Pilot In Hot Air Balloon Crash That Killed 16 Found To Have History of DUIs and A Mix Of Drugs In His Body

920x920There is a tragic reminder of the different levels of scrutiny and qualifications for pilots — airplane versus hot-air balloons. Alfred “Skip” Nichols, a pilot of a hot-air balloon, crashed last summer in Texas, killing himself and 15 sight-seeing passengers. It now appears that Nichols was taking a mix of different drugs, including the opiate pain-killer oxycodone. The result is a likely push for new regulation and a potential tort lawsuit, particularly after families learned that Nichols, 49, was convicted five times for driving while intoxicated and three times for drug offenses.

Nichols was piloting his hot air balloon near Lockhart when the craft collided with high-tension power lines. Nichols operated Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, which appears a Missouri company.

The National Transportation Safety Board has insisted that it has limited ability to regulation such pilots, even though Nichols served two prison terms for drug and alcohol violations and was also being treated for medical conditions that should have prohibited him from flying. It is unclear why the NTSB or state officials would not be able to suspend a license based on such a record. However, in 2014, the NTSB made a formal recommendation in 2014 to give balloon passengers “a similar level of safety oversight as passengers of air tour airplane and helicopter operations.”

In what seems a perfectly bizarre rule, the NTSB rules prohibit the FAA from taking certain actions on infractions more than six months old. Why? That would seem to guarantee that sheer bureaucratic delay would shield questionable pilots. In this case, Nichols appears to have benefitted from the loophole. In 2013, an FAA special agent investigating Nichols for violations notified him in 2013 that the agency would not pursue any penalty or license suspension related to his convictions.

Nichols continued to pilot balloons despite the fact that he would be barred from piloting aircraft due to his record and multiple medical problems including type II diabetes, depression and chronic pain from fibromyalgia. Nichols was taking 13 prescription medicines and a toxicology test performed on his body found seven different drugs in his blood and urine that were prohibited by the FAA, including oxycodone and the sedative diazepam, also known as Valium.

A tort action would be complicated by the fact that Nichols appears to have run his own company. However, families could sue the estate in wrongful death actions, a case that would be strengthened by arguments that he fell under the more stringent “common carrier” rules of the common law. A strong negligence case could be made on the basis of his history and drug intake.

In the interim, the case is focusing on an industry that is shockingly lax in its qualifications. Balloon pilots can get a license to fly people for hire with only 20 hours experience and there are no continuing training requirements similar to the commercial pilots.

20 thoughts on “Pilot In Hot Air Balloon Crash That Killed 16 Found To Have History of DUIs and A Mix Of Drugs In His Body

  1. Even without the prescription drugs, he should not have been flying passengers. However, the question will be, were the drugs the proximate cause of the accident? Hot air balloons with experienced sober pilots run into power lines because of shifts of air current, etc.

  2. “Trump’s right; there are simply too many regulations out there.”

    So, is it regulation or deregulation when the NTSB prohibits the FAA from taking certain actions on infractions more than six months old?

    Wouldn’t deregulation prohibit any investigation or taking action on any infractions how ever old they might be?

    Who would want to fly on a balloon if they knew the companies and pilots were not regulated – in fact could be buzzed or high at work while transporting passengers?

    It seems to me that proper regulation is absolutely essential for the success of the air industry whether conducted with hot air balloons or modern air craft.

  3. How many different doctors did he have? How many gave him dangerous drugs like oxycodean? How many different pharmacies did he go to in order to get all of his prescriptions from different doctors?
    Why is there not a national register of drug prescriptions which are first written by the doctor and then cashed in at the pharmacy? And a requirement imposed on the pharmacy to refuse sale if another script is out there or another pharmacy has issued the pills already. In other words: a one pill per day rule.

    Doctors are the cause of the death of these people.

    • Jack Ruby – there is nothing that says he was doctor shopping. He had 13 legal drugs in his system. For someone with a GP, and 3 or 4 specialists it is not hard to end up with that many drugs.

  4. 1. One can always count on issac to blame the one person who had nothing to do with the crash.

    2. One can also apparently count on Jack Ruby to blame other people who are not responsible for the accident.

    3. Myself? I blame global warming and atheism. Yes, I went there.

  5. The National Transportation Safety Board has insisted that it has limited ability to regulation such pilots,

    The NTSB is a casualty inspectorate, not a regulatory agency. They’re technicians who produce reports on why accidents happen. What Congress or the regulators do with their reports is not their affair. The regulatory agency with jurisdiction is likely the Aviation Safety division of the FAA.

    If the man had eight criminal convictions, it sounds like a failure of due diligence on the part of the company which hired him.

