Deep Background

Finding red flags is useless if the rules prevent you from taking action

The pilot of a hot-air balloon that crashed in Texas, killing 15 passengers and himself, was a walking red flag.

Alfred “Skip” Nichols had been convicted five times for DWI and three times for drug violations, and was on valium and the painkiller oxycodone when the accident occurred, according to a recent National Transportation Safety Board investigation report.

The NTSB probe pointed out serious regulatory flaws that had prevented officials from taking action against Nichols, according to NTSB documents and news reports on an NTSB hearing. Balloon pilots do not have to have the periodic health checkups and other due-diligence checks that the Federal Aviation Administration requires for other commercial pilots, Bloomberg said.

Federal rules bar the FAA from cracking down on balloon pilots for improprieties that are more than six months old, according to a transcript of the NTSB’s 2016 hearing on the case. So in 2013, when the FAA first learned of Nichols’ driving and drug offenses, resulting in two prison sentences, it was powerless to stop him from piloting commercial balloons because the latest of the violations was in 2010, and information about them was deemed “stale.”

Federal law requires pilots to disclose criminal convictions, but Nichols had failed to do so. The FAA, which regulates the balloon industry, has declined to tighten rules on the business, based in part on statistics showing that serious balloon accidents are rare, according to testimony at the NTSB hearing.

Nichols had numerous health problems such as depression and chronic pain, and was prescribed 13 medications at the time of the crash. NTSB documents said that the drugs in combination could impair mental function, and by law cannot be used by pilots on the job, the NTSB said.

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