Saturday, July 30, 2016

Balony Kubicek Spol Sro BB85Z, N2469L, Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides: Fatal accident occurred July 30, 2016 in Lockhart, Caldwell County, Texas


FAA Flight Standards District Office: FAA San Antonio FSDO-17 

NTSB Identification: DCA16MA204
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Saturday, July 30, 2016 in Lockhart, TX
Aircraft: KUBICEK BB85, registration: N2469L
Injuries: 16 Fatal.

This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed. NTSB investigators traveled in support of this investigation and used data obtained from various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.

On July 30, 2016, about 0742 central daylight time, a Balony Kubicek BB85Z hot air balloon, registration N2469L, crashed into a field after striking high voltage powerlines near Lockhart, Texas. The 15 passengers and pilot onboard were fatally injured and the balloon was substantially damaged due to impact forces and post-crash fire. The flight was operating under 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91 as a sightseeing passenger flight.

Those who may have information that might be relevant to the National Transportation Safety Board investigation may contact them by,  and any friends and family who want to contact investigators about the accident should email

Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides:

Balloon Pilot in Deadly Crash Tried to Duck Under Clouds, Investigators Believe

Pilot sought to quickly descend through a break in thick clouds, apparently without noticing power lines

Federal investigators believe the pilot of a sightseeing balloon that crashed last month killing 16 people sought to quickly descend through a break in clouds, apparently without noticing power lines below, according to two people familiar with the details.

The preliminary conclusions of National Transportation Safety Board experts, which haven’t been made public, provide the clearest sequence of events so far about what likely led to the deadliest U.S. accident of a lighter-than-air vehicle in modern times.

Evidence and interviews gathered by investigators—including a cellphone picture sent by a balloon passenger to someone on the ground minutes before the July 30 crash—indicate that contrary to safety rules, the commercial hot-air balloon was floating above a thick cloud bank with little or no visibility of the Central Texas pastureland beneath, according to a person briefed on the investigation.

The image sent by the passenger showed a single break in the heavily overcast sky, according to this person, with shadows of towers holding up electrical transmission lines discernible in the surrounding cloud layer.

The NTSB has said safety rules restrict such balloons to be aloft only when visibility is at least one mile, and pilots are supposed to stay clear of clouds. The tentative finding of investigators, according to the person who was briefed, is that the balloon got into trouble as the pilot seemingly tried to duck under the cloud cover.

An NTSB spokesman declined to comment Sunday. The conclusions could change, and it could take up to a year for the safety board to issue a final investigative report.

The safety board previously said investigators found “no evidence of pre-existing failures, malfunctions or problems” with the balloon.

Last week, the NTSB said Alfred G. “Skip” Nichols IV, the 49-year-old pilot, had set the balloon to descend before part of it hit a power line, likely severing the basket that held 15 passengers and sparking what eyewitnesses described as a fireball on the ground from the propane the balloon used as fuel. 

Investigators also told reporters they were examining weather conditions in and around Lockhart, Texas, 30 miles south of Austin, where the crash occurred, including possible fog or overcast conditions. But until now, it hasn’t been clear why the pilot may have picked that particular spot to descend, after sending his ground crew the message he usually transmitted to signal he was preparing to land.

“Power lines are something that every hot air balloon pilot learns from a very early start in their career to avoid at nearly all costs,” said Jeff Chatterton, a spokesman for the Balloon Federation of America.

Investigators also are delving into a 2014 incident in which a balloon operated by the same company, Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, experienced a hard landing near Kyle, Texas, that broke the leg of a passenger.

Some safety board officials are pushing for a public hearing highlighting what critics have called the Federal Aviation Administration’s inadequate oversight of commercial balloons and their operators.

Balloon passengers expect the same level of oversight and safety requirements the FAA has imposed over the years on sightseeing operators using small planes or helicopters, Deborah Hersman, a former NTSB chairman, told CNN last week.

The agency also is on the defensive because the pilot went to prison twice in Missouri on drug- and alcohol-related charges. Mr. Nichols was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1999 for possessing a controlled substance, and served roughly 1 1/2 years in a  Missouri Department of Corrections facility after pleading guilty to the charge. Court records show he went back to prison in 2010 for nearly two years after his parole was revoked following a 2007 arrest in Town and Country, Mo., for driving while intoxicated.

After receiving an initial certificate, balloon pilots are obligated to tell the FAA about drug- or alcohol-related offenses, according to the agency.

In 2014, the safety board publicly issued nonbinding recommendations calling for tighter regulation of balloons carrying passengers.

Without such changes, the safety board said in an April 7, 2014, letter, “the potential for a high number of fatalities in a single air tour balloon accident is of particular concern.”

Nearly two years earlier, a report by an FAA safety inspector raised similar red flags and called for identical changes.

But high-ranking FAA officials ultimately failed to take action on either set of warnings. Michael Huerta, the agency’s administrator, responded to the board in a 2005 letter that, among other things, said the number of balloon flights nationwide “is so low,” the FAA “believes the risk posed to all pilots and participants is also low.”

After the July 30 accident, an FAA spokesman said “it’s too early to say what our next actions might be, until we’ve had a chance to gather and examine the evidence.”

Original article can be found here:

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Mo. - The pilot involved in a deadly hot air balloon crash over the weekend was involved in an eerily similar incident in Missouri.

Alfred Nichols was manning a hot air balloon filled with 16 people, included himself, in Texas on Saturday when it crashed into some power lines.

Every person onboard died.

On Monday, the 41 Action News investigators discovered that Nichols was sued in 2012 for a similar incident.

Nichols was the one-time owner of Air Balloon Sports LLC, located in O'Fallon, Missouri. 

