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NTSB Blames Pilot, Drugs, and FAA for Deadly Hot Air Balloon Crash

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has revealed its findings regarding a tragic hot air balloon crash that killed 16 people in July 2016. Among its findings were that the balloon's pilot:

  • Had a high level of cold and allergy medicine;
  • Had Valium and other drugs in his system;
  • Had prior convictions for drunken driving; and
  • Ignored warnings about the weather.

In its meeting, the NTSB also faulted the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for not monitoring the hot air balloon industry more closely. The NTSB's report raises important questions about the safety of sightseeing aviation tours in the U.S.

Crash was the Deadliest Hot Air Balloon Accident in U.S. History 

All 16 people on board the hot air balloon-the pilot and 15 passengers-died when it crashed after it struck power lines on July 30, 2016, making it the deadliest hot air balloon crash in the U.S. The balloon crashed into a pasture near Lockhart, Texas, near Austin, around 7:30 a.m. local time. The hot air balloon was owned by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides and had left from Fentress Air Park in Fentress, Texas, at 6:58 a.m.

Heart of Texas Balloon Pilot had Valium and Oxycodone in his System 

According to the NTSB's report the pilot, Alfred "Skip" Nichols, was not under the influence of alcohol or illicit drugs but the effects of his multiple central nervous system impairing drugs, including Valium, "likely affected the pilot's ability to make safe decisions."

"The pilot should not have been flying-never mind carrying passengers," said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt. "The pilot's poor decisions on the day of the accident were his and his alone, but they affected those who flew with him." 

Dr. Nicholas Webster, a medical officer with the NTSB, said Nichols had enough Benadryl in his system to mimic the effects of being drunk. Nichols also had four convictions for drunk driving. Meanwhile, three months before the crash a psychiatrist noted that Nichols' mood was "not good."

Hot Air Balloon Pilot Ignored Weather Warnings 

The NTSB also noted that clouds and fog were seen near the launch point, while conditions were believed to be deteriorating. The pilot reportedly did not check weather conditions immediately before leaving and a passenger photograph taken within five minutes of the crash showed a dense layer of clouds that appeared to have no break to the horizon. The agency found that the pilot erred and should have canceled the flight rather than going ahead with it based on weather conditions.

"To be able to see and avoid obstacles during landing, balloon pilots must ensure weather conditions are compatible with the limitations of balloon maneuverability," the NTSB wrote. "The accident pilot had the opportunity to make decisions regarding the flight based on the weather conditions at three points on the morning of the accident: before launch, en route, and near the end of the flight. At each of these points there were indicators that the weather may not be conducive to safe flight." 

By choosing to land in reduced visibility conditions, the pilot had less ability to see and react to any obstacles that may affect the balloon, including power lines.

NTSB Identifies Safety Issues after Tragic Balloon Crash 

Among the safety issues identified by the NTSB:

  • Lack of medical oversight for commercial balloon pilots; and
  • Lack of FAA oversight for potentially risky commercial balloon operations 

"[The FAA is] abdicating their responsibility to provide oversight [of the balloon industry]," said Sumwalt. "They are saying, 'The [Balloon Federation of America] will take care of this so we do not have to do anything.' This is what is sad." 

The NTSB noted that commercial balloon pilots face no requirement to hold a medical certificate. The hot air balloon's pilot was diagnosed with depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, conditions that might have prevented him from being allowed to operate a hot air balloon if a medical certificate were required. Meanwhile, some of the medications in his system would have prevented him from flying if he were subject to the FAA's "Do Not Issue" or "Do Not Fly" lists.

Furthermore, the NTSB noted that the FAA conducted limited oversight of balloon operators, which meant not all operators received FAA oversight and prevented them from being educated on risk mitigation.

"The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the pilot's pattern of poor decision-making that led to the initial launch, continued flight in fog and above clouds, and descent near or through clouds that decreased the pilot's ability to see and avoid obstacles," the agency concluded. 

Likely contributing to the accident were medical conditions and medications the pilot took and the FAA's policy of not requiring commercial balloon pilots to have a medical certificate.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett said he has proposed an amendment to FAA legislation that is up for renewal by March 31. That amendment would require balloon operators to have medical certificates, potentially averting further tragedies.

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