If Alfred "Skip" Nichols had been a commercial airplane pilot, he probably would have been grounded long ago. Nichols, the pilot of a hot air balloon that crashed over the weekend in Texas, killing 16, was able to keep flying despite having at least four convictions for drunk driving and twice spending time in prison—pointing to gaps in oversight of hot air balloon pilots, the AP reports. Whether the pilot's drinking habits had anything to do with the crash is unclear. A former girlfriend described Nichols as a recovering alcoholic and said he had been sober for at least four years and never piloted a balloon after drinking. The Federal Aviation Administration might allow a recovering alcoholic to fly commercial jets if the pilot was being successfully treated, says an aviation safety expert. But the agency is unlikely to accept an airline pilot with convictions for driving under the influence, he adds.
Nichols, 49, got his commercial license to pilot hot air balloons in Missouri in July 1996. His first drunk-driving conviction came in 1990, followed by two more convictions in 2002 and a fourth in 2010, according to online court records. He was also convicted of a drug crime in 2000 and spent about a year and a half in prison before being paroled. He was returned to prison in April 2010 after his parole was revoked because of his drunk-driving conviction that year. He was paroled again in January 2012. Nichols also had a long history of customer complaints against his balloon-ride companies in Missouri and Illinois dating back to 1997. Customers reported to the Better Business Bureau that their rides would get canceled at the last minute and their fees never refunded. Investigators say they do not yet know why the balloon hit high-tension power lines before crashing early Saturday. (The victims included a newlywed couple celebrating a birthday.)