According to court records, in 2009, Nichols took a family of three up in the air in Jefferson County after they purchased a Groupon.

At some point during the ride, Nichols told the family he was running out of fuel. The balloon, according to the documents, landed in some trees. The people onboard had to pull at the branches to get the balloon free. It then proceeded to fall to the ground from 80 feet in the air.

During the deposition, Nichols told a judge that the hot air balloon was veering toward some power lines, which is why he made the decision to bring it down.

Of the three passengers, only one was injured. 

Lee Patton, the attorney for that case, spoke exclusively with 41 Action News, saying he helped his client reach a $10,000 settlement. 

"I wish I would have done more to get this guy's license permanently suspended," Patton said. 

The 41 Action News investigators also found that Nichols is a felon.

Nichols had a lengthy history of drinking and driving, according to court records. Nichols also had several drug charges on his record. He was also caught driving on a suspended license. 

"What I'm shocked about, is that he was still able to pilot an aircraft," Patton said.

Story and video:

A shot of the hot air balloon ride taken by Matt Rowan

Paige and Lorilee Brabson in the hot air balloon before it plummeted

Paige Brabson with her mother Lorilee in the basket before the hot air balloon ride

A shot of the ground taken by Paige and Lorilee Brabson

Paige Brabson with her mother Lorilee on the ground before the trip

The pilot of the hot-air balloon that crashed in Texas, killing 16 people, had a record that includes arrests for driving while intoxicated and drugs — but his ex-girlfriend said he had been sober for years and would never put his passengers in danger.

"He wouldn't have taken anybody into an unsafe environment," Wendy Bartch said of Alfred "Skip" Nichols.

Nichols, who was certified to fly balloons, was killed in Saturday's accident. The cause is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, which has not determined if pilot error was involved.

Public records show that Nichols served nearly two years in a Missouri prison after a 1999 marijuana arrest. He was still on parole when he was busted for felony DWI in 2007 and went back to jail for 21 months. He also pleaded guilty to DWI misdemeanors in 2000 and 2002.

According to one court record from 2010, his license to drive was suspended until 2020, though it's not clear that if that was still in effect at the time of the crash.

The Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement that all pilots are required to report DWI offenses within 60 days, which can lead to license suspension or revocation.

The FAA said Monday that it had no record of any action against Nichols' pilot license or against his company, Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, but cautioned that some records are expunged after two years.

However, Nichols' court file includes a 2013 letter from the FAA saying it was investigating his latest DWI and asking for copies of paperwork in the case.

The FAA came under attack from the NTSB on Monday evening, with the lead investigator saying it's "unacceptable" that federal regulations don't require a medical certificate for balloon operators like they do for airline pilots.

Since Nichols was reportedly in recovery, it's unclear if his past substance abuse issues would have made him ineligible to fly now.

Bartch told NBC News that she had known Nichols since 1989 and worked for him on a regular basis starting in 2012. He stopped drinking several years ago, she said.

"Skip had changed his life," she said. "He was 100 percent sober and I know it to be a fact. He did everything to promote his sobriety. His life was different."

Bartch, who worked as a ground crew member for Nichols, also said that he was a stickler for safety.

"We're not just talking about Skip, we're talking about 15 other people," she said of the accident, crying as she spoke.

"If there was any measure of anything, any visibility issues, any cloud cover, any precipitation, he would not have gone up. He wouldn't have."

The two balloon ride companies that Nichols ran, Heart of Texas and a company in Missouri, were the subject of 10 complaints with the Better Business Bureau, but most were related to refunds over canceled rides.

In some rebuttals to the complaints, the company said cancellations were due to unsafe weather conditions.

"Safety is always our top priority, and will never be compromised," the company wrote in one response.

Nichols' Missouri company was the subject of a 2012 civil suit that alleged he operated a balloon in a "negligent and careless manner," causing a 2009 crash. The suit — which claimed he did not take a test flight of the balloon after an annual certification and failed to monitor the fuel level during the flight — was settled in 2013.

The National Transportation Safety Board has said that the balloon in this weekend's tragedy likely hit power lines before it plunged to the ground in Lockhart, Texas, eight miles into its flight.

It was cloudy at the time of takeoff but it's not clear if weather played a role.

Heart of Texas has suspended operations. In a statement posted to its Facebook page over the weekend, the company said "no information has been shared with us by the investigating authorities.'

"There are simply no words to express our profound sadness at this event that has taken away so many of our loved ones." the statement said.

Story and video:

The crash is under investigation and officials believe the balloon may have struck power lines. If 16 were killed, it would be the deadliest balloon accident in U.S. history.

We're accustomed to hearing about plane crashes and there is an established body of law that determines who can be held liable and what kind of compensation survivors can receive in such cases. With balloon accidents, that isn't as clear.

While hot air balloons are technically considered "aircraft," they really aren't a part of mainstream American life in the way other aircraft are. Developed in the 1700s, balloons were the first successful technology to carry a human in flight. Yet, most of us only see them in screensavers, or stock photos that come with our laptop computers. No one uses them to commute or to fly home for the holidays. For the most part, when a group of people get into a balloon, it's for a recreational tour.

Though balloon accidents are rare, they raise a host of legal issues. To the extent it can be said humans "operate" them, they are governed by U.S. Federal Aviation Regulations.

Legally, a balloon ride is also like an act of God: Sometimes it is controlled by the violence of nature, and not human intervention.

The pilot can ascend by using burners to send hot air up into the balloon. They can descend by pulling a rip cord, which opens a vent to release hot air from the balloon. Beyond that, the wind largely dictates the flight path and landing site.

