Prescription cocktail could have impaired balloon pilot
By LPR Staff
Information uncovered during a public hearing of the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) on Friday suggests that the fatal balloon crash in the Maxwell area in July 2016, might have been prevented.
The ongoing investigation, which is not expected to wrap until the spring, indicates that weather conditions, coupled with a “witch’s brew” of prescription medications indicated in the pilot’s bloodstream at the time of the crash, might likely have been factors in the crash that killed 15 passengers and the pilot on the morning of July 30, 2016.
Alfred “Skip” Nichols, 49, was the pilot of the ill-fated flight, and owner of Heart of Texas Balloon Rides. His checkered past of alcohol and drug-related criminal charges came to light during the initial days following the crash, but became of greater significance during last week’s hearing.
“This is one of the reasons why I pushed for this to be a public hearing,” State Representative John Cyrier said. “This is information that needs to be out there, so that we can start making changes to this industry.”
The information Cyrier specifically referred to is the fact that, in 2013, a fellow balloon pilot made an outcry to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regarding Nichols’ past criminal charges for Driving While Intoxicated, a charge that would prevent a commercial airplane or helicopter pilot from piloting a commercial flight.
Balloon pilots, however, are exempt from the annual medical checks that other pilots must submit to; that lack of oversight into the ballooning industry is something that many feel may have been directly responsible for the crash.
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.
In submitting to a medical examination in 1996, the only medical report the FAA has on record for Nichols, the pilot indicated not only that he had not been charged or convicted of a criminal offense related to operating a vehicle under the influence, but also that he had never been diagnosed with a mental or physical condition that might have prevented him from flying.
His criminal background check, however, indicates his first charge of Driving While Intoxicated (one of five), in 1985; his medical records reflect a childhood diagnosis of ADHD, and a 1990 diagnosis of “severe depression.”
As treatment for his myriad medical and mental 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 hearing show 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 traveled to Washington last week to attend the hearings. “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.
It should be noted, however, that Nichols showed no alcohol in his system at the time of the crash.
“If he had to submit to Class 2 Medical Examinations like other pilots do, he probably would have been grounded,” said Cyrier, himself a hobbyist pilot who has been in training for a commercial license. Several of Nichols’ medications are grounds for revoking flight privileges for commercial pilots.
Cyrier and Ritchey both traveled to Washington for the hearing, they said, to gather information and in an effort to pressure Federal lawmakers to change the FAA regulations, which allow the commercial hot-air balloon pilots to operate largely unsupervised, exempt from the regulations which govern other pilots.
“We’re talking about regulations that haven’t been changed since the 1930s,” Cyrier said. “And an industry that is estimated to serve 200,000 people, at minimum, every year. But we have no way of knowing how big it really is, because no one is watching.”
Other information that came forward during the hearing suggests that other balloon pilots in Central Texas, who also had flights scheduled that morning, chose not to fly.
One balloonist provided written testimony that he had four flights scheduled in Central Texas on the morning of July 30, but after reviewing weather forecasts and seeing the chances for fog, chose not to fly.
The witness, identified as Joseph Reynolds, is a member of the Central Texas Ballooning Association, and said that he, along with other association members, had canceled flights that morning because of the patchy fog. He also noted the association was involved in the anonymous 2013 FAA complaint against Nichols, who he said the group was “looking into” because they had received complaints of fraudulent ballooning operations.
Because of obscure language allowing the FAA to dismiss “stale” complaints, of offenses older than six months, Nichols only received a letter of reprimand as a result of that complaint, and a request for Nichols to update his medical forms upon his next medical examination.
Medical examinations, however, are not required of balloon pilots.
The Central Texas Ballooning Association had not returned a request for comment by press time.
“This was a horrible tragedy that showed significant flaws within the FAA system,” said Congressman Blake Farenthold. “I hope that after this investigation, once all the facts are in, the FAA and NTSB will be able to work together to close loopholes and ensure hot air balloon pilots are held to standards appropriate for commercial pilots.”
Though requests for comment from Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn were not returned, Cyrier said he had discussed the matter with both Senators, and is hopeful that legislation will be introduced, after the conclusion of the investigation, to strengthen regulations in the ballooning industry.
The NTSB investigation is ongoing, and the Post-Register will continue to provide updates as additional information becomes available.
+ The document excerpts provided to accompany this report are portions of a 19-page “Final Medical Report” presented to the NTSB during last week”s hearing.