News 8 Investigates
DALLAS -- The Lockhart balloon accident that killed pilot Alfred “Skip” Nichols and his 15 passengers last month highlights concerns about Federal Aviation Administration oversight.
Federal reports and critics are concerned about the ease with which balloon pilots to gain and keep their licenses. One key flaw, critics say, is the FAA’s reliance on pilots, including balloon pilots, to self-report drug and alcohol-related driving convictions.
“It’s an absolute joke," said Joseph Gutheinz, a pilot and Houston-area attorney.
FAA officials say they lack the resources to check DWIs and drug-related driving convictions of certified pilots, including balloon pilots. Instead, pilots are required by the FAA to self-report such offenses, along with other driving-related violations, within 60 days.
"Anybody that's ever been pulled over by a police officer watches them go to that little computer in their car and they tap in a few numbers and suddenly they know the criminal history of the person they're stopping," Gutheinz said.
Gutheinz, a former FAA and NASA special agent, said he knows pilots may lie. That’s because he conducted federal investigations that uncovered dozens of pilots who failed to self-report DWIs and felony convictions.
He said pilots may fail to report because they have a vested interest to keep their pilot certification and livelihood. As a result, he said the FAA has to proactively conduct criminal background checks.
“[FAA officials] don't want to be burdened with having to police the pilots in this country,” Gutheinz said. “But if they're not doing it, who is?”
WFAA-TV did a review of the 346 registered balloon pilots in Texas. The News 8 investigative unit checked the pilots’ criminal histories and found 12 balloon pilots with criminal convictions, including six with drug- and alcohol-related convictions.
It’s unclear if the balloon pilots reported any of the convictions to the FAA. But the balloon pilots – along with Lockhart pilot Alfred Nichols – remained clear to fly balloons.
Records show Nichols had at least four drunk driving convictions in Missouri. He also served prison time for drug trafficking.
Missouri even pulled Nichols driver’s license. Yet, Nichols remained FAA certified commercially to fly balloons.
Federal officials have not disclosed if Nichols self-reported his convictions, and they have not released findings about Nichols’ culpability in the Lockhart crash.
WFAA-TV also found that the FAA doesn’t ask if a prospective balloon pilot has any DWIs. Instead, the FAA application only asks about drug convictions.
Balloon pilot applications also fail to ask if an applicant has a driver’s license, or has any driving-related offenses.
The FAA’s own staff grew concerned about possible dangers of balloon flights, and issued a 2012 internal report saying “it is exceptionally easy to obtain” a commercial balloon pilot license.
The report called for “more robust initial or annual recurrent training” rather than “only 20 hours of flight time, and 10 flights in balloons…”
“That report that came out three years ago is just one more report that shows that the FAA is failing to do what we as citizens expect that it should be doing: Protecting the public,” Gutheinz said.
After the FAA internal report, the National Transportation Safety Board urged the FAA to increase its oversight of balloon pilots.
“We are concerned that, if no action is taken to address this safety issue, we will continue to see such accidents in the future," warned an NTSB safety recommendation.
But the FAA did not accept the NTSB’s recommendations. “...The FAA believes the risk posed to all pilots and participants is also low," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta wrote in response.
Including the Lockhart crash, records show there have been 58 U.S. balloon accidents, including 22 deaths, in the past five years.
Pat Cannon, a spokesman for the Balloon Federation of America, said regulations alone cannot safeguard the public from pilots like Nichols.
“Would more regulation have prevented this accident? Probably not.” Cannon said. “If you have somebody who is going to violate the rules, they are going to violate the rules.”
Cannon said he believes Nichols probably should not have been flying in Lockhart on the day of the accident, especially under the reported weather conditions.
“The pilots in Central Texas all canceled their flights that day because of the low ceilings and weather,” Cannon said. “Most often, if a pilot hits a power line, it is because he didn't see it.”
Cannon said there have been meetings between the FAA and his organization, the Balloon Federation of America, to review possible measures to enhance flight safety.
“The entire focus was to decide what can we do together to avoid another accident like we had,” Cannon said.