The man at the helm in the deadliest hot air balloon crash in U.S. history reportedly had at least four drunk driving convictions and had reportedly done two stints in prison, according to public records.
Whether those facts had anything to do with the horrific crash remains under investigation.
Texas authorities and federal regulators with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report all 16 people aboard were killed, including the pilot, Alfred Nichols. It appears the balloon struck a live power line, caught fire and burst into flames.
An investigator with NTSB reported that while Nichols was not legally able to drive a motor vehicle and likely would have been grounded years ago if he were a commercial pilot, a legal loophole meant he wasn’t breaking any laws by operating a hot air balloon ride.
The deceased pilot’s girlfriend told reporters that while he recovering from alcohol addiction, he hadn’t consumed a drop in more than four years and he never operated hot air balloon while drunk.
Airline safety consultants say it is possible the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would grant permission for a recovering alcoholic to fly commercial jets if he or she could prove they were undergoing successful treatment. However, most companies will decline to hire a pilot who has prior convictions for driving under the influence – especially if there were more than one.
A representative with the Balloon Federation of America told NBC that a pilot’s history of alcoholism does not have to be reported to the FAA when the person is applying for a certification as a balloon pilot. They do have to notify the agency of any narcotics charges. Although Nicols had a 2000 felony drug conviction, that was before he received his pilot’s license in 1996. However, it was still six years after his first DWI conviction. He was convicted in 1990, twice in 2002 and then again in 2010. He was also convicted of a drug-related crime in 2000.
Every pilot that reports to the FAA – including air balloon pilots – are supposed to report any drug or alcohol conviction to the agency within two months. However, those in the industry explained there is no oversight to that rule, and pilots are essentially in charge of self-reporting. When a pilot’s entire livelihood is riding on that, it creates an incentive to conceal such an event from federal regulators. That in turn puts the public at risk.
The customer complaints against his company, Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, as well as other hot air balloon companies he’d run in other states, is long, according to ABC News. Most of those were customer-service related. For example, he would cancel last-minute and wasn’t great about doling out refunds.
However, there was at least one complaint that involved his safety as a pilot. In that case, it was reported he crash-landed a balloon in Missouri, causing injuries to eight passengers. A personal injury lawsuit filed after that accused the pilot of not having enough propane, though he countered there wasn’t enough wind. That case was later settled.
The company, which is reportedly managed by the 49-year-old’s mother, had shuttered all operations, cancelled all flights and was reportedly working to give refunds to any remaining customers.
An NTSB investigator said the initial investigation seems to show the pilot was attempting to land the balloon when it struck the power lines, apparently dragging along them for some 30 feet.
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The Latest: Texas balloon company suspends operations, Aug. 1, 2016, NBC News
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