Hot Air Balloon Pilot In Fatal Accident Had Extensive DUI Record

By Victoria Kim 08/03/16

The hot air balloon operator's past DUI and drug convictions have come to light as authorities investigate the cause of the fatal crash.

Hot Air Balloon Pilot In Fatal Accident Had Extensive DUI Record

The pilot of the hot air balloon that crashed and killed 16 people, including the pilot, was a recovering alcoholic with an extensive history of drunk driving. Since the fatal accident that occurred after the balloon hit high-tension power lines and crashed into a field on Saturday near Lockhart, Texas, Alfred “Skip” Nichols’ long history of drunk driving and customer complaints as a balloon operator has come to light—leading many to wonder if his drinking history had anything to do with the crash.

According to a former girlfriend, Wendy Bartch, Nichols was a recovering alcoholic who had been sober for at least four years. Bartch described Nichols as a responsible balloon operator, and said he never flew after drinking. “Having other people’s lives at stake was Skip’s primary concern,” she told AP. In recent years, she said he “became a different person” who was “all about recovery.” A high school friend also vouched for Nichols, describing him as safety-oriented.

But Nichols’ history of disgruntled customers tells a different story—at least in his earlier years as a balloon operator. Between 1998 and 2001, more than three dozen complaints were lodged against his balloon company at the time, Manchester Balloon Voyages, for canceling rides at the last minute and failing to refund customers. And in 2012, he was hit with a personal injury lawsuit filed by a passenger who said she was hurt when Nichols crash-landed a balloon into a forest after running out of fuel.

The 49-year-old’s past DUI convictions have been dug up as well. Nichols’ first DUI conviction came in 1990, according to AP. That was followed by two more convictions in 2002, at which point his driver’s license was suspended for 10 years. His fourth DUI conviction came in 2010, which led to another 10-year suspension of his driver’s license.

He also spent about a year and a half in jail for a 2000 drug conviction before he got out on parole. However, he was back in prison in April 2010 after he violated his parole with his fourth DUI conviction. Nichols was paroled again in January 2012.

The tragic accident has also brought to light the seemingly lax regulation of hot air balloon pilots. According to the FAA, if Nichols had reported his prior drug and alcohol convictions, as he was technically required to do, he would have lost his ballooning license long ago.

For now, the investigation into what caused the crash is ongoing. 

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