction.

There are no survivors and no flight data recorder, but the NTSB will be speaking with the ground crew and looking for any eyewitnesses, John reports. The NTSB also uncovered 14 personal electronic devices, including cell phones and cameras, at the crash site.

"We're told that the cameras appear to be completely destroyed," Robert Sumwalt of the NTSB said Sunday. "However we will send all of these electronic devices back to the NTSB lab in Washington, D.C., where our experts can perform their magic."

In the meantime, attention has turned to the pilot — 49-year-old Skip Nichols, the owner of Heart of Texas Balloon Rides.

The AP reports that Nichols had "at least four convictions for drunken driving" and spent time in prison after he was convicted of a drug crime in 2000.

"If Alfred 'Skip' Nichols had been a commercial airplane pilot, he probably would have been grounded long ago," the AP writes. While applying for a plane pilot's license, he'd have to report those convictions and would have been unlikely to be approved, the wire service reports.

But would-be balloon operators don't even have to disclose any prior drunken driving convictions to the Federal Aviation Administration.

It's a "loophole," Patrick Cannon, a spokesman for the Balloon Federation of America, tells the AP. A balloonist's application says that drunken driving convictions will be covered on the FAA's medical paperwork — but balloonists don't actually need to use that medical form at all, and can just get a generic statement from their doctor.

Several of Nichols' drunken driving convictions, as well as his drug crime conviction, happened after he'd been licensed as a balloon pilot.

"After they receive a license, all pilots are supposed to notify the FAA within 60 days of a drug or alcohol conviction," the AP writes. "However, Cannon said, there is no oversight of that reporting requirement for balloon pilots."

There was also a history of complaints against Nichols, for allegedly canceling flights and not providing refunds, the wire service reports.

Friends of Nichols told the media that he was a safe pilot who had never flown while drunk. And again, it's not clear whether pilot error contributed to the crash.

But concern over the oversight of commercial balloonists predates this deadly incident.

As the Two-Way reported over the weekend, the NTSB sent a letter to the FAA in 2014 calling for greater oversight of commercial balloon operators:

"Citing previous incidents, the letter says that the 'potential for a high number of fatalities in a single air tour balloon accident is of particular concern if air tour balloon operators continue to conduct operations under less stringent regulations and oversight.'

"In its response, the FAA said that it rejected the recommendations, because they would 'not result in a significantly higher level of operational safety.' It added: 'Since the amount of ballooning is so low, the FAA believes the risk posed to all pilots and participants is also low given that ballooners understand the risks and general hazards associated with this activity.' "

The passengers who died in the crash on Saturday have not all been identified, but friends and family members identified several of the victims to CNN and NBC. They included Matt and Sunday Rowan, who had been married about six months, as well as Joe and Tressa Shafer Owens, who were said to be doting grandparents.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.