U.S. House Approves Balloon Pilot Medical Exams After Texas Crash

May 1, 2018

The U.S. House has approved a measure requiring medical checks for commercial hot air balloon pilots in an effort to avoid a reoccurrence of a 2016 crash that killed 16 people in Texas.

The House voted Friday on a wide-ranging Federal Aviation Administration bill that includes a provision requiring medical checks similar to those required for helicopter and airline pilots.

The vote comes after federal investigators last year scolded the FAA for lax oversight in the wake of the deadliest hot air balloon crash in U.S. history.

The National Transportation Safety Board has determined that Alfred “Skip” Nichols was probably impaired by Valium, opioids and other drugs before the takeoff south of Austin. Besides Valium and oxycodone, there was a high enough dosage of the over-the-counter antihistamine Benadryl in Nichols’ system to mimic “the impairing effect of a blood-alcohol level” of a drunken driver, said Dr. Nicholas Webster, a National Transportation Safety Board medical officer.

During a meeting in Washington, NTSB revealed its findings about the July 2016 crash near Austin that killed 16 people. Investigators scolded the Federal Aviation Administration for lax enforcement of the ballooning industry and recommended that balloon pilots submit to the same medical checks as airplane pilots.

Nichols, 49, had at least four prior convictions for drunken driving, though no alcohol was found in his system after the crash. Investigators said Nichols was told during a weather briefing before the flight that clouds may be a problem. He brushed off the warning.

“We just fly in between them,” Nichols allegedly answered back, according to NTSB investigators. “We find a hole and we go.”

Visibility was 10 miles about two hours before the balloon took off from a Walmart parking lot near the rural town of Lockhart but had diminished to just 2 miles before the ride began.

Investigators said Nichols told his psychiatrist three months before the crash that he was not using his antidepressant medication and that his psychiatrist documented his mood as “not good.” Nichols was prescribed 13 medications and was also being treated for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD, which investigators say also was a contributing factor.

The Senate has yet to consider its own version of the legislation.

Associated Press writer Paul J.Weber contributed to this report.

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