Can you imagine booking a flight on a commercial airline without knowing where it's going to land? Balloon tours, on the other hand, have one certainty: The destination is uncertain.

There are many legal issues with power lines, too. They are coursing with deadly electricity, yet, they must be placed everywhere, so that we all can power our air conditioners and charge our phones. Bad things happen when people accidentally come into contact with them; and balloons are no exception.

Are hot air balloons too dangerous? And, when they do crash, who is liable?

Fortunately, in the United States, no matter how esoteric or narrow the topic is, there is usually a devoted scholar or institution that has devoted considerable resources to exhaustively researching that issue. In this case, a research paper published in the peer-reviewed Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine journal entitled "Hot-Air Balloon Tours: Crash Epidemiology in the United States, 2000-2011" analyzed National Transportation Safety Board reports of hot-air balloon tour crashes in the United States from 2000 through 2011. That leaves out the last five years, but the data are still compelling.

According to the study, 78 hot-air balloon tours crashed in that 12-year period. Five people died and 91 were seriously injured.

Among 43 balloons that hit fixed objects during crashes, the second-most struck object was power lines (11), with trees coming in first (15). But even stranger, avoiding power lines also contributed to eight crashes, which is an argument for power lines being considered in the first place.

Among crashes of paid balloon rides, collisions with objects contributed to all five fatalities. Collisions specifically with power lines accounted for seven percent of the crashes, two fatalities and 10% of all injuries.

Driving a car is fraught with potential collisions. Crossing deer, pedestrians and other cars are just a few of the many dangerous moving items on the road. By contrast, the objects that pose a threat to an airborne balloon are limited, and most of them are fixed, like trees, buildings and the Earth itself. The fixed object that causes the greatest risk for catastrophe appears to be power lines. In addition to the impact, there's the added risk of electrocution.

Generally, electric utilities may be liable for failing to insulate, warn about, properly maintain, de-energize, or place their wires.

That's not to say that these are easy cases to win. There are many kinds of tragic encounters with power lines. Some are the fault of the utility. Some are not. While power lines are a common risk to balloons, court cases involving power lines and balloons are not a common occurrence. One Illinois case pops up again and again: Coleman v. Windy City Balloon Port.

That case suggests that power line companies have no duty to warn balloonists of a known danger of electricity when the presence of the power lines was an open and obvious danger.

In addition, if a balloonist chooses to take a balloon up in bad weather and then misguides it into the lines, that's not foreseeable by the utility company.

It seems utilities cannot be obligated to always make electric wires perfectly safe, either. To the court, requiring a utility to warn balloonists, insulate the power line and provide circuit breakers at all points on the line would impose an unreasonable, unachievable duty upon the entire system.

Balloon collisions with power lines are rare in the world of catastrophic litigation. That's why there's a dearth of cases on the topic. A single state court case from the late '80s is hardly mandatory authority on the issue of liability. By contrast though, there are plenty of cases about the liability of electric and other companies when someone is injured by a power line, on the ground or in the air. These will provide guidance, but then again, ballooning is an unusual hobby that is controlled in part by humans, in part by Mother Nature, and not at all by passengers.

Whoever owned, operated and piloted the balloon will likely be the subject of a lawsuit, but then again, we don't know what kind of waivers the passengers signed. Also, the operator may try to defend the case based upon some unforeseeable, unavoidable weather incident or equipment failure. In that event there could also be a potential products liability claim against the manufacturer of the balloon.

Ultimately, are balloon tours worth the risk? We tolerate a lot of highway fatalities due to motor vehicle accidents. This is because cars are essential to our way of life. The great danger of the automobile is outweighed by its even greater utility. Balloons are hardly essential; they're barely a means of transportation.

If a recreational activity's low utility is outweighed by the danger, that activity is eventually prohibited. Or, we say to those engaging in the activity: Balloon at your own risk. That's fine for the balloonist who can appreciate the risk of a transoceanic solo flight to the island of Krakatoa. But the passengers who paid a lot of money for a tour may not really have an opportunity to appreciate that risk.


Robert Sumwalt
National Transportation Safety Board Member.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Member Robert Sumwalt providing information regarding balloon crash during media briefing to reporters.

National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Robert Sumwalt talks about the crash at a news conference Sunday.

Flowers sit next to police tape on Sunday at the site of the hot air balloon crash near Lockhart.

The National Transportation Safety Board held a press conference Sunday on the hot air balloon accident that happened in Central Texas Saturday.

Officials said they believed 16 people died in the accident, and that they would hold press briefings upon arrival at the crash site as they had updated information.

NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt discussed the various details they will be looking at during the investigation.

“The general sense, we look at three things: the human, the machine, and the environment. And what that really means is we're looking at the operation of the balloon, the pilot, the company that operated the balloon. We'll be looking at the maintenance aspects of the balloon. Witnesses - we're certainly interested to know any witness information that we may be able to get”, stated Sumwalt.

Story and video:


July 15, 2008: Air Balloon Sports scrutinized over canceled flights

In 2006, Carolyn Lichtenberg booked a hot air balloon ride as a surprise gift for husband David on their 30th wedding anniversary.

Two wedding anniversaries, dozens of unreturned phone calls and $424 later, the Oakville couple still hasn't taken flight.

After inclement weather conditions canceled their scheduled ride, Lichtenberg said she repeatedly called Alfred "Skip" Nichols, owner of Air Balloon Sports, to reschedule. She then sent the company a certified letter asking for a refund, but the letter was refused and she has yet to receive a ride or a refund.

"I'm aggravated with the whole thing," she said. "I feel stupid because I'm usually pretty cautious."

