There 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.