The crash of a hot air balloon in Lockhart, Texas, on Saturday left 16 dead in the largest air disaster of its type in U.S. history. The balloon, operated by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, was piloted by Alfred “Skip” Nichols, who had a disturbing record of drunken driving convictions, with four convictions for drunk driving-related crimes and no current Texas driver’s license. Nichols was killed in the fiery crash along with his 15 passengers when the balloon struck power lines approximately 140 feet off the ground apparently while landing, according the Safety Board.
Even many longtime pilots were surprised to learn after the crash that commercial balloon pilots aren’t required to hold an FAA medical certificate. Nichols, who did hold an FAA pilot’s license according to the NTSB, had not reported his convictions to the FAA, though it’s not clear whether Nichols was required to do so since he didn’t need a medical certificate in order to legally operate the balloon.
The main mystery behind the crash, why the balloon came into contact with the power lines in the first place, isn’t known. The NTSB continues its investigation.
As it does, another set of disturbing circumstances has come to light, namely that for the past several years, the NTSB has been encouraging the FAA formally and informally to more closely regulate commercial balloon flights, citing the potential for high losses of life in an accident, as happened in Lockhart on Saturday. The FAA declined to take action, remarking that the activity represented a low-risk one.