For a third time, the Better Business Bureau warned consumers Tuesday about doing business with Nichols, citing eight customers complaints over the last two years about canceled flights, no refunds and difficulty rescheduling even after several years of attempts.

An Alton, Ill., woman said she paid $1,600 in November 2005 to buy her family a ride as a Christmas gift but all flights have been canceled and her requests for refunds ignored, according to the BBB.

A St. Louis man said he paid $424 for a hot air balloon ride in June 2007. After a few postponements he received his flight, but in January 2008, he said he received another charge of $424 on his card from this firm. He said he spoke with Nichols concerning the charge and was told the billing company the firm used was having problems and that he would take care of the problem. After many months and no refund, the consumer said he was able to have his credit card company credit the amount.

Nichols, who said he's flown balloons for 20 years, maintains that the cancellations are because his business is weather-sensitive.

"It can be nice and calm and it's St. Louis and August and a thunderstorm can get pop up like that," Nichols said.

"I would much rather cancel a flight and it not start thundering and lightening - that's how people die in balloons."

But Scott Thomas with the BBB said customers shouldn't have to try for years to reschedule rides.

"His Web site says no refunds but if you never get a ride, he just keeps the money," he said.

In 2000 and 2001, the BBB issued similar warnings about Nichols' former company, Manchester Balloon Voyages.

Nichols said he had to close down Manchester Balloon Voyages because of his diabetes-related health problems and his obligation to take care of his grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer's.

Nichols is on probation with the Missouri Department of Corrections for distribution, delivery or manufacturing of a controlled substance, according to the BBB. He also has been arrested several times and sentenced to jail at least twice for alcohol-related driving infractions.

Air Balloon Sports has used addresses in Chesterfield, Mo. and Columbia, Ill.

Original article can be found here:

Matt Rowan and Sunday Rowan

Matt Rowan and Sunday Rowan

KYLE, Texas (CNN) - Matt and Sunday Rowan had been married less than six months before their lives were cut short in this weekend's hot air balloon crash that killed 16 people near Lockhart, Texas.

Authorities believe the balloon caught on fire after crashing into power lines on Saturday. There were no survivors.

The Rowans had just gotten married in February, said Brent Jones, the father of Sunday's five-year-old son, Jett. "Sunday was a very social person," Jones told CNN. "They have hundreds and hundreds of friends."

Sunday Rowan had bought the balloon flight for her husband as a birthday gift last year and it had taken them a while to schedule it, Jones said.

"Sunday was messaging her mom before getting on the balloon. Soon after takeoff, she stopped all communication," he said.

"It's hard, but I want everyone to understand how great our lives were together and how amazing these two people are."

The pilot in the crash was also identified on Sunday. He 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.

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.


National Transportation Safety Board Senior Adviser Erik Grosof, left, Caldwell County Sheriff Daniel Law, in white, and Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Robbie Barrera at the scene of the hot-air balloon disaster. 

MAXWELL, Texas—A hot-air balloon plummeted into a Central Texas pasture on Saturday, apparently after catching fire while in flight, killing 16 people, in one of the deadliest hot air balloon accidents in decades.

The crash occurred in Maxwell, a small farming community about 30 miles south of Austin. The Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed the number of dead. Investigators believe everyone on board was killed.

The balloon fell into a remote field bounded by dirt roads and a train track, with a long row of power lines strung between tall towers. Preliminary information suggested part of the large balloon, which had a gondola carrying passengers slung underneath, may have hit a power line before crashing.

Further details weren’t expected to be released until a team from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived at the scene. That was expected to be later Saturday. The Federal Aviation Administration also dispatched investigators.

Lisa Bovee, public information officer of the Central Texas chapter of the American Red Cross, said state, local and federal officials were on site. Ms. Bovee said the chapter’s Red Cross workers were providing “canteening” services to the first responders in the near-100 degree heat.

By Saturday afternoon, investigators had set up tents near the crash area. The Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office said investigators were determining the identities of the victims. An FAA spokesman said names of the victims would be released by local authorities after families had been notified.

Caldwell County Sheriff Daniel Law said the accident occurred around 7:44 a.m. local time, and that emergency workers who had rushed to the scene reported there was a fire in the gondola portion of the balloon.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott released a statement about the crash, saying the accident was heartbreaking. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families, as well as the Lockhart community.”

When asked at a news briefing whether the company operating the balloon was Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, Erik Grosof, an official with the NTSB, said “that is my understanding.” He didn’t elaborate other than to say he had been preoccupied at the crash site and hadn’t yet “addressed that.”

According to its Facebook page, Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides is based in Austin and offers “breathtaking hot air balloon flights in the San Antonio, Austin and surrounding areas.” The page doesn’t mention a crash, although there were numerous posts from others offering their condolences for the accident.

Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides declined a request to comment through a message via Facebook.

Large sightseeing balloons such as the one that went down in Texas on Saturday can carry 20 or more passengers per flight. But so many fatalities are unusual in accidents, partly because many balloons carry fewer people.

Also balloon accidents usually occur during descent or the landing phase of a flight, with the balloon moving relatively slowly, frequently allowing a number of passengers to escape death.

There have, however, been other crashes with a high death toll. In one of the deadliest, 19 of 21 people aboard a balloon operating in Egypt died after a fire in February 2013.

U.S. domestic balloon accidents have claimed fewer victims, though over the past nine years the safety board has investigated at least four other serious accidents, three of which involved fire.

Mr. Grosof didn’t reveal other details of the accident but said the NTSB considered it a “major event” because of the significant loss of life, and he said a specialized team from the transportation safety bureau was en route from Washington.

