Hot Air Balloon Pilot in Texas Had Long History of DUI Before Accident
Any driver convicted multiple times of Driving Under the Influence (DUI) in most states would not meet the medical requirements necessary to obtain a license to pilot a helicopter or an airplane. The Federal Aviation Administration has no such safeguard, however, for those seeking a license to pilot hot air balloons. This loophole may be to blame for a hot air balloon accident that occurred in Texas this July, which claimed the lives of 16 individuals.
Alfred “Skip” Nichols, according to the Washington Post, had been charged with at least four DUI convictions in the last 26 years – one in 1990, two in 2002, and another in 2010, all occurring in the state of Missouri. In addition to his DUI record, Nichols was also convicted of and served time for drug crimes. Another report from NBC Nightly News stated these multiple DUI convictions would have prevented Nichols from obtaining the medical certification required to receive a license to fly by himself in an aircraft.
However, unlike the certifications needed for flying aircraft, a medical certificate is not needed to obtain a license to fly gliders or hot air balloons. Instead, according to NBC’s report, these individuals need only provide a statement certifying they do not have any medical defects that would make them unable to pilot an aircraft. It was also reported by NBC that the court in the state of Missouri had also ruled that Nichols should not receive his driving privileges back until the year 2020, but a friend of Nichols, who was killed in the accident, had stated Nichols had his issues “under control.”
The passengers of Nichols’s hot air balloon arrived for their flight around 5:45 a.m. on the day of the accident. The balloon’s launch was scheduled for 6:49 a.m. when the sun was predicted to rise, but it was reported the launch was delayed by about 20 minutes – investigators are interviewing the grounds crew to determine the reason for this delay. Once the balloon took off, the first 911 call came in at approximately 7:43 a.m. – the basket of the balloon that carried passengers fell and hit power lines below and had caught fire, and it is unclear if the fire occurred before or after the basket hit the lines.
Ultimately, the hot air balloon and basket crashed to the ground, killing the 15 passengers and pilot. It is unclear at this time the cause of the crash and the state Nichols was in while piloting.