The Latest: Texas balloon company suspends operations

AP News
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Posted: Aug 01, 2016 7:14 PM
The Latest: Texas balloon company suspends operations

LOCKHART, Texas (AP) — The Latest on the hot air balloon crash that killed 16 people in Texas (all times local):

5:30 p.m.

Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides has suspended operations after a gondola hit a high-powered transmission line Saturday in Lockhart, Texas and caught fire, killing all 16 passengers.

The crash "has taken from us our owner and chief pilot, Skip Nichols, as well as 15 passengers, all of whom saw what was planned to be a special day turn into an unspeakable tragedy," Sarah Nichols, Skip Nichols' mother and the company's operations manager, wrote on Facebook late Sunday.

Spokesman Matt Missentzis confirmed the veracity of the statement on Monday.

Asked about the status of Nichols' Missouri-based Air Balloons Sports LLC, Missentzis said "any businesses that the family was involved in involving hot air ballooning should be considered to be shuttered." He added that all scheduled flights were canceled and that the company is working with customers to ensure they get their money back.

The 49-year-old Nichols had a long history of customer complaints against his balloon-ride companies in Missouri and Illinois dating back to 1997. Customers reported to the Better Business Bureau that their rides would get canceled at the last minute and their fees never refunded.

In a lawsuit filed against Nichols in 2013, a passenger said she was hurt when Nichols crash-landed a balloon in the St. Louis suburbs.

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This version corrects the spelling of the first name of Matt Missentzis.

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5:20 p.m.

Balloon Federation of America spokesman Patrick Cannon called it a "loophole" that pilots with DWIs and a history of alcoholism do not have to report that to the FAA when applying for a balloon pilot's certificate.

He noted that the ballooning certificate specifically says not to include alcohol offenses involving a motor vehicle, as those are covered on the FAA's medical application, which balloon and hang-gliding pilots, among others, are exempt from having to submit.

They only have to fill out the FAA form 8710-1, which asks whether an applicant has been convicted of a narcotics drug charge.

The captain of the balloon that crashed Saturday, Alfred "Skip" Nichols, got his commercial pilot's license in Missouri in July 1996, which predates his 2000 felony drug conviction. His first DWI conviction in Missouri came in 1990.

"DWIs are disqualifying when you're required to have a FAA medical. Balloon pilots are not required to have an FAA medical," Cannon says. "You're really self-policing. You're the one asserting that you're fit to fly."

All pilots are supposed to notify the FAA within 60 days of a drug or alcohol conviction. However, Cannon said there is no oversight of that reporting.

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4:45 p.m.

A member of the National Transportation Safety Board has criticized what he called a "disparity" in the FAA requirements for hot air balloon operators compared to airplane or helicopter pilots.

Robert Sumwalt said at a news conference Monday that hot air balloon pilots such as Alfred "Skip" Nichols would not have been required to report any alcohol-related incidents, as the FAA requires of airplane pilots applying for a license.

Nichols piloted the balloon that crashed Saturday in Texas, killing 16 people.

Online court records show Nichols had at least four drunken-driving convictions in Missouri. His ex-girlfriend has said Nichols was a recovering alcoholic who had been sober for at least four years.

Sumwalt says it appears Nichols was trying to land the balloon, based on the positioning of a vent and its attached cables. It appears the balloon may have dragged along power lines for about 30 feet.

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2:10 p.m.

The hot air balloon pilot involved in Saturday's fatal crash in Texas had at least four drunken-driving convictions in Missouri.

Online court records show that Alfred G. Nichols IV pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated in St. Louis County in 1990, twice in 2002 and again in 2010.

Nichols also was convicted of a drug crime in 2000 and spent about a year-and-a-half in prison before he was paroled. He was returned to prison in April 2010 for parole revocation because of his drunken-driving conviction that year. He was paroled in January 2012.

Missouri court records also show that Nichols settled a personal injury lawsuit in 2013 that was filed by one of eight passengers in his balloon that crash-landed in suburban St. Louis. The lawsuit blamed lack of propane for the balloon. Nichols blamed lack of wind.

Authorities haven't identified the pilot in the Texas crash, but his roommate has confirmed the pilot was 49-year-old Alfred "Skip" Nichols.

Nichols' ex-girlfriend, Wendy Bartch, told The Associated Press that Nichols had several drunken-driving convictions in Missouri, but that he was in recovery and had been sober for at least four years.

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12:45 p.m.

Federal records show the company operating the balloon tour involved in Saturday's fatal crash in Texas had another accident two years ago.

A Federal Aviation Administration accident report shows that a balloon registered to Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides made a hard landing in a church soccer field on Aug. 3, 2014. The crash injured two female passengers.

The report says the company's retrieval team had parked its trailer in the balloon's landing path, causing the pilot to land short to avoid a collision. The injured passengers were taken by ambulance to a hospital.

The name of the pilot involved in the 2014 crash wasn't included in the records. FAA spokesman Lynn Lundsford said there are no other records of accidents or closed enforcement actions against Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, or the company's pilot and owner, Alfred G. Nichols.

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12:30 p.m.

The ex-girlfriend of a hot air balloon pilot involved in a deadly Texas crash says he was in recovery for alcoholism and had been sober at least four years.

Wendy Bartch told The Associated Press on Monday that she met Skip Nichols in St. Louis in 1989. She says Nichols had multiple driving while intoxicated convictions, but never piloted while drinking. She says, "having other people's lives at stake was Skip's primary concern."

Bartch said Nichols' alcoholism and criminal record caused tensions with his father, a decorated military veteran. But she says there "had been a mending" in their relationship in recent years.

Bartch said she and Nichols remained friends and she helped him set up business operations in Texas in 2014. She says in order to keep his St. Louis business going, he started offering flights in Texas in the winter.

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12:20 p.m.

The person who called 911 following a hot air balloon crash that killed 16 people thought it was a vehicle fire in a remote patch of Texas countryside.

The Caldwell County Sheriff's office said Monday that there was only one call placed to 911 following the crash. Federal investigators say the call came a minute after powerlines were tripped at 7:42 a.m. Saturday. Investigators believe the balloon hit the powerline wires, killing everyone onboard.

In a recording of the 911 call, nearby resident Margaret Wylie reports seeing what she thinks is a vehicle fire in a pasture near Lockhart, a city south of Austin. She provides directions to the area to help responding firefighters.

She then adds: "The whole thing is in flames now."

Wylie told The Associated Press on Saturday that, "it was like a fireball going up."

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12 a.m.

Police say the pilot of a hot air balloon that crashed in Texas and killed all 16 people aboard was arrested in Missouri for driving while intoxicated in 2000.

Authorities haven't identified the pilot, but his roommate and friend confirms the pilot was 49-year-old Alfred "Skip" Nichols. The friend, Alan Lirette, says Nichols was a good pilot. Federal investigators say the balloon hit power lines before crashing into a pasture on Saturday.

A Missouri police officer tells The Associated Press that Nichols was arrested there in 2000 on a felony driving-while-intoxicated charge. The case was resolved two years later when he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. The officer spoke to the AP on condition that he not be identified because he was not authorized to comment publicly.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that in 2008, the Better Business Bureau warned consumers about doing business with Nichols after complaints about his balloon-touring company.

— From Associated Press writer Emily Schmall in Fort Worth, Texas.