Maxwell resident Margaret Wylie said she first heard a strange pop Saturday morning while her dog, a Jack Russell terrier-Chihuahua mix, was out in the yard.

“I heard this popping sound and all of a sudden his bark became more frantic than normal,” said Ms. Wylie, 66 years old. The 8-pound dog was so scared that he almost bowled her over as he ran inside shivering.

When Ms. Wylie heard a second pop, she went outside to investigate.

“As I got my eyes over to where the balloon came down I saw a fire ball go up,” said Ms. Wylie, who called 911 to report the accident.

The flames, she said, shot almost as high as the power lines that run near her house. At first, she thought a tractor had crashed. It wasn’t until a chase crew for the hot-air balloon barreled down the dirt road outside her house that she realized a balloon had gone down.

“My heart just went to my stomach,” she said. “The guy that was driving the chase truck to pick up the balloon, he was really badly shaken, he just looked like he was ready to collapse…. I think the popping sound was the balloon hitting the power lines.”

Ms. Wylie said she and her neighbors were shaken by the crash, which shook one neighbor’s house and “scared his cows so bad he said he’s never seen his cows run so fast.”

Hot air balloons are a familiar sight to many of them, sometimes even landing in nearby yards.

“Freak accident—one that I’ve never seen before and I pray to God I never see again,” Ms. Wylie said.

One of the most high-profile balloon accidents investigated by the NTSB in recent years occurred in the spring of 2013, when a sightseeing balloon collided with trees while landing in windy conditions in Chester Springs, Pa., seriously injuring three of the 10 passengers on board. Six other passengers and the pilot sustained minor injuries, and one passenger escaped unscathed. The balloon had minor damage

In 2008 and 2007, NTSB experts investigated domestic balloon accidents that also involved hard landings in windy conditions.

Prompted by the string of accidents, the safety board in April 2014 issued recommendations urging stepped-up FAA oversight of commercial sightseeing balloon flights, including greater surveillance by government inspectors.

Commercial balloon operators aren’t subject to the same federal safety and airworthiness standards that apply to airlines or charter aircraft. They also operate under less-stringent federal rules than those applying to airplanes or helicopters used for air tours or sightseeing flights, though the safety board for years has pushed unsuccessfully to change that.

The NTSB wants balloon sightseeing companies to comply with what are called letters of authorization from the FAA, outlining operating rules. In 2014, the safety board urged the FAA to impose and regularly verify such authorizations, including checking for pilot proficiency, adequate maintenance, proper emergency briefings for passengers and appropriate flight planning.

As part of that recommendation letter, the safety board warned that “based on the number of recurring accidents in the U.S.” involving balloons, “the NTSB believes that air-tour balloon operators should be subject to greater regulatory oversight.”

Within a month, however, the safety board was investigating still another fatal U.S. balloon accident, this time in Virginia, in which fire turned out to be a central factor. All three on board the balloon died when the pilot tried to initiate a climb, the basket made out of wicker and wood struck a power line and ended up on fire, according to the safety board’s preliminary report. In addition to the veteran pilot, two athletic officials at the University of Richmond perished.


Details have emerged about pilot and the company involved in the hot air balloon crash that killed at least 16 people Saturday morning in Central Texas.

The pilot who was flying the balloon was Skip Nichols, News 8 confirmed. Nichols, who lists a title of “Chief Pilot” on his Facebook page, is also the owner of Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides.

Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides’ registered address according to the Better Business Bureau is in New Braunfels, between San Antonio and Austin. The company also has Austin and San Marcos locations listed online and provided rides around south and central Texas.

Up to 24 people are allowed on a balloon flight, according to the company's website.

Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides is not accredited by the BBB and has a D+ rating. Six complaints have been filed, primarily regarding canceled flights.

Dean Carlton, president of the Balloon Federation of America, said accidents typically occur due to a variety of factors, including wind, weather and crashing into power lines.

Initial indications were that the balloon caught fire in mid-air, hit high-voltage power lines and fell to the ground. Witnesses told News 8 they heard explosions as the balloon approached.

FAA and NTSB officials will investigate whether Saturday’s crash was due to a mechanical error or a pilot error.


Despite two decades of U.S. air-safety watchdogs demanding tighter federal rules for airborne sightseeing flights, commercial-balloon operators remain exempt from mandates imposed on similar tours using planes and helicopters. 

Even before investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board start working in earnest to determine the cause of Saturday’s fiery, early-morning hot-air balloon crash in Texas—believed to be the deadliest balloon accident in the U.S.--attention has focused on the convoluted path of federal regulation of such lighter-than-air vehicles.

More than two years ago, the NTSB urged tighter regulation of balloons carrying passengers. Without such changes, the safety board said in a strongly worded April 7, 2014, letter, “the potential for a high number of fatalities in a single air tour balloon accident is of particular concern.”

Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Huerta declined to follow the recommendations, responding in a reply letter that since the number of balloon flights nationwide “is so low,” the agency “believes the risk posed to all pilots and participants is also low.”

The NTSB is an independent agency without authority to issue regulations, but its formal recommendations are analyzed and often followed by the FAA and other regulators world-wide.

The NTSB went on to say that from April 2014, when it issued the recommendations, to March 2016, there were 25 more balloon accidents of all types, resulting in four fatalities and 25 serious injuries. Of the four major U.S. balloon accidents investigated by the NTSB in the last nine years, three involved fires and all of them involved pilot slip-ups during attempted landings.

It will take time for investigators to determine the cause of Saturday’s accident. Based on preliminary data and images, indications are that the balloon struck power lines and caught fire before it crashed.

