On a cloudy, foggy Saturday morning in August, pilot Alfred “Skip” Nichols tried to land a hot air balloon holding 15 sightseers when he flew into high tension power lines outside of Lockhart. The resulting fireball killed everyone on board, including at least two couples celebrating their wedding anniversaries.
It’s still unclear exactly how and why Nichols, an experienced balloon pilot with a criminal history involving drugs and alcohol, ended up striking the power lines.
But answers could come Friday as the National Transportation Safety Board holds a public investigative hearing in Washington, D.C., that will focus on weather conditions at the time of the crash, issues of pilot decision-making and training, and the level of safety oversight in the commercial ballooning industry.
The investigation is expected to be finished in early 2017, safety board spokesman Eric Weiss said.
Among those scheduled to testify are the head of Kubicek Balloons, the Czech company that manufactured the balloon that crashed, and officials with industry advocacy group Balloon Federation of America.
Representatives with Nichols’ company, Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, aren’t scheduled to testify, though safety officials will release documents related to their investigation, including witness statements, transcripts of interviews and photos, according to Weiss.
State Rep. John Cyrier, a licensed pilot who represents the Lockhart area, said weather conditions quickly emerged as a factor in the crash. “It was pretty apparent the visibility wasn’t good,” said Cyrier, who visited the crash site. “There was a low cloud deck and even ground fog.”
Officials familiar with the investigation told The Wall Street Journal that the crash might have occurred after Nichols tried to quickly descend through clouds without noticing the power lines. According to the officials, Nichols had been flying above a low-hanging cloud bank in violation of safety rules that require pilots to stay clear of clouds.
According to safety board member Robert Sumwalt, Nichols sent up two test balloons to gauge the wind before deciding to fly.
Sumwalt said in the week after the crash that investigators didn’t believe the balloon had any mechanical problems before takeoff. Federal officials say current inspection records and maintenance logs might have been on board at the time of the crash.
While hot air balloons don’t have a black box like airplanes or helicopters, investigators are focusing on cellphones and cameras recovered in the crash, which might provide clues to the balloon’s final moments.
Cyrier, a Republican who had called previously for a public hearing into the crash, said he hopes Friday’s session illuminates the current levels of safety oversight on hot air balloons and what he called the minimal requirements for pilots who operate commercial balloon flights. “We owe this to the families,” he said. “We owe this level of scrutiny on this activity.”
The hearing comes nearly three years after the National Transportation Safety Board called on the Federal Aviation Administration to regulate commercial balloon operators much as it does helicopter and airplane tour operators, predicting mass fatalities if the agency took no action.
Calls for strengthened oversight of hot air balloons have grown louder since the crash, with U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, the Democrat representing the Lockhart area, calling on the FAA to adopt the safety board’s recommendation to require balloon pilots to provide letters of authorization to local FAA offices. Such letters, the safety board said, would trigger “periodic surveillance checks” to make sure equipment is maintained properly, safety checklists are used, safety briefings are given and appropriate flight planning is conducted.
Cyrier said he also supports greater safety oversight of the balloon industry. “I do suggest that it needs to be looked into,” he said. “People just expect this level of safety.”
So far, 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. In a letter to Doggett in September, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the agency would wait until the safety board’s investigation is concluded before considering any recommendations from its sister agency.
In the crash’s aftermath, attention also focused on Nichols’ lengthy criminal record, which included at least four drunken driving charges and two prison stints in Missouri related to drunken driving and drug distribution convictions. Nichols moved to Central Texas after he was released from prison in 2012.
Missouri authorities had stripped Nichols of his driver’s license, but he never lost his balloon operator’s license, and it’s unclear if Nichols informed the FAA of his alcohol- and drug-related convictions as required. However, critics have pointed to lax licensing requirements for balloon pilots compared with airplane pilots, who must get regular medical screenings that include alcohol and drug checks.
A former girlfriend of Nichols’ told the American-Statesman that he was a recovering alcoholic who had been sober for at least four years.
A 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.