The pilot of a hot air balloon that crashed in Lockhart, Texas, in July, killing himself and 15 passengers, had been taking at least 10 different prescription drugs that should have prevented him from flying, medical professionals testified during a Dec. 9 investigative hearing.
According to the Associated Press, experts said during the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation that 49-year-old pilot Alfred “Skip” Nichols suffered from a multitude of health problems, including high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, diabetes, depression, attention deficit disorder, insomnia, fibromyalgia, and chronic back pain.
Oxycodone, an extremely potent opioid drug, was one of several medications Mr. Nichols had in his system the day of the crash, according to Bloomberg. Mr. Nichols should never have piloted a sightseeing balloon after taking Oxycodone and other drugs because they would have affected his ability to think and make decisions, the Associated Press reported.
Additionally, Mr. Nichols was convicted at least four times of driving under the influence of alcohol and served time in prison twice. He also had a long history of complaints concerning his hot air balloon operations in St. Louis, Mo., on file with the Better Business Bureau.
Mr. Nichols was apparently trying to land the balloon on the morning of July 30 when it descended onto high-tension power lines connecting a row of electrical towers. The balloon caught on fire and plunged several feet to the ground. There were no survivors.
Experts present at the hearing questioned Mr. Nichols’ decision to fly on a day when the weather was too poor for safe flying. The cloud ceiling was 700 feet in the area that morning, and the forecast did not predict any clearing as the day went on.
According to the Associated Press, Mr. Nichols received a weather briefing indicating that the clouds could be a problem, to which he replied, “Well, we just fly in between them. We find a hole and we go,” NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said.
Scott Appelman, owner of Rainbow Ryders Hot Air Balloon Ride Company, one of the largest U.S. hot air balloon operators, said that “going in and out of the clouds really is not an option and it’s not a very comfortable feeling as a pilot being up there and being faced with that type of choice.”
The Lockhart balloon crash, the deadliest to occur in the U.S. and one of the deadliest in the world, triggered a national debate on whether the hot air balloon industry is sufficiently regulated. Some lawmakers have pushed for tougher safety rules, but those efforts have resulted in few changes.