Sightseeing flights in general have never been regulated as strictly as U.S. airlines, even those carriers flying the smallest commuter planes into the least-developed airports. But as early as 1995, the safety board began urging the FAA to impose stepped-up rules and oversight for tour companies selling seats on small planes and choppers.

It took roughly a decade for enhanced safety requirements covering sightseeing planes and helicopters to go into effect. At that point, the FAA mandated many such operators to comply with additional standards—called letters of authorization—which basically spelled out detailed operating restrictions imposed by local agency officials.

Government and industry safety experts have said the changes, potentially affecting everything from pilot training to maintenance, have made the overall industry segment safer.

Those regulations, however, don’t apply to balloon operations. Nonetheless, the NTSB persisted in publicly advocating safety enhancements for lighter-than-air tours, which have proliferated in recent years.

Ballooning also has gained notice through a number of large-scale events held around the country, including the International Balloon Fiesta, held in Albuquerque, N.M., each year.

Yet the safety statistics remain troublesome. Prompted by a series of major U.S. balloon accidents between 2007 and 2014, the safety board issued its blunt warning to the FAA about the potential for increased fatalities and what NTSB crash experts saw as persistent hazards for balloon passengers.

“Based on the number of recurring accidents in the U.S. involving similar safety issues” to those raised in fatal foreign crashes, the April 2014 letter said, balloon operators “should be subject to greater regulatory oversight.”

When Mr. Huerta rejected that notion, the safety board replied that embracing its recommendations would result in periodic FAA checks of pilot qualifications, equipment maintenance and other safeguards.

Operators would be motivated to comply with extra safety requirements, the NTSB said, “knowing that an enforcement action” by the FAA under the letters of authorization “could result in a loss of business.”

The safety board reiterated its concern that balloon operations “do not receive oversight equal to that of similar airplane and helicopter” sightseeing flights.

After the Saturday accident in Texas, the FAA said it is participating in the probe, but a spokesman added, “it’s too early to say what our next actions might be until we’ve had a chance to gather and examine the evidence.”

Original article can be found here:

NTSB Senior Advisor Erik Grosof, left, and Texas DPS Trooper Robbie Barrera, second from left, lead other investigators at the accident scene.

Margaret Wylie’s dog started barking when a loud pop broke the Saturday morning stillness outside her trailer home in Maxwell.

A second pop followed by a whooshing sound drew Wylie outside, and as she scanned the surrounding corn and hay fields, she saw a huge burst of orange flames.

“It was one heck of a fireball,” said Wylie, 66, describing the explosion of a hot air balloon she witnessed around 8 a.m. a quarter-mile from her home.

Sixteen people were killed in the accident that is under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Safety Transportation Board.

Wylie, a retired archivist, called 911 and reported the fire, unsure of what had caused it. She estimated emergency crews were on the scene within seven minutes.

“I’m assuming the pops were the balloon hitting the power lines,” she said, gesturing toward nearby electrical towers.

Hot air balloons regularly fly over the area, floating past her green trailer, where she lives alone with two dogs. It was Brownie, a Jack Russell-chihuahua mix, that was startled by the first loud pop and began barking.

“It’s not been a good day,” Wylie said. “I don’t ever want to see that again.”

Eight hours after the balloon went down, dozens of emergency responders and investigators remained at the crash site about a half-mile off Texas Highway 142.

The National Transportation Safety Board confirmed it is investigating the accident alongside the Federal Aviation Administration.

Mark Dombroff, who is an aviation lawyer specializing in aviation accidents and an expert in FAA and NTSB matters, said the FAA will join the investigation because balloons operate in the same applicable airspace as other aircraft such as helicopters and planes.

“They work under the same set of operational rules under how close come to people on ground, structures and so forth,” Dombroff said.

Investigating agencies will then examine all aspects of the accident, from the company that owns the balloon, to the pilot and how much experience he had, and down to the manufacturer of the balloon.

Dombroff said traditionally sized gondolas or baskets my have a pilot and two passengers, while bigger versions can include up to 16 people, including a pilot with seven or eight passengers on either side.

“The reason most people are surprised is when they see hot air balloons on television they see small baskets,” Dombroff said. “That's what they think of from ... movies like ‘Around the World in 80 Days.’”

Dombroff said operation of hot air balloons is rather straightforward, using propane tanks to fuel the burners, which are positioned right in the opening of the balloon. The pilot increases the intensity of the flame up or down to heat or lessen heat to the air within the balloon.

“Obviously, with a balloon you don't have engines, so the balloon is at the mercy of weather and winds,” Dombroff said, noting it makes preflight planning in terms of weather that much more important.

Dombroff said it’s much easier to fly in the morning hours when the winds are calm. As the sun rises and the air gets superheated, its movement becomes unpredictable.

“Certainly they will look at the question of fire or if it was a function of something else,” he said. “Did it strike a power line? Was there a malfunction of the burner system?”

Texas DPS Trooper Robbie Barrera, center right, puts her arm around Caldwell County Sheriff Daniel Law as he arrives on the accident scene.

This photo taken of the hot air balloon involved in Saturday’s deadly crash was taken just minutes before it caught fire and crashed near Lockhart. Sixteen people are believed to have died in the crash. Courtesy of Erika Gonzales.

Law enforcement and investigate examine the scene of a hot air balloon crash that killed 16 people near Lockhart, Texas, on Saturday, July 30, 2016.

LOCKHART — 2:50 p.m. update: The National Transportation Safety Board is calling a hot balloon crash that killed 16 people Saturday near Lockhart a “major crash” that will be investigated by a team of experts from Washington.

