The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released information that shines some light on the condition of the pilot in the deadly hot air balloon crash. A toxicology report revealed that the pilot, Alfred “Skip” Nichols, 49, ingested seven different prescription drugs, including painkillers and sedatives, before liftoff.
These pills are forbidden by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) due to the impairment they cause to judgment and motor skills.
The NTSB also revealed that Nichols suffered from several ailments, including type II diabetes, depression, and chronic pain for fibromyalgia. Officials remark that some conditions that Nichols had would have barred him from operating an aircraft.
Balloon pilots find themselves in a regulatory loophole, allowing them to avoid enforcement of certain regulations that would apply to other pilots. The FAA says they will examine safety issues raised by the fatal balloon wreck.
NTSB Lobbied for Tighter Regulations in 2014
On July 30, the balloon carrying 15 passengers struck a high-tension power line, roughly 60 miles northeast of San Antonio. Nichols and the 15 passengers all died in the crash. The fatal accident was the worst aviation incident in the United States since 2009.
In addition to the dangerous cocktail of drugs Nichols consumed prior to the ride, Nichols was able to slip through the cracks after serving two prison terms for drug and alcohol-related convictions. The FAA has declined to add stricter rules and regulations to hot air balloon pilots, citing the difficulty to do so and the relatively low risk compared to other aviation areas.
Photos posted by passengers showed the balloon traveling over clouds, which is generally not recommended for hot air balloon travel due to the reduced visibility of objects below. In a recorded call with an FAA weather station, Nichols was told the clouds may be a problem – he replied that he would just fly between them.