NTSB Completes On-Site Balloon Investigation

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NTSB investigators wrapped up their on-site investigation today of Saturday morning’s hot-air balloon crash in Texas, in which 16 people were killed. In a news briefing at 4 p.m. local time, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said their preliminary investigation had not revealed any pre-existing failures or malfunctions with the balloon system. He also said investigators had conducted interviews with the three ground-crew members who were working on the day of the crash. Sumwalt said it appears the pilot was trying to land the balloon, based on the positioning of a vent and its attached cables, according to the Associated Press. The balloon appears to have hit power lines and then may have dragged along the lines for about 30 feet.

It also has been reported that investigators retrieved 14 electronic devices from the accident site, including phones, cameras and an iPad, most of them badly burned, that will be examined for evidence. The investigation into the crash, which is the deadliest balloon accident ever in the U.S., is continuing. Sumwalt said it will take up to a year or more before the NTSB determines a probable cause.

The balloon pilot in command of the flight, which was operated by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, has been identified in news reports and social media as Aflred “Skip” Nichols, 49. Nichols reportedly had a history of arrests involving drinking and drugs. The Los Angeles Times reported that Missouri court records show that Nichols had four DUI convictions between 1990 and 2010. An ex-girlfriend told The Associated Press that Nichols had been sober for at least four years. Questions have also been raised about the weather and visibility at the time of the flight. 

The NTSB had asked the FAA in April 2014 to require commercial balloon-tour companies to get agency permission to operate, and to make balloon operators subject to FAA safety inspections. "The potential for a high number of fatalities in a single air tour balloon accident is of particular concern if air tour balloon operators continue to conduct operations under less stringent regulations and oversight," then-NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman wrote at the time. “Passengers who hire air tour balloon operators should have the benefit of a similar level of safety oversight as passengers of air tour airplane and helicopter operations.” She cited a 2013 commercial balloon tour accident in Egypt, in which 19 people died. In a response to the NTSB last November, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said, “Since the amount of ballooning is so low, the FAA believes the risk posed to all pilots and participants is also low given that ballooners understand the risks and general hazards associated with this activity.”

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