Erik Grosof with the safety board said the investigation will begin “full bore” Monday after specialists from an agency “Go Team” arrive in Central Texas. The FBI’s office in San Antonio will assist in collecting evidence in the investigation, Grosof said.

“It’s much like a crime scene,” Grosof said. “You only get one chance at it so you have got to do it right.”

Grosof said it appears the balloon in the crash was operated by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon rides, which is based in New Braunfels, according to the Better Business Bureau.

Margaret Wylie, who lives near the scene, said she heard a pop outside her home and went out to the porch, where she heard another pop. She said she then heard a “whooshing noise and saw a fireball go up as high as the lowest power line.”

“The next thing I knew,” she said, “I saw a big fireball went up, and you’re just praying that whoever is in there got out on time.”

Wylie, who says balloons often fly over the area, called 911.

She believed the balloon collapsed when it hit the power lines and that the basket caught fire when it hit the ground.

The power lines near the crash site belong to the Lower Colorado River Authority Transmission Services Corporation, a spokeswoman said. Following the crash, two circuits are down, she said, but no customers are without power. She could not confirm whether the power lines were involved in the crash because of the ongoing investigation.

Troy Bradley, a hot air balloon pilot in New Mexico, said the area between Austin and San Antonio is a common place to fly balloons.

Bradley said it’s unlikely that the balloon could have caught on fire by itself; rather, he guessed that power lines struck the balloon basket and perhaps ignited fuel. High voltage power lines are very near the scene where the hot air balloon carrying 16 caught fire and crashed in a hay field Saturday.

Balloons are very simple mechanically, Bradley said, and neither hot weather nor the size of this balloon should have presented a problem. Bradley said he’s flown balloons with up to 28 people, and he flies throughout the summer in New Mexico.

Balloon flight relies on the air inside the balloon being significantly hotter than the surrounding air, Bradley said, so in hot weather, the balloon has to heat up more. But as long as the temperature is taken into account, he said the heat wouldn’t stop a flight.

Noon update: Officials with the Texas Department of Public Safety have confirmed that 16 people died after a hot air balloon caught fire and crashed near Lockhart on Saturday morning.

Investigators said they will hold a news conference at 12:45 p.m.

According to the Associated Press, the balloon company involved has been identified as Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides.” According to the company’s website, its largest hot air balloon can hold 24 people.

The crash was first reported as a possible vehicle crash west of Lockhart at 7:44 a.m. Saturday, according to the Caldwell County sheriff’s office. It happened near Jolly Road just north of Cistern Road between Maxwell and Lockhart.

When deputies arrived, they realized a fire at the scene was the basket portion of a hot air balloon, the sheriff’s office said. The scene was turned over to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Investigators were working to determine the identities of those killed.

Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statement extending his condolences to the victims and their families.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families, as well as the Lockhart community,” Abbott’s statement said. “The investigation into the cause of this tragic accident will continue, and I ask all of Texas to join us in praying for those lost.”

Earlier: Authorities say there are fatalities after a hot air balloon carrying at least 16 people caught on fire and crashed in Central Texas.

The Caldwell County sheriff’s office said in a statement Saturday that investigators are determining the number of victims and their identities.

Lynn Lunsford with the Federal Aviation Administration said in an earlier statement that the accident happened shortly after 7:40 a.m. Saturday near Lockhart, when the hot air balloon crashed into a pasture. Lunsford said there were at least 16 people on board.

Debris at the scene of the crash lies directly below high-voltage power lines.

Story and video:

All 16 people aboard a hot air balloon died Saturday when it apparently caught fire and crashed in a corn field in central Texas, in the deadliest such accident in the USA in decades.

Caldwell County sheriff's deputies responding to a 911 call about an apparent vehicle accident instead found the burned basket portion of a hot air balloon, the sheriff's office said in a statement.

The balloon crashed into farmland under a stretch of high-power electrical transmission lines in a field outside the town of Maxwell, about 30 miles south of Austin. Authorities did not immediately say what caused the crash.

The accident occurred shortly after 7:40 a.m. local time, Lynn Lunsford with the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement. Investigators with the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board were en route to the scene.

Erik Grosof of the NTSB said at a news conference Saturday that a "significant" investigation will be conducted. He would not provide an exact number of dead, only saying there were a "number of fatalities" and a "significant loss of life." The FBI office in San Antonio said Saturday afternoon that it would assist the NTSB in the investigation.

More federal officials will arrive to the scene Sunday, Grosof added. Local officials will release the names of the pilots and passengers in Saturday's crash in Texas after notifying relatives. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statement to ask "all of Texas to join us in praying for those lost."

Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides owned and operated the balloon, according to the Austin American-Statesman. The company's website says it services the Austin, San Antonio and Houston areas with up to 24 people allowed on a flight.

Dean Carlton, president of the 2,100 member Balloon Federation of America, said hot air ballooning is “safe, fun entertainment” and situations like the crash in Texas are "very rare."

“It’s been a pretty tough day for our community,” he said.

Between 1964 and 2013, the NTSB investigated 760 hot air balloon accidents in the U.S., of which 67 were fatal. Carlton said accidents typically occur due to a variety of factors, including wind, weather and crashing into power lines.

The FAA regulates hot air balloons, which use propane gas to heat the air that rises into the balloon and lifts it, as it regulates any other aircraft. Hot air balloon pilots must be certified and the balloons must have an air worthiness certificate. The FAA inspects the balloons used for commercial ventures after 100 hours of flight time or at least once a year.

Before Saturday, the deadliest air balloon accident in recent decades in the U.S. occurred in Aspen, Colo., in August 1993, when six people were killed when a balloon hit a power line, tearing off the basket and sending it plunging 100 feet to the ground.

