The fatal crash of a hot air balloon in Texas has raised questions about the lack of strict regulation on the industry, as evidence suggests the company and pilot may have had a history of issues that should have raised safety concerns.
The hot air balloon accident occurred on Saturday near Lockhart, Texas, killing all 16 people onboard. It is considered the worst lighter-than-air vehicle crash since the infamous Hindenburg disaster in 1937, which killed 35 of the 97 crew and passengers.
Preliminary reports on the crash indicate that the balloon, owned and operated by Heart of Texas Balloon Rides, struck power lines. the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is now investigating the hot air balloon accident.
According to some media reports, the pilot, Alfred “Skip” Nichols, 49, has had four drunken driving convictions between February 1990 and March 2010. However, balloon pilots do not have to undergo a medical check or reveal DUIs to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) under current laws.
The NTSB investigation is just beginning, and no reports have been issued, and no blame has been yet placed on the pilot. They also reported that there appeared to be no pre-existing mechanical problems or failures linked to the balloon. However, at a press conference on Monday, NTSB officials urged the FAA to require more oversight of balloon pilots.
It is not the first time the board has asked for tighter hot air balloon regulations. In April 2014, the NTSB send a letter to the FAA (PDF) calling on it to require hot air balloon pilots to have similar requirements as airplane and helicopter pilots, which would require drug testing and letters of authorization.
At the time, the NTSB expressed concern that the lack of pilot regulations could lead to significant loss of life.
Nichols was imprisoned at least twice for drug and alcohol-related charges, once for a drug conviction in 2000, and in 2010 he was sentenced to seven years in prison for drunk driving, but was freed on parole in January 2012.
On July 31, in a Facebook posting, Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides announced it was suspending flights.
“It is with extraordinarily heavy hearts that we announce the suspension of operations at Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides,” the post reads. “The horrific crash near Lockhart, Texas has taken from us our owner and Chief Pilot, Skip Nichols, as well as 15 passengers, all of whom saw what was planned to be a special day turn into an unspeakable tragedy.”