The pilot of a hot air balloon that crashed in Texas in July, killing 16 people, was taking medications that should have precluded him from flying, medical experts testified at a federal hearing on Friday.
Experts also testified that Alfred “Skip” Nichols, who was killed along with 15 passengers, went up in the balloon despite knowing that the weather wasn’t good.
The six-hour hearing is part of the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the July 30 accident in which the balloon hit high-tension power lines before crashing into a pasture near Lockhart, about 60 miles northeast of San Antonio.
Nichols suffered from high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, diabetes, depression, attention deficit disorder, insomnia, fibromyalgia and chronic back pain, according to an NTSB report presented at the hearing. He was prescribed at least 10 different drugs for his ailments, including insulin and oxycodone. Medical experts told NTSB officials that some of the medications Nichols was taking, including oxycodone, would have disqualified him from flying because they would have affected his ability to think and make decisions.
It’s not clear whether the 49-year-old pilot was impaired during the early morning flight. A final NTSB report won’t be issued until early next year.
Nichols flew on a day when the cloud ceiling was 700 feet and the forecast didn’t call for the sky to clear.
“When this accident pilot received a weather briefing, the weather briefer said, ‘Yeah, those clouds may be a problem for you. don’t know how long you plan to stay, but’ and then the pilot replied, ‘Well, we just fly in between them. We find a hole and we go,”‘ said NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt.
Several experts testified that they would not have flown in that weather.
“Going in and out of the clouds really is not an option and it’s not a very comfortable feeling as a pilot being up there and being faced with that type of choice,” said Scott Appelman, owner of Rainbow Ryders Hot Air Balloon Ride Company, one of the largest hot air balloon operators in the United States.
Nichols had at least four convictions for drunken driving and twice spent time in prison.
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