Lockhart balloon pilot shrugged off iffy weather conditions, feds find

4:38 p.m Friday, Dec. 9, 2016 Local
RODOLFO GONZALEZ
Investigators examined the scene of a hot air balloon crash that killed 16 people July 30 near Lockhart.

Early in the morning of July 30, Alfred “Skip” Nichols, owner and operator of a Central Texas ballooning company, phoned a commercial weather service to get a regional forecast ahead of the flight he was piloting.

“Clouds may be a problem for you,” the weather briefer told him.

“Well, we just fly in between them,” Nichols said. He added: “We find a hole and we go.”

All around Central Texas that day, other balloonists were canceling their plans. Experts called Nichols’ strategy “very unsafe” at a federal hearing Friday.

Less than three hours after his phone call, Nichols and 15 passengers on his Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides flight were killed when he flew into power lines outside Lockhart.

The conversation between Nichols and the forecaster was one of several revelations contained in memos and transcripts released Friday by the National Transportation Safety Board as it took testimony on the incident.

The hearing was meant to be a fact-finding proceeding — the safety board “does not determine blame,” said Robert Sumwalt, a board member who chaired the session — but Nichols was faulted repeatedly.

Other findings included:

• Nichols had at least 10 prescription drugs, including oxycodone and diazepam, better known as Valium, in his body at the time of the crash. The drugs had been prescribed for a range of maladies, from back pain to depression. People suffering from those conditions and taking those medications shouldn’t be piloting aircraft, Dr. James Fraser, air surgeon for the Federal Aviation Administration, told members of the board of inquiry Friday.

• In 2013, the FAA received a complaint about Nichols, noting five alcohol-related incidents, the most recent in 2007. The FAA warned Nichols that “future violations” of regulations “could result in suspension and/or revocation of your airman certificate” — but he faced no other penalties at the time.

• A former pilot at Nichols’ company said Nichols often wanted him to fly trips when the cloud ceiling was low.

In an emailed statement to the board, Austin balloon enthusiast Joseph Reynolds said the day of the crash he had run forecast models for pilots trying to determine whether they should take off from the same field where the doomed Heart of Texas balloon launched.

“None of us chose to fly,” he said, “The forecast for launch points south of Austin, around San Marcos, had limited visibility and I quit looking at it.”

David B. Smuck, chief pilot for Austin Aeronauts, said his organization had also canceled all of its flights scheduled to launch in Round Rock on that day.

According to interviews conducted by the safety board’s investigators, the ground crew lost visual contact with the balloon about 10 to 15 minutes after launch as it flew into the clouds.

In one email sent to authorities, a person who works in Buda said that he or she is usually “able to see the powerline towers clearly” on his or her drive to work. (The person’s name was redacted in an email.) The morning of the crash, the person wrote, fog was so dense that “I was amazed that I could not see the top of the towers and could only see the bases.”

Records released Friday morning show that former Heart of Texas balloon pilot Mike McGrath told safety board investigators typical Texas weather provided challenges for balloon pilots that eventually led him to leave the state.

“He said typical Texas weather would be crystal clear early in the morning, then a half an hour before sunrise the fog would roll in and the ceilings would develop at about 700-800 feet,” an interview summary from the safety board said. “That would happen almost every day, and was probably why so few balloon operators were in that part of Texas. It was a normal local weather phenomenon. High humidity up to 100% would also reduce the balloons (sic) lift capacity dramatically.”

McGrath referred to Nichols as a “wheeler and dealer,” and said he occasionally felt pressure to complete flights, the interview summary said.

“Skip would want him to fly low-ceiling trips, but he usually said no,” the document said.

McGrath also told the safety board that annual balloon inspections could get expensive, and Nichols would “low ball” to cut costs.

But investigators said they found no evidence of mechanical problems with the balloon, despite it being overdue for an annual inspection — the last one had expired at the end of May.

And members of the ground crew who worked with Nichols on the day of the crash said he had canceled flights before, and had no problem doing so.

As much as the inquiry focused on the weather, it looked at Nichols’ fitness for flying.

A post-mortem toxicology report found more than a dozen substances in the blood or urine of Nichols, all of which were associated with medications that he had been prescribed. These included a stimulant to treat attention deficit disorder, the pain medication oxycodone and anti-depressants.

Some of the drugs could “slow reaction time and decision making,” Phillip Kemp, a senior research toxicologist at the FAA, told the safety board Friday.

Nichols was a recovering alcoholic who wasn’t eligible for a Texas driver’s license because his driver’s license in Missouri had been revoked after four drunken-driving convictions. But friends have said there is no way he would have flown if he were under the influence.

The toxicology report released Friday said no trace of alcohol was found in Nichols’ body.

A full investigation will be completed early next year.

Still, safety board officials used the hearing to press FAA officials about why the aviation agency doesn’t have stiffer standards for balloonists.

The hearing comes nearly three years after the safety board called on the FAA to regulate commercial balloon operators much as it does helicopter and airplane tour operators, predicting mass fatalities if the agency took no action.

The FAA has rebuffed calls for enhanced regulation, preferring to embrace a series of balloon industry-developed safety suggestions, including rating operators based on safety performance, background checks and insurance information.

An American-Statesman analysis of each of the 71 fatal balloon accidents investigated by the safety board since 1964 found that nearly 70 percent of cases involved some form of pilot error. The crashes, which resulted in 135 deaths, also revealed a series of safety issues, ranging from improperly modified equipment and lack of helmets for passengers to inadequate safety briefings and ill-advised trips in poor weather.

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