The pilot of a hot-air balloon that fatally crashed into a Texas pasture had a list of legal problems related to alcohol, marijuana, and his former business, including four prior convictions for drunken driving and a settled personal injury lawsuit. However, pilot Alfred “Skip” Nichols, 49, was not required to submit to the same type of Federal Aviation Administration scrutinization required of pilots of all other style aircraft.
Under current laws, balloonists are not required to submit to medical checks, including the checking of issues related to alcohol, nor are they required to disclose prior alcohol-related motor vehicle offenses to the FAA. National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt noted this was a disparity in need of addressing.
“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 piloting the hot-air balloon during the fateful Saturday morning when the aircraft collided with high-tension power lines. Nicholas and all 16 of his passengers were killed in the disaster, making it the worst such disaster in U.S. history.
It is expected that the families of those victims will likely put forth a wrongful death lawsuit against the parent company, Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides. Especially given the similarities of such a wrongful death lawsuit to the prior personal injury lawsuit in 2009.
During the July 2009 flight, Nichols was piloting when the balloon became “becalmed”, meaning it stopped moving laterally and he was forced to move up and down to find a breeze. In front of the balloon were high-tension power lines that Nichols noted he was attempting to avoid, stating in the court documents, “You don’t want to get near them if you aren’t sure you have enough fuel.”
Instead, after nearly 90 minutes, Nichols made the decision to land in a wooded area. However, the plaintiff called it a crash that resulted in serious injuries. Nichols settled the lawsuit in 2013.
It is unknown at this time if this former event had any bearing on Nichols decisions during the more tragic and ultimately fatal 2016 crash. However, the failure of this lawsuit and Nichols’s previous convictions to have an impact on his ability to pilot hot-air balloons in Texas are grounds for wrongful death lawsuit.
Source: Wall Street Journal