Deadly Hot-Air Balloon Crash Renews Questions About Industry's Safety

Aug 2, 2016
Originally published on August 2, 2016 6:51 am
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OK, we're learning more about that deadly hot air balloon crash in Texas on Saturday. The balloon struck a power line, burst into flames and killed the pilot and 15 passengers. As NPR's John Burnett reports, the pilot had a troubled personal history, and his company received complaints from passengers over the years.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: A preliminary examination by federal investigators of the balloon disaster in a crop field south of Austin seems to indicate that flying weather was clear and the balloon was airworthy. Attention has turned to the pilot, 49-year-old Alfred Skip Nichols, owner of Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides. He had four convictions for driving while intoxicated in Missouri, the most recent in 2010. He spent a year and a half in prison for a 2000 drug dealing conviction, according to a report by The Associated Press. So why was Nichols certified to be a balloon pilot? Commercial airplane and helicopter tour operators, in order to get a medical certificate from the FAA, have to answer the question, have you ever been convicted of a crime? Balloon pilots do not.

Two years ago, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended to the Federal Aviation Administration that they strengthen oversight of commercial balloon pilots, especially now that balloons can carry up to 20 sightseers. The FAA declined that recommendation, saying the amount of ballooning is so low and participants understand the risks of this activity. Speaking to reporters Monday, NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt questioned whether balloon pilots should be treated differently.

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ROBERT SUMWALT: Should they be held to a different standard than somebody who is flying an airplane on air-tour operations or a helicopter? So we do see this disparity in the level of oversight and requirements, and we do not feel that the FAA's response to our oversight recommendation was acceptable. Yes, sir?

BURNETT: The company has had trouble before. The FAA reports two years ago its balloon made a hard landing in a soccer field, and the impact sent two female passengers to the hospital in an ambulance. And Missouri court records show that Skip Nichols was sued by a passenger when his balloon crash-landed near St. Louis. Ladd Sanger is an aviation attorney in Dallas who's represented passengers in several hot air balloon mishaps. He says sightseeing by balloon is getting more and more popular with vacationers, whether in Napa Valley or Albuquerque or Central Texas.

LADD SANGER: And they trust that the balloon operator is going to do it safely. And I don't think that the people understand the risks that they're taking when they go get in these balloons that are basically almost totally unregulated.

BURNETT: A 2013 study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health concluded that increased regulation of paid hot air balloon rides could make passenger experiences safer, particularly during hard landings. There are 150 to 200 commercial balloon operators in the nation, according to the Balloon Federation of America. The company involved in the Texas tragedy was not a member. Federation spokesman Jeff Chatterton says balloon flight is safe, and pilots welcome anything that makes their industry safer.

JEFF CHATTERTON: If the FAA has, you know, new recommendations, new rules, we look forward to having that dialogue with them and doing everything we can to ensure that the skies are safe for everybody.

BURNETT: Chatterton says balloon passenger deaths are extremely rare. In fact, the Central Texas balloon accident was the second worst U.S. lighter-than-air catastrophe since the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, which killed 36 people. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.