  6. In what seems a perfectly bizarre rule, the NTSB rules prohibit the FAA from taking certain actions on infractions more than six months old. Why? That would seem to guarantee that sheer bureaucratic delay would shield questionable pilots. In this case, Nichols appears to have benefitted from the loophole. In 2013, an FAA special agent investigating Nichols for violations notified him in 2013 that the agency would not pursue any penalty or license suspension related to his convictions.

    The NTSB cannot boss the FAA around. The FAA administrator works for the Secretary of Transportation. The NTSB is a stand-alone agency with a small budget.

    I’d suggest you look to the institutional culture of the FAA, which is notorious for having a ‘co-operative’ approach to its industry. Cynics might say ‘agency capture’ while defenders might say they get better results than an antagonistic agency might.

    And, in truth, if the company in question is sloppy enough to hire this mess of a man off the street and are not fazed by underwriters or tort liability, you’re looking at a crew of people unlikely to be in compliance with better regulation, either. This is a case for criminal prosecutions and prison terms.

  7. As one who has been in aviation for many years, I find it outrageous that the FAA did not suspend this guys medical since they have access to the drivers records and can do the search rather quickly and legally. His past history of DUIs should have been enough to pull his medical immediately. There is also a problem with many other agencies, especially Social Security Admin. which prohibits using the data base for any checking for illegal workers, disability fraud, and tax fraud.

    That needs to change by Congress allowing agencies to have access to this data. The FAA did a check of SS disability payments to the data base of those with an FAA Medical certificate in CA. They found over one hundred pilots who had medical certs yet were classified as being disabled by SS! All of their conditions would preclude them from having a license to fly. A court ruled that the FAA could not act against them since the data was not allowed to be used for that purpose! This is similar to the ruling that SS no match letters could not be used to flag illegal immigrants who were using fake SS or stolen SS numbers. It is time to use some common sense, and allow SS data to be used for checking frauds like this.

  8. Oh, I can not believe all the hypocrites here who are angry at this guy for being a druggie, while those same people agitate for the non-criminalizing marijuana. Guess what? This is the tip of the iceberg. When pot gets legal all over, this will become daily life for us all. Stoned Uber driver hits pole! Stoned surgeon removes wrong penis! Stoned short order cook underfries chicken and kills the whole restaurant! etc. etc. etc.

    Bunch of darned dope fiends!

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

    • SF, nowhere are there any indications that Nichols was a cannabis user.

      The evidence indicates that he took pharmaceutical drugs, such as OxyContin, manufactured by Purdue Pharma L.P., a privately held pharmaceutical company founded by physicians. So your premise is wrong. There is a REAL drug problem in the U.S., but that problem stems from the pharmaceutical industry, the FDA, and the physicians that are part of their network. The regulations in the industry are entirely WRONG and they are only designed to maximize profits for the most powerful and influential of the pharmaceutical manufacturers. The health and well-being of the American public are low priority items for the manufacturers and the FDA.

      Now, on the subject of marijuana, all your examples are amusing, but nonsense, nonetheless. Although there are, of course, many examples of fatalities in connection with alcohol and prescription drug use, the evidence on marijuana fatalities from marijuana alone is far from compelling. And, in fact, there is evidence that indicates that use of cannabis can actually improve performance. http://www.businessinsider.com/how-marijuana-affects-working-out-2015-1

      • FYI

        “This report has summarized available research on cannabis and driving.

        … Evidence of impairment from the consumption of cannabis has been reported by studies using laboratory tests, driving simulators and on-road observation. … Both simulation and road trials generally find that driving behavior shortly after consumption of larger doses of cannabis results in (i) a more cautious driving style; (ii) increased variability in lane position (and headway); and (iii) longer decision times. Whereas these results indicate a ‘change’ from normal conditions, they do not necessarily reflect ‘impairment’ in terms of performance effectiveness since few studies report increased accident risk.

        REFERENCE: UK Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions (Road Safety Division). 2000. Cannabis and Driving: A Review of the Literature and Commentary. Crowthorne, Berks: TRL Limited.

        “For each of 2,500 injured drivers presenting to a hospital, a blood sample was collected for later analysis.

        There was a clear relationship between alcohol and culpability. … In contrast, there was no significant increase in culpability for cannabinoids alone. While a relatively large number of injured drivers tested positive for cannabinoids, culpability rates were no higher than those for the drug-free group. This is consistent with other findings.”

        REFERENCE: Logan, M.C., Hunter, C.E., Lokan, R.J., White, J.M., & White, M.A. (2000). The Prevalence of Alcohol, Cannabinoids, Benzodiazepines and Stimulants Amongst Injured Drivers and Their Role in Driver Culpability: Part II: The Relationship Between Drug Prevalence and Drug Concentration, and Driver Culpability. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 32, 623-32.

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