The pilot in the deadliest hot air balloon crash in US history was probably impaired by opioids and sedatives when he ignored weather warnings and flew the ride into a power line, investigators said Tuesday. Besides Valium and oxycodone, there was a high enough dosage of the over-the-counter antihistamine Benadryl in Alfred "Skip" Nichols' system to mimic "the impairing effect of a blood-alcohol level" of a drunken driver, said Dr. Nicholas Webster, a National Transportation Safety Board medical officer. During a meeting in Washington, NTSB revealed its findings about the July 2016 crash near Austin that killed all 16 people aboard.
Investigators scolded the Federal Aviation Administration for lax enforcement of the ballooning industry and recommended that balloon pilots submit to the same medical checks as airplane pilots, reports the AP. Nichols, 49, had at least four prior convictions for drunken driving, though no alcohol was found in his system after the crash. Investigators said Nichols was told during a weather briefing before the flight that clouds may be a problem. He brushed off the warning. "We just fly in between them," Nichols allegedly answered back, according to NTSB investigators. "We find a hole and we go." Visibility was 10 miles about two hours before the balloon took off from a Walmart parking lot near the rural town of Lockhart but had diminished to just 2 miles before the ride began. Newlyweds were among the dead.