Families press White House for balloon oversight

Families press White House for balloon oversight

Survivors of 2016 Maxwell tragedy petition for new rules for pilots

 

By Kathi Bliss

Editor/POST-REGISTER

 

While many families continue to struggle to make sense of the nightmare balloon crash that killed 16 in Maxwell last summer, one woman is taking action.

Pat Morgan, whose daughter, Lorilee Brabson, and granddaughter, Paige Brabson, were killed in the crash, has begun an online petition, imploring the White House to push legislation that will strengthen the oversight and restrictions on the touring hot air balloon industry.

The current laws on the books governing touring balloons were enacted in the 1930s, and allow for minimal oversight over balloon pilots – most notably, unlike commercial pilots, balloon pilots are not required to submit to annual FAA medical exams.

Indeed, balloon pilots are trusted by the FAA to self-report medical conditions or other circumstances that might make them ineligible for flight. In some cases, however, it appears the pilots choose not to make reports, and those failures, it seems, go without consequence.

 

Initial findings by the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) in December indicated that pilot Alfred “Skip” Nichols’ medical condition could have contributed to the crash, the worst ballooning incident in American aviation history.

As treatment a number of physical and psychological issues, Nichols was prescribed, by several doctors in Texas and in his home state of Missouri, a variety of medications. Blood toxicology reports provided during the December hearing showed what NTSB witnesses called a “cocktail” of medications in his system at the time of the crash, including Oxycodone, Diphenhydramine, Buproprion and Diazepam, each of which on their own could have “sedating effects,” but which taken together, or merged with any of the other six active medications found in Nichols’ system, could prove fatal to the patient.

“He had no control over his executive functions,” said Caldwell County Emergency Management Coordinator Martin Ritchey, who along with Morgan and State Representative John Cyrier has been vocal about pushing for additional oversight. “Even without the medications, he had physical conditions that impaired his control over his executive functions. He should have been taken out of the sky.”

In addition to his mental health diagnoses, Nichols was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a generalized pain disorder, and was also noted to have chronic back spasms and pain. He also suffered from diabetes, high blood pressure and insomnia, his medical reports said.

At the time of his death, he had at-or-above-therapeutic levels of several medications in his system, including Valium, Ambien and Oxycontin, as well as over-the-counter allergy and cough medicine.

Any one of the medications alone, without considering the combined effects of several, could have produced similar effects as a blood-alcohol content of .10, over the state standard for Driving While Intoxicated.

The petition, Morgan wrote, seeks to bring up out-of-date regulations regarding the touring balloon industry – restrictions, she said, which could have deemed Nichols not flight worthy, and prevented the tragedy altogether.

Though she did not immediately return a request for comment, Morgan has made the petition available at https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/tightening-and-strengthening-safety-regulations-and-oversight-tour-hot-air-balloon-pilots-and-operations. A link can also be found on the Caldwell County Office of Emergency Management Facebook page.

kathibliss@post-register.com

 

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