Investigation Uncovers Shortcomings in Commercial Ballooning Industry

Texas pilot in fatal crash had long history of unreported DWIs.

Commercial Ballooning
An investigation into commercial balloon accidents revealed shortcomings in regulations for the commercial ballooning industry.Kubicek Balloons

Most Americans could be forgiven for assuming commercial balloon pilots were held to the same medical standards as commercial airplane or helicopter pilots since all accept money for their work. Commercial balloon pilots, however, actually are held to only a minimal self-reporting of their fitness to fly, a fact that became apparent last summer after a large sightseeing balloon crashed near Lockhart, Texas. The accident killed the pilot, Alfred Nichols, and 15 passengers. Nichols owned and operated the Heart of Texas Balloon Rides, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The story behind the Texas crash and the ongoing investigation of other commercial balloon accidents appeared this week in the Austin Statesman, penned by investigative reporter Jeremy Schwartz.

Schwartz looked into seven other commercial balloon accidents and learned that four of the pilots in those fatal crashes were flying with prohibited drugs in their bloodstream. The Safety Board’s medical investigation of Nichols uncovered 10 different medical conditions, including high blood pressure, alcohol dependence and depression, as well as a long history of unreported DWI convictions, any of which would have been sufficient to ground an airplane or helicopter pilot.

Nichols had received enough drunk driving convictions over the years to be considered an “aggravated DWI offender,” and his toxicology report showed his bloodstream contained half a dozen prohibited medications.

The FAA was made aware of Nichols’ criminal history in 2012, but chose to issue only a warning letter, despite actions on his part that would have been sufficient to cost most other pilots their certificate. The story stops just short of assigning a cause for the crash, an issue for the NTSB, but does suggest the pilot’s medical condition, or perhaps outside financial pressures, might have been involved.

The Statesman reporter highlighted NTSB efforts to increase regulation on commercial balloon operators, a suggestion the FAA has to date refused to act upon, preferring, according to the story, to allow industry groups such as the Balloon Federation of America to press for operational changes.

Schwartz queried both FAA and NTSB officials for the rationality of commercial balloon pilots’ exemption from traditional medical oversight. Government officials interviewed were as baffled as the reporter as to how this essentially unregulated segment of aviation had slipped beneath the radar for so long.

The Statesman story concludes with an ominous admission by the Heart of Texas Balloon Rides crew chief on the morning of the crash, who confided that "about 10 minutes after the balloon launched, [the crew chief] watched it disappear into the clouds."