• Adrift: Hot-air balloon pilots face little scrutiny from FAA despite higher crash rates

    After a deadly balloon crash killed 16 people near Lockhart last summer, my boss, projects editor David Sheppard, asked me to look into the safety record of the hot-air balloon industry and find out how someone like Alfred “Skip” Nichols could be allowed to pilot balloons with a string of DWI convictions on his record.

    Here’s what we found out in a five-month project called “Adrift.”

    Hot-air balloon owned by Alfred "Skip" Nichols
    Hot-air balloon owned by Alfred “Skip” Nichols.
    If you had the idea that balloons are light as a feather and safer than other forms of air travel, it’s not your fault. I came across claims that balloons are safer on several ballooning websites that are simply incorrect.

    Despite the peaceful, romantic image of the sport, balloons suffer higher crash rates than other types of aircraft.

    While there’s no question most flights in the United States are carried out safely, the average accident rate for balloons was 15 crashes per 100,000 flight hours from 1993 to 2006. That’s twice as high as the average crash rate for other general aviation aircraft — seven crashes per 100,000 flight hours.

    The same pattern emerged in more recent federal data from 2012 to 2014 — the crash rates were nearly identical, and still twice as high for balloons.

    The NTSB also published a report that compared the crash rate of air-tour operations for balloons, airplanes and helicopters from 2004 to 2009. Balloons had “very high accident rates” during that period, the report noted, that were higher than fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

    But the Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t require balloon pilots to take drug tests or undergo medical evaluations like other pilots. In fact, it rejected proposals from its own expert and the National Transportation Safety Board that would have mandated drug tests for commercial balloon pilots.

    On the day of the crash near Lockhart, Nichols had been on a “witches’ brew” of prescription medications in his system that included the painkiller oxycodone, the antidepressant Valium, and a muscle relaxant that’s prohibited by the FAA.

    We compiled all the documents released by the NTSB and our Freedom of Information Act requests into a vast, searchable library on DocumentCloud. Type in keywords for things like “DWI” or “Valium” to find official records that discuss those topics about the crash near Lockhart.

    There’s already been excellent reporting on this terrible story. Publishing a project like this helps tie everything together in a long narrative that helps drive home just how egregious this tragedy was — and how it could have been prevented.