The fiery crash of a hot air balloon north of San Antonio July 30 that killed all 16 people on board has reignited concerns that the commercial ballooning industry isn’t being held to the same stringent and requirements and regulatory oversight as other commercial aviation aircraft and pilots.
According to a report by the Associated Press, if the pilot of the doomed “Heart of Texas” balloon that crashed in Lockhart, Texas, had been a commercial airplane pilot, he would have been grounded a long time ago.
Alfred “Skip” Nichols, 49, started flying hot air balloons commercially 20 years ago, but during that time and even before his piloting career, he was convicted of drunk driving at least four times, convicted of a drug-related crime, and served two prison sentences, one of which was for a parole violation related to one of the drunk-driving convictions. He was also a recovering alcoholic, although investigators have not determined whether that could have led to the crash.
Any professional airplane or helicopter pilot with such a record would have stopped flying long ago, or at least they would have undergone treatment and reevaluation before flying again.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating the Texas crash, the deadliest hot air balloon crash in U.S. history and one of the deadliest ever in the world. So far, the cause remains unclear.
Mr. Nichols’ balloon took off from a field in Lockhart around 5:45 a.m. July 30. About two hours later, the balloon may have become entangled in some high-tension power lines that transected the field where the balloon descended. This would have created a circuit between the lines via the balloon and its passengers, causing fire and possibly electrocution. Responders found the remains of the balloon in a smoldering heap under the electrical towers.
Before the crash, the NTSB repeatedly urged the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to address “operational deficiencies” in the hot air balloon industry with better regulations and oversight, but those recommendations have gone unheeded by the FAA.
A 2013 study of “fatal and nonfatal crashes of hot-air balloon rides conducted for compensation or hire in the U.S.” published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that aviation crash rates increase with decreasing regulation.
“The inverse relationship between crash rates and oversight raises concerns about the public health impact of less-regulated commercial air tour operations, such as paid hot-air balloon rides,” the study found.