NTSB Blames Texas Hot Air Balloon Crash on Pilot

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released its report regarding the tragic 2016 hot air balloon crash near Lockhart, Texas. In it, the agency places the blame for the crash on the balloon's pilot, Alfred Nichols. Despite placing the blame for the tragedy on the pilot, however, the NTSB had harsh criticism for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), arguing the FAA needs stricter controls over the hot air balloon industry.

Pilot Made Poor Decisions Before and During Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Flight 

The July 30, 2016, hot air balloon accident was the worst in U.S. history, killing all 16 people on board including the pilot. The balloon, owned and operated by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, crashed into a pasture south of Austin, Texas, after it descended through clouds and hit power lines. The collision with the power lines—approximately 44 minutes after it had launched—caused the balloon's basket to separate and further caused a fire following the crash.

The NTSB blamed the crash on the pilot making terrible decisions, possibly linked to medical conditions and medications he was taking.

"This pilot should not have been flying—never mind carrying paying passengers," Robert Sumwalt, NTSB chair, said. "The pilot's poor decisions on the day of the accident were his and his alone, but they affected those who flew with him."

Among the poor decisions cited by the NTSB were that the pilot:

  • Chose to launch despite fog near the launch site and despite other balloon pilots canceling their flights;
  • Flew above clouds even though the clouds obscured his view of the landing site;
  • Failed to land when he had suitable opportunities to do so; and
  • Landed in reduced visibility conditions, increasing the odds that he would collide with something on the descent.

Pilot's Medical Conditions and Medications May Have Played a Role in the Texas Hot Air Balloon Crash 

The NTSB found the pilot was not under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs at the time of the crash and further found that the prescribed medications he took did not affect his performance. The agency did note, however, that Nichols had taken some medications that could have impaired his decision making, including Valium, oxycodone and Benadryl. In fact, the level of Benadryl in Nichols' system was likely enough to cause the blood-alcohol equivalent of a drunken driver. 

Balloon Operator Criticizes Nichols 

Speaking with the Associated Press, Scott Appleman, owner of Rainbow Ryders, Inc., said Nichols ran his business outside of the rules. The Post also noted that Nichols, who owned Heart of Texas, previously owned balloon companies in Missouri and Illinois and received various customer complaints through the Better Business Bureau.

NTSB Slams Lack of FAA Oversight on Hot Air Balloon Rides 

Blame was also directed at the FAA, which the NTSB said had a lack of proper oversight into hot air balloon operations. Among the concerns highlighted by the NTSB:

  • The FAA exempting balloon pilots from medical certification (had Nichols been an airplane pilot, he would have had to undergo medical certification and likely would have had his certification denied);
  • The lack of awareness of Nichols' drug and alcohol history, including four drunk-driving convictions; and
  • The FAA's primary oversight which only involves sampling balloon operators at festivals and would not affect companies that did not attend those festivals.
In his opening remarks to attendees at the NTSB's meeting regarding the crash, Sumwalt noted that the hot air balloon passengers boarded the plane for what they believed would be an enjoyable sightseeing flight. He went on to state that those passengers had a right to the same safety standards as passengers on sighseeing tour airplanes or helicopters but, due to a lack of proper oversight, did not have the same protections as airplane or helicopter passengers. 

"This pilot was selling rides in a balloon that could carry more passengers than many airplanes and helicopters used for sightseeing tours," Sumwalt said. "Yet he was not required to hold an FAA medical certificate. There is clearly a disconnect here—pilots operating air tour airplanes or helicopters are required to hold FAA medical certificates, yet commercial balloon pilots are not."

As a result, the NTSB recommended that hot air balloon pilots be required to go through the same medical certifications as helicopter and airplane pilots.

FAA Failed to Identify Issues with Balloon Operator 

The NTSB concluded that the FAA was not aware of Nichols' history of drug and alcohol convictions and further failed to identify that Nichols did not properly report his history of offenses, both of which might also have prevented him from obtaining a medical certification.

"Unfortunately, due in part to a medical certificate exemption so outdated that its purpose is lost to memory [the balloon passengers] didn't get the first-rate safety standard they deserved."