In July 2016, Texas saw the deadliest hot air balloon crash in American history when Alfred “Skip” Nichols piloted his balloon into power lines near Lockhart, killing himself and 15 passengers. It has now been revealed in an October 17 meeting of the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington that Nichols was impaired by Valium, opioids, and other medication, and had psychological conditions that affected his decision-making. As quoted by the Associated Press, NTSB medical officer Dr. Nicholas Webster reported that there was enough Benadryl in Nichols’ system to have “the impairing effect of a blood-alcohol level” of a drunk driver.
It had previously been reported that Nichols ignored weather warnings that had caused other balloon pilots to stay on the ground, and decided to land when low clouds and fog hid hazards like the power lines that tragically brought the balloon down.
The NTSB found that Nichols “was not under the influence of alcohol or illicit drugs,” and that medication to treat several of his medical conditions “did not affect his performance.” However, he had been “diagnosed with medical conditions, including depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD], known to cause cognitive deficits that may affect decision-making and, ultimately, safety of flight.” The NTSB found that these conditions likely would have led to the denial or deferral of a medical certificate necessary to obtain a pilot’s license.
The NTSB also found that his medical conditions “and the combined effects of multiple central nervous system-impairing drugs likely affected [Nichols’] ability to make safe decisions.” These drugs “are known to cause impairment and are listed on the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) ‘Do Not Issue’ and ‘Do Not Fly’ lists.”
In his closing statement, NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt put it more bluntly: “This pilot should not have been flying – never mind carrying paying passengers.”
However, hot air balloon pilots are exempt from the FAA’s medical certification requirements applicable to other pilots. Thus, Nichols was allowed to fly a hot air balloon–with passengers–where he never would have been allowed to fly any other type of passenger aircraft. The NTSB recommended that the FAA remove the medical certificate exemption for balloon pilots carrying paying passengers.
If you or someone you know has been injured in an aviation accident, the law firm of Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Agosto, Aziz & Stogner can assist with your claim. Call us today at 713-396-3964 or 800-594-4884 for your free consultation.