A Central Texas hot-air balloon pilot's failure to notice power lines during descent likely was responsible for the deadliest U.S. balloon crash in modern history.
Federal investigators believe the 49-year-old pilot, Alfred G. “Skip” Nichols IV, sought to quickly descend through a break in thick clouds, apparently without seeing power lines. Nichols was killed in the fiery crash along with his 15 passengers.
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) experts announced preliminary conclusions earlier this month after conducting interviews and gathering evidence, including a cell phone photo sent by one of the passengers minutes before the July 30 crash near Lockhart, Texas, about 30 miles south of Austin.
The commercial balloon was floating above a thick cloud bank with little or no ground visibility, in violation of federal safety rules. The photo showed a break in the clouds with the shadow of electrical towers and power lines discernible in the surrounding cloud layer.
The findings are preliminary and it could take up to a year for the safety board to issue a final report. However, the NTSB previously stated investigators found no evidence of pre-existing failures, malfunctions or problems with the balloon or the equipment.
“The hazard of power lines is generally accepted as ballooning's greatest danger,” according to an updated safety pamphlet from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). “Whenever ballooning in the vicinity of powerlines, use every precaution possible. Don't take chances.Things can happen very quickly and a not-so-bad situation can rapidly deteriorate into a gruesome ordeal.”
Nichols continued to pilot hot-air balloons despite having at least four convictions for drunk driving in Missouri and twice spending time in prison. There is no evidence so far that he had been drinking on the day of the fatal Texas crash. When a pilot applies for a ballooning certificate with the FAA, he or she is not required to disclose any prior drunken-driving convictions, only drug convictions.
Nichols had a long history of customer complaints against his balloon ride companies in Missouri and Illinois dating back to 1997. Customers reported to the Better Business Bureau that their rides would get canceled at the last minute and their fees never refunded.
According to a 2014 NBC story, since the mid-1960s, the NTSB has investigated fewer than 800 hot-air balloon incidents in the U.S. In the 50-year-span, about 70 died while ballooning, although some of the most deadly incidents occurred in recent years.
All hot-air balloons operated in the U.S. must be inspected annually or every 100 hours of flight time if operated commercially, according to FAA rules. Balloon pilots are required to successfully complete a flight review every two years.
Every person who is injured by a wrongful act or defective device deserves compensation. If you suspect a loved one was harmed or died as a result of such an act, call the offices of trial attorneys Charles Gilman and Briggs Bedigian at 800-529-6162 or contact them online. The firm handles cases in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.