One of the deadliest air balloon disasters on record occurred in Luxor, Egypt, in February 2013 when a ballon caught fire and plunged 1,000 feet to the ground, crashing into a field and killing at least 19 foreign tourists.

Fatalities have been rare in the U.S. in the past five years. In May 2014, three people died when the balloon they were on struck a power line and burst into flames during a landing attempt at a Caroline County, Va., festival. In March 2012, a balloon pilot died after his balloon was unable to climb over a fast-developing hail storm and crashed into the woods in Fitzgerald, Ga.

The hot air balloon capital of the USA is Albuquerque, N.M., Carlton said, because it has the largest collection of pilots and a unique micro climate that’s dry most of the year, making it easy to fly in the morning.


CALDWELL COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — Authorities said there was a “significant loss of life” after a hot air balloon crashed west of Lockhart, Texas.

Federal investigators say multiple people were in the balloon Saturday morning when it caught fire in flight, crashing in a field just west of Lockhart around 7:40 a.m.

A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) spokesperson said at an afternoon press conference he could not confirm reports of 16 dead. He said the agency is conducting a significant investigation into this “major accident.”

The Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office says 911 callers initially reported a vehicle crash near the intersection of Jolly Road and Cistern Road, just off of State Highway 142, but when they arrived they determined it was the basket portion of the hot air balloon.

The FBI Evidence Response Team from San Antonio was asked by the NTSB to help at the scene of the crash, a normal practice for incidents of this size.

Lockhart is about 30 miles south of Austin.

From 2002-2012, data from the National Transportation Safety Board shows 16 people died in hot air balloon crashes in the United States.


LOCKHART, Texas (KABC) -- All 16 people were confirmed dead after a hot air balloon caught fire in flight and crashed into a pasture near Lockhart, Texas, according to local authorities Saturday.

The accident occurred around 7:45 a.m. near Jolly Road north of Cistern Road, which is in the Maxwell area, Caldwell County sheriff's officials said in a statement.

Sheriff Daniel Law said they responded to a 911 call about a possible vehicle crash. When emergency responders and sheriff's officials arrived, it was apparent the reported fire was the basket portion of the hot air balloon, according to the statement.

According to FAA officials, the hot air balloon, which was owned by balloon company Heart of Texas, crashed after striking a high-voltage power line in the area and catching fire.

Local officials confirmed 16 people were dead at the scene.

The land near the crash site is mostly farmland, with corn crops and grazing cattle. Cutting through that farmland is a row of massive high-capacity transmission lines about 4 to 5 stories tall. The site of the crash appeared to be right below the overhead lines.

A portion of surrounding streets were closed as officials conducted a preliminary investigation and investigators worked to determine the identities of all the victims.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott asked in a statement that "all of Texas to join us in praying for those lost."

Lockhart is about 30 miles south of Austin.


LOCKHART — Noon update: Officials with the Texas Department of Public Safety have confirmed that 16 people died after a hot air balloon caught fire and crashed near Lockhart on Saturday.

Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statement extending his condolences to the victims and their families.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families, as well as the Lockhart community,” Abbott’s statement said. “The investigation into the cause of this tragic accident will continue, and I ask all of Texas to join us in praying for those lost.”

Authorities say there are fatalities after a hot air balloon carrying at least 16 people caught on fire and crashed near Jolly Road and Cistern Road between Maxwell and Lockhart.

Earlier: Authorities say there are fatalities after a hot air balloon carrying at least 16 people caught on fire and crashed in Central Texas.

The Caldwell County sheriff’s office said in a statement Saturday that investigators are determining the number of victims and their identities.

Lynn Lunsford with the Federal Aviation Administration said in an earlier statement that the accident happened shortly after 7:40 a.m. Saturday near Lockhart, when the hot air balloon crashed into a pasture. Lunsford said there were at least 16 people on board.

Debris at the scene of the crash lies directly below high-voltage power lines.


Sixteen people were feared dead Saturday after a hot air balloon caught on fire and crashed in Central Texas, officials said.

Caldwell County Sheriff Daniel Law said in a statement his office received a 911 call at 7:44 a.m. local time about a possible vehicle accident at a spot near Lockhart, Texas.

He said when emergency responders and deputies arrived on the scene it was apparent that the reported fire was the basket portion of a hot air balloon.

“The Balloon was occupied and it does not appear at this time that there were any survivors of the crash,” the sheriff said. “Investigators are determining the number and the identities of victims at this time.”

The balloon was carrying 16 people, officials said.

Lynn Lunsford with the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement that the accident happened when the hot air balloon caught fire and crashed into a pasture.

Lunsford said that the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board are going to the scene to investigate.


gretnabear said...

High Tension Power Grid co located with crash site.

Anonymous said...

What a terrible thing to have happened. My heart goes out to the families of the deceased, all of whom were out just for a fun ride. May they rest in peace.

As a General Aviation (GA) pilot, I am constantly reminded that the accident rate per 100,000 hours of flight time for small-powered aircraft is significantly higher than the rate for commercial aircraft. Even so, GA accidents are few and far between. Hot air balloons are another story. Their accident rate is at least 5 times that of GA. It is extremely important to completely understand and accept the risks before flying in anything, especially balloons.

Anonymous said...

If Alfred "Skip" Nichols had been a commercial airplane pilot, he would have been grounded long ago, decades ago.

Anonymous said...

Someone with two felony convictions, drug and alcohol abuse, shouldn’t be operating an elevator on his own. Obviously safely operating a hot-air balloon was outside his capabilities.

Flying a balloon IFR is truly nonsensical.