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Written by Liz Farmer, Breaking News Producer
December 9, 2016
The operator of a hot air balloon that fatally crashed outside Austin over the summer flew despite getting a cloud warning and taking a medley of prescription drugs, according to National Transportation Safety Board records.
Congress conducted a hearing Friday at the NTSB about the incident, which left 16 dead, including Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides operator Alfred “Skip” Nichols. The crash occurred July 30 in Lockhart, about 30 miles south of Austin. It was the worst hot air balloon crash in U.S. history.
Police cars blocked access to the site where the balloon crashed on July 30. (James Vertuno/The Associated Press)
The NTBS records question Nichols’ decision to fly on that muggy morning.
Nichols was licensed to fly a hot air balloon but was not eligible for a Texas driver’s license due to four drunken-driving convictions that led to his Missouri license being revoked, the Austin American- Statesman reports. Friends told the newspaper that Nichols was a recovering alcoholic who wouldn’t have flown while under the influence.
Several other substances, related to medicine prescribed to him for various conditions, were found in his system, according to a postmortem toxicology report.
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7 Drugs Found in System of Hot Air Balloon Pilot in Deadliest US Crash, NTSB Says — (ABC News Radio / WBAL News)
Friday, December 09 2016
(LOCKHART, Texas) — The pilot of the deadliest hot air balloon crash in U.S. history had seven different drugs in his system at the time of the accident, according to documents released Friday by the National Transportation Safety Board.
In the early hours of July 30, Alfred “Skip” Nichols was piloting a hot air balloon near Lockhart, Texas, with 15 passengers on board, when the balloon ultimately crashed into a field after striking high-voltage power lines. All those on board, including Nichols, were killed in the accident and the balloon was substantially damaged after hitting the power lines and catching fire.
Nichols had a history of medical and psychiatric conditions, according to NTSB records, including diabetes and depression, and was being treated with several different medicines for with chronic back pain, attention deficit disorder and fibromyalgia, among his other medical ailments.
Three of those medicines that were found in his system — diazepam (i.e. Valium), oxycodone (i.e. Oxycontin) and methylphenidate (i.e. Ritalin) — are drugs that legally prevent a pilot from obtaining a medical certificate. Other medicines that were found — cyclobenzaprine (a muscle relaxant) and diphenhydramine (i.e. Benadryl) — are medicines that pilots are told not to fly while taking, as those drugs could impair the pilot and prevent the pilot from flying safely, according to NTSB documents.
Nichols also suffered from “major depressive disorder,” according to Nichols’ medical records obtained by the NTSB. And while Nichols was taking medication to treat this condition, one expert suggested that may not have been enough.
“Someone taking anti-depressants does not necessarily guarantee the anti-depressants are effective,” Federal Aviation Administration Chief Psychiatrist Charles Chesanow testified Friday in Washington, D.C.
Currently, the FAA does not require hot air balloon pilots to hold a medical certificate, even though both fixed-wing and helicopter pilots do need this certificate.
And though Nichols may not have legally needed a medical certificate to fly, depression is a disqualifying condition for pilot medical certification.
The FAA may issue a “special issuance of a medical certificate,” which would allow those pilots suffering from depression to fly, but only if the pilot proved that after six months of treatment, the pilot was clinically stable on one of four FAA-approved medications.
In Nichols’ case, bupropion (an anti-depressant) was found in his body at the time of the accident, and is not one of the four FAA-approved medications.
But would Nichols’ passengers have noticed anything wrong with their pilot? One expert suggested not.
“The drug levels are an important piece of the puzzle, but they aren’t the entire puzzle,” Chesanow said.
Nichols also had multiple arrests, convictions and incarcerations, which included five alcohol-related incidents, possession of drugs, and driving with a suspended driving license, according to FBI National Crime Information Center records and Missouri driving records, obtained by the NTSB.
Nichols never reported any of his drug convictions or motor vehicle violations, according to testimony presented to the NTSB Friday, despite the fact that it was mandatory to report any of these incidents to the FAA within 60 days of them occurring.
Even after discovering that Nichols failed to report alcohol-related motor incidents, the FAA ultimately dismissed legal enforcement action against the pilot, according to a July 29, 2013, letter sent by the federal agency to Nichols.
In an NTSB testimony Friday, the FAA said it decided not to pursue legal action against Nichols because of its “Stale Complaint Rule” and its inability to show “appropriate diligence.”
The “Stale Complaint Rule” is an FAA rule that says any complaint may generally be dismissed if the alleged offenses occurred more than six months before the time of the complaint, unless the FAA can show it took “appropriate diligence” in the case, according to testimony presented Friday at the NTSB hearing.
Additionally, the FAA’s 2013 letter encouraged Nichols to document his alcohol incidents when applying for a future Airman Medical Certificate, despite the fact that the FAA does not require hot air balloon pilots to hold medical certificates.
FAA Federal Air Surgeon Dr. James Fraser explained at the NTSB hearing, though, that even if a pilot does not legally need a medical certificate, the pilot is still responsible from abstaining from flight if he is not fit to fly.
“Certainly if he could read the English language, he would know these medications would not be allowed,” Fraser testified before the NTSB.
When asked whether the FAA should require a medical certificate for balloon operators, Fraser suggested it may be time for a change in policy.
“I feel a medical evaluation is a part of the holistic plan to keep the national air space safe,” Fraser said.
Following the hearing, NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt admitted that while the balloon industry and the FAA may have resisted change in the past, there may also be a renewed interest in cooperation with safety regulations.
“Unfortunately, sometimes it takes blood to get change,” Sumwalt said. “And we want to make sure there are changes made before there’s more bloodshed.”