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Report: Pilot of hot air balloon that crashed, killing 16 people on board was on drugs at time of crash

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MAXWELL, Texas  – The pilot of the hot air balloon that crashed in Texas earlier this year, killing 16 people on board, was on drugs at the time of the crash, according to government documents obtained by Bloomberg.

On July 30, 2016, Alfred “Skip” Nichols was piloting a hot air balloon with 15 sight-seeing passengers when the hot air balloon struck power lines and crashed into the ground, killing all 16 people on board.

After the crash, news surfaced that Nichols had four previous drunken driving convictions in Missouri and spent time in prison for drugs, law enforcement officials said.

In addition, Nichols’ driver’s license had been suspended twice and he was sued over a 2009 balloon landing that a passenger said left her injured, documents show.

Nichols didn’t have to tell the FAA about those problems because oversight for balloon pilots is not as stringent as for airline or helicopter pilots, the National Transportation Safety Board said. They are expected to self-report any drug or alcohol driving offenses within 60 days, the FAA says.

Unlike pilots for other aircraft, balloon pilots are not required to obtain an FAA medical certificate to fly, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said.

 

After the crash, the NTSB confirmed that they would conduct a routine toxicology test to confirm if Nichols was under the influence of any drugs or alcohol at the time of the horrific crash.

According to government documents obtained by Bloomberg on Friday, Nichols had taken a cocktail of prohibited drugs before liftoff on the day of the crash, including oxycodone.

“The ultimate goal of this investigation is to learn from this tragedy so that we can keep it from happening again,” Sumwalt said in opening remarks at Friday’s hearing.

Through the NTSB’s investigation, officials found Nichols was taking 13 prescription medicines for his multiple medical problems including type II diabetes, depression and chronic pain from fibromyalgia.

According to Bloomberg, some of those conditions should have prohibited him from operating an aircraft.

Many of the prescriptions he was taking are prohibited for pilots at the controls.

A toxicology test found seven different drugs in Nichols’ system at the time of the crash, including oxycodone and the sedative diazepam, also known as Valium.

Such drugs can impair brain function and motor controls, according to the NTSB documents.

During the investigation, the NTSB also discovered Nichols knew weather conditions were dangerous before taking off the day of the crash.

According to Bloomberg, Nichols was told in a phone call with the FAA weather station that day that cloud coverage may be a problem that day.

“Well, we just fly in between them,” Nichols replied. “We find a hole and we go.”

In August, sources told CNN that investigators believe Nichols was descending through a break in clouds and didn’t see the power lines that turned the craft into a fireball when he crashed into them.

The NTSB is now examining broad safety issues raised by the accident, Bloomberg reports.