The pilot of the hot air balloon that hit high-tension power lines before crashing into a pasture in Texas on Saturday, killing 16 people, had been previously arrested in 2000 for driving under influence, the Associated Press (AP) reported Monday citing a police officer.
Alfred “Skip” Nichols, 49 — identified as the pilot by friend and roommate Alan Lirette — was not officially named by the authorities who said they were in the process of identifying the bodies of the victims involved in the crash. The hot air balloon was operated by the Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) figures, the Texas crash is the most fatal hot air balloon crash in the history of the United States, surpassing a 1993 accident in Colorado that killed six people.
The Federal Aviation Administration said the crash occurred around 7:40 a.m. (8:40 a.m. EDT) near Lockhart, about 30 miles south of Austin. The AP reported ground crew members telling investigators that the launch took place about 20 minutes after the expected time of 6:45 a.m. (7:45 a.m. EDT). The balloon traveled about 8 miles from takeoff to crash. The basket was found almost three-quarters of a mile away from the balloon.
The NTSB investigators said 14 personal electronic devices — cell phones, an iPad and three cameras — were recovered from the crash site and will be sent to a lab in Washington.
NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said the balloon’s pilot had a commercial certificate to fly a hot air balloon but added that it was too early in the investigation to know whether he had a criminal record.
However, the AP report citing the Missouri police officer, on condition of anonymity, said that Nichols was arrested in the state in 2000 on a driving while intoxicated charge and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor DWI in 2002. Nichols had lived in Missouri before moving to Texas.
In 2008, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had reported that the Arlington, Virginia-based Better Business Bureau issued a warning for consumers doing business with Nichols. The paper quoted the BBB as saying that Nichols was on probation in Missouri for distribution, delivery or manufacturing a controlled substance.
Lirette, the ground crew supervisor for the balloon operator, described Nichols as his "best friend, boss and roommate," according to the AP.
Nichols’ colleagues, however, defended his abilities. Philip Bryant, another balloon pilot, told CNN: “I knew him to be a safe, competent pilot.”
“He has done this for a very long time,” Bryant added.
Lirette, Nichols' close friend and roommate, reportedly said, “That’s the only thing I want to talk about, is that he’s a great pilot.”
“There’s going to be all kinds of reports out in the press and I want a positive image there too.”