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Pilot in fatal hot-air balloon crash in Texas had four DUI convictions

Pilot in fatal hot-air balloon crash in Texas had four DUI convictions
A crew hoists a bag holding the remains of a hot-air balloon that crashed Saturday near Lockhart, Texas. (Deborah Cannon / Austin American-Statesman)

The pilot of a hot-air balloon that crashed into a Texas pasture had four convictions for drunken driving on his record, but was not required to submit to the type of Federal Aviation Administration medical check required of pilots of other types of aircraft.

Under law, balloonists are not required to submit to the medical check, which National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said Monday would have included checking for issues with alcohol. Balloonists are also not required to disclose alcohol-related motor vehicle offenses to the FAA.

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Missouri court records show four drunken driving convictions on the record of pilot Alfred "Skip" Nichols, 49, between February 1990 and March 2010. Sumwalt said the disparity between the requirements for balloonists and pilots of other aircraft is a problem that should be addressed.

"It goes back to the issue of oversight of commercial balloon pilots," Sumwalt said. "We see this disparity in the level of oversight requirements. We do not feel that the FAA's response to our oversight recommendation was acceptable."

Nichols was the pilot of a hot-air balloon that crashed into power lines Saturday morning when the weather south of Austin, Texas, turned from clear to foggy and overcast. Sixteen people, including Nichols, were killed in the crash, the worst such disaster in U.S. history.

Nichols appeared to have a troubled history in Missouri. Aside from his drunken-driving convictions, the Better Business Bureau in St. Louis issued a warning to customers about Nichols' business, then called Manchester Balloon Voyages, and later, Air Balloon Sports.

His Texas company, Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, did not respond to request for comment on Monday.

An attorney for a family that sued Nichols told the Associated Press that in 2009, Nichols took eight passengers for a balloon ride near House Springs, Mo., and was forced to crash-land in a tree canopy.

"He basically landed in the forest," said the attorney, S. Lee Patton. "He called it a controlled landing. My client called it a crash."

Sumwalt said Monday that the balloon that crashed Saturday appeared to have struck the tops of power lines above a pasture near Lockhart, Texas.

"There was evidence of abrasions" on the balloon itself, Sumwalt said.

The power lines stand about 140 feet high on average, Sumwalt said. The cloud ceiling on Saturday before the crash had dropped to about 200 feet. Safe ballooning conditions call for a cloud ceiling of at least 500 feet over inhabited areas.

FAA regulations say recreational aircraft pilots need only a valid driver's license to certify their medical status, and balloonists need even less than that: "glider" and "free balloon" pilots need not apply for a medical certificate at all.

"To be issued glider or free balloon airman certificates," the FAA writes on its website, "applicants must certify that they do not know, or have reason to know, of any medical condition that would make them unable to operate a glider or free balloon in a safe manner."

The weather report obtained by Nichols before the crash was clear, Sumwalt said Monday, and even with lower-density air affecting lift due to hot and humid conditions there was enough power to carry all 16 people without issue, Sumwalt said.

In addition, the balloon itself had no preexisting issues, he said. While the NTSB attempts to divine the cause of the crash – a process that could take a year – it has begun to piece together the last few moments before the balloon caught fire.

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Sumwalt said the agency believes Nichols was trying to bring the craft down just before the crash.

"The vent [at the top of the balloon] being open would be consistent with the pilot trying to land," Sumwalt said.

10 35 Lockhart Lockhart Austin San Antonio TEXAS Accident site 20 MILES Sources: OpenStreetMap, Mapbox Paul Duginski / @latimesgraphics

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