KYLE, Texas — For the first time since 16 people were killed in a hot air balloon crash near Lockhart, Texas, the pilot of the aircraft has been identified.
The pilot was Alfred “Skip” Nichols, said Alan Lirette, the ground crew supervisor for Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides.
Lirette also confirmed to CNN that 16 people — 15 passengers and Nichols — were aboard the aircraft when it went down. The Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office said there were no survivors, and Lirette said there didn’t appear to be any children on board. Lirette described Nichols as his “best friend, boss and roommate.”
Philip Bryant, a balloon pilot, told CNN he knew Nichols.
“I knew him to be a safe, competent pilot,” Bryant said. “He has done this for a very long time.”
An official death toll of 16 would make this the deadliest hot air balloon crash in U.S. history, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
The balloon went down around 7:30 a.m. Saturday about 30 miles south of Austin, in farm pasture often used for balloon landings, a county judge and public safety source told CNN.
Federal and local authorities said the balloon may have struck power lines. Federal Aviation Administration officials said it caught fire before crashing.
“First I heard a whoosh,” Margaret Wylie, who lives near the crash site, told CNN affiliate TWC. “And then a big ball of fire (went) up. I’d say it got as high up as those lower electric lines.”
Both the FAA and the NTSB are investigating. NTSB spokesman Christopher O’Neill said 16 was the maximum number of passengers allowed under federal regulations governing hot air balloon operations.
O’Neill provided a timetable for part of the investigation: Several days will be spent on field work — interviewing people and gathering evidence at the scene. Seven to 10 days after field work ends, the agency will issue a preliminary report — “basically a snapshot of what facts do we know at that point in time.” The preliminary report will not include a probable cause of the crash, he said.
Before Saturday, the deadliest hot air balloon crash in the U.S. was a 1993 accident in Colorado that killed six people, according to the NTSB.
In 2013, 19 people died in a hot air balloon crash in Egypt, near the ancient city of Luxor. That was the world’s deadliest hot air balloon accident in at least 20 years.
Clashes over balloon regs
Federal regulators have clashed in the past over how to best oversee hot air balloon regulations.
The FAA sets federal regulations for the aircraft. But the NTSB — which can recommend new regulations — has said more accidents would occur without more regulation.
The former chair of the NTSB, Deborah Hersman, urged the FAA in 2014 to address “operational deficiencies” in hot air balloon activities after several incidents resulted in injuries and one death, according to a letter published on the NTSB’s website.
Hersman cited accidents in 2007, 2008 and 2013, according to the letter publicly posted on the federal agency’s site.
“Depending on gondola capacity, balloons can carry more than 20 passengers per flight. Given the various safety deficiencies noted in the NTSB’s investigations of the above balloon accidents, 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,” Hersman said in the letter, referring to the 2013 accident in Egypt.
In the letter, Hersman recommended requiring commercial balloon operators to acquire and maintain letters of authorization to hold air tour flights and to give passengers “a similar level of safety oversight as passengers of air tour airplane and helicopter operations.”
In 2015, the FAA responded to the NTSB request, saying the proposed letters of authorization “would not result in a significantly higher level of operational safety.”
The NTSB fired back in a 2016 statement, saying the FAA’s reply was an “unacceptable response.”
The NTSB argued the letters of authorization would allow for competency checks including pilot certification, safety checklists, and proper flight operation procedures.
“We are concerned that, if no action is taken to address this safety issue, we will continue to see such accidents in the future,” the NTSB response said.
It is unclear whether Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides implemented any of the NTSB’s recommended measures.
Twenty-five balloon accidents, resulting in 4 fatalities and 25 serious injuries, have occurred since Hersman’s 2014 letter and the last warning issued by the NTSB in March 2016, according to the exchange posted on its website.
The number does not take into account the fatalities from Saturday’s crash.