The six hour NTSB hearing into July’s Heart of Texas balloon crash revealed the pilot and owner, Alfred “Skip” Nichols’, 49, medical history at the time of his death.
Nichols was at the helm of the balloon when it crashed into an electrical wire outside of Lockhart on July 30. Nichols and his fifteen passengers were killed after the basket severed and caught fire. According to officials the crash was the deadliest hot air balloon crash in United States history.
Friday’s hearing in Washington, D.C. was streamed live on the NTSB’s website. The NTSB said the hearing revolved around the facts of the crash and regulations and best practices used by commercial hot air balloon pilots.
NTSB member, the Honorable Robert Sumwalt addressed the victim’s families at opening the hearing, “Our commitment at the NTSB is to learn from this event so that others don't have to go through what you've gone through.”
The NTSB said that Nichols’ was aware that there could be problems with the weather. In the report, obtained by Fox 7, an associate at the Lockheed Martin Flight Service told Nichols, “those clouds may be a problem for you, I don’t know how low you want to stay but.” The report goes on to say, Nichols responded, “”well, we just fly in between them” and “we find a hole and we go.””
During the hearing, members of the NTSB a panel of pilots how they would have handled the weather advisory. All six responded, they wouldn’t have flown. One of them adding, “going into the clouds is not an option and it’s not a very good feeling being up there and being faced with that type of choice.”
The NTSB spent a portion of the hearing taking a closer look at the rules and regulations for commercial balloon pilots, including how much of their medical and criminal history they are required to disclose.
An NTSB member asking the FAA panel, “a commercial balloon pilot doesn't even need to apply for a medical certificate, do they?”. The FAA response? “That is correct.”
According to witness statements released by the NTSB, an Austin balloon pilot contacted the NTSB after July’s crash. In an email he stated he had filed complaints with the FAA in December 2012 and January 2013 because he had discovered that Nichols had not reported a DWI.
Those DWI’s are also listed in the NTSB documents as part of the crash investigation. They outline Nichols’ history of substance abuse problems. Including 5 alcohol related driving convictions, all of which the FAA dismissed with a simple letter. Nichols, the documents show also had a history of drug arrests.
“The pilot also had a history of multiple psychiatric conditions as well as multiple prescription medications which were detected in toxicology,” said NTSB Hearing Officer, Bill English.
According to NTSB records, Nichols suffered from Type II diabetes, depression and fibromyalgia. And was on 13 prescription medications to treat the conditions.
Additionally, he had picked up a prescription for Oxycodone just two days before the crash. At the time of his death, the toxicology report shows, he had 7 prescription drugs in his system, all are banned by the FAA for airplane pilots, including valium and oxycodone. The records also show Nichols did not disclose his medical or criminal history to the FAA.
“If we find that a pilot has not reported, according to CFR we have the authority to take away all of his certificates,” said an FAA panelist about airplane pilots who do not disclose their medical or criminal history.
But because of an FAA loophole, balloon pilots aren't required to report what medications they take. A loophole that because of July’s crash could close once the NTSB issues their final report.
“this could be a watershed event for commercial air industry to up the anty on safety however that gets done,” said Sumwalt in his closing remarks, adding, “And if we don't take it seriously we really are missing a tragic opportunity to correct it.”
The NTSB says they will compile and analyze the evidence presented in the their findings and the testimony from the hearing to determine an official cause for the crash. According to an NTSB spokesperson, the final report could be delivered in 12-18 months.
The NTSB says they could issue safety recommendations before the final report is released.
In April 2014, the NTSB warned the FAA that without more oversight on commercial hot air balloon operators there could be the potential for mass fatalities in hot air balloon crashes.