Pilot in Deadliest US Balloon Crash Was on Scads of Meds

Experts tell NTSB that some, like oxycodone, should have precluded Texas man from flying
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Dec 10, 2016 6:04 AM CST

(Newser) – The pilot of a hot air balloon that crashed in Texas in July, killing 16 people, was taking medications that should have precluded him from flying, medical experts testified at a federal hearing on Friday. Experts testified that Alfred "Skip" Nichols, who was killed with 15 passengers, went up despite knowing that the weather wasn't good, reports the AP. The six-hour hearing is part of the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation into the July 30 accident in which the balloon hit high-tension power lines before crashing into a pasture near Lockhart, about 60 miles northeast of San Antonio. Nichols suffered from high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, diabetes, depression, attention deficit disorder, insomnia, fibromyalgia, and chronic back pain, per an NTSB report. He was prescribed at least 10 drugs, including insulin and oxycodone. Medical experts said some meds, including oxycodone, would have disqualified Nichols from flying because they would have affected his ability to think and make decisions.

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It's not clear whether the 49-year-old pilot was impaired during the early morning flight. A final NTSB report won't be issued until early next year. Nichols flew on a day when the cloud ceiling was 700 feet and the forecast didn't call for the sky to clear. "The weather briefer said, 'Yeah, those clouds may be a problem for you' ... (and) the pilot replied, 'Well, we just fly in between them. We find a hole and we go,'" said an NTSB board member. Several experts testified that they would not have flown in that weather. "Going in and out of the clouds really is not an option and it's not a very comfortable feeling as a pilot being up there and being faced with that type of choice," said the owner of one of the largest US hot air balloon operators. Nichols had at least four convictions for drunken driving and twice spent time in prison. (Among those killed in the crash: Newlyweds.)

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