AUSTIN, Texas – Federal investigators could urge medical screenings for hot air balloon pilots during a meeting Tuesday in which they’re also expected to formally determine what caused the crash of a Texas ride that killed 16 people, the deadliest disaster of its kind in U.S. history.
The National Transportation Safety Board is meeting in Washington to reveal its findings about the July 2016 crash near Austin, Texas. The balloon hit high-tension power lines before crashing into a pasture near the rural town of Lockhart.
Experts testified last year that Alfred “Skip” Nichols went up in the balloon despite being aware of poor weather.
Both a Texas lawmaker and commercial balloon operators expect the NTSB to recommend that balloon pilots obtain the same medical certification required of airplane and helicopter operators. Investigators have said Nichols had medical ailments and was prescribed at least 10 different drugs, including insulin and oxycodone.
He also had at least four convictions of drunken driving, which Republican state Rep. John Cyrier of Texas said would have been known if Nichols had been held to the same standards as other pilots.
“All of this would’ve been uncovered,” said Cyrier, who is a licensed pilot and whose district includes the crash site.
The Federal Aviation Administration must ultimately approve any recommendations. Cyrier, who said he has spoken with NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt during the investigation, said support from Congress will be necessary to push through tougher regulations.
Sumwalt, who was appointed NTSB chairman in August, criticized shortly after the crash what he called what he called a “disparity” in the FAA requirements for balloon operators compared to plane or helicopter pilots. Balloon pilots are only required to write a statement certifying that they have “no medical defect” that would limit their ability to pilot a balloon.
Before the Texas crash, the 49-year-old Nichols had a long history of customer complaints against his balloon-ride companies in Missouri and Illinois dating back to 1997. Customers reported to the BetterBusiness Bureau that their rides would get cancelled at the last minute and their fees never refunded.
Scott Appelman, owner of the New Mexico-based balloon operator Rainbow Ryders Inc., said his pilots already meet the higher standards but believes tougher federal requirements won’t have an impact, calling Nichols a renegade who operated outside the rules anyway. He said the Texas crash has taken a toll on customers.
“It was a significant effect on the balloon industry. The industry has not recovered,” Appelman said.