Pilot In Fatal Hot Air Balloon Crash Convicted Of Drunk Driving Four Times

The pilot in the fatal hot air balloon crash, Alfred “Skip” Nichols, had been convicted of drunk driving four times prior to the tragedy. In spite of the four convictions in Missouri and two incarcerations in prison, he was somehow able to keep flying.

The Inquisitr previously reported on the horrific crash near Austin on Saturday. Nichols was the chief pilot and owner of Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides. The balloon hit a power line and crashed in flames into a pasture near Lockhart, about 30 miles south of Austin. The crash killed all 16 people on board the balloon. The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating and has not yet issued any findings regarding the cause of the crash. They have not been able to link the accident in any way to the pilot’s behavior, nor have they said anything they’ve found has shown him to be at fault, according to a report by Reuters. It remains uncertain whether the pilot was drunk prior to the crash or if his drinking had anything to do with the crash at all.

Wendy Bartch, an ex-girlfriend, described him as a recovering alcoholic. She claimed he’d been sober now for at least four years and that he’d never once flown a balloon after drinking.

An attorney who represented a passenger who sued Nichols in 2013, said he had been stripped of his driver’s license at least twice, and said he “couldn’t drive a car but he could pilot a hot air balloon.”

The woman said she was injured when Nichols crash-landed a balloon in the St. Louis area. Ironically, if Nichols has been a commercial airplane pilot, he would probably have been grounded long ago do the the rules of the Federal Aviation Administration. They may allow a recovering alcoholic to fly if the pilot could prove he was being treated successfully, according to airline captain and aviation safety consultant, John Gadzinski. However, he said, the FAA would be unlikely to accept a commercial pilot who had been convicted for drunk driving.

Nichols, 49, had a significant history of complaints against his balloon-ride companies in Illinois and Missourri as far back as 1997. The Better Business Bureau received numerous complaints from customers who said their rides would get cancelled at the last minute and that they never had their fees refunded.

When a pilot applies for a ballooning certificate with the FAA, he or she is not required to disclose any prior drunk driving convictions, but they are required to report any previous drug convictions, according to a spokesman for the Balloon Federation of America trade group, Patrick Cannon.

He said it’s a loophole in the law, and that the ballooning certificate says not to include alcohol offenses with a motor vehicle since those are covered on the FAA’s medical application. Balloon pilots are not required to get regular medical exams from FAA-certified examiners, and airline pilots are. Balloon pilots are merely required to write a statement certifying that they have “no medical defects” that might limit their ability to pilot a balloon. Commercial airline pilots, though, are required to fill out forms that question them about alcohol addiction or abuse and convictions for driving while drunk. During a briefing on Monday, Robert Sumwalt described these specific details on the requirements for balloon vs airline pilots. Sumwalt is heading the NTSB investigation. He did seem to acknowledge there are shortcomings in the process.

“That goes back to the issue of oversight of commercial balloon operators. We do see this discontinuity, this disparity in this level of oversight requirements.”

As for Nichols, he was first licensed to pilot hot air balloons in Missourri in 1996. He was first convicted of drunk driving in 1990, then twice more in 200, and the fourth in 2010, according to court records found online, says the article by Reuters. In spite of his rocky history with drunk driving, as well as multiple complaints on his hot air balloon companies, his former girlfriend, Wendy Bartch said that in recent years Nichols was “all about recovery,” and that he “became a different person.” She said he was lighthearted, a follower of the Grateful Dead. Even his dogs, she said, were named Zappa and Joplin after two of his favorite musicians. Their breakup was apparently friendly, and she said they remained friends even afterward. She said she helped him more to Texas in 2014. He had begun offering balloon flights in Texas due to the gentler climate in winter in order to help keep his St. Louis business going. St. Louis was frequently cold and rainy during the winter season and the winter flights in Texas boosted his business.

Not everyone was happy, however. After all the previous complaints Nichols’ company had received prior to the move, there was an incident in Texas, according to a report by Fox News. FAA records show that his Texas company was involved in an accident with the same balloon two years ago. In August 2014 the balloon made a hard landing in Kyle, Texas, injuring two passengers, when the pilot touched down suddenly to keep from striking a ground-crew vehicle that was parked in the balloon’s path. It is not known whether Nichols was actually the one piloting the balloon during that crash, however.

Those who lost loved ones during Saturday’s crash were likely shocked and horrified to learn that the pilot of the fatal hot air balloon crash had been convicted of drunk driving four times and had lost his driver’s license.

[Photo by imagentle/Shutterstock Images]