The pilot of the deadliest hot air balloon crash in U.S. history had seven different drugs in his system at the time of the accident, according to documents released today by the National Transportation Safety Board.
In the early hours of July 30, Alfred “Skip” Nichols was piloting a hot air balloon near Lockhart, Texas, with 15 passengers on board, when the balloon ultimately crashed into a field after striking high-voltage power lines. All those on board, including Nichols, were killed in the accident and the balloon was substantially damaged after hitting the power lines and catching fire.
Nichols had a history of medical and psychiatric conditions, according to NTSB records, including diabetes and depression, and was being treated with several different medicines for with chronic back pain, attention deficit disorder and fibromyalgia, among his other medical ailments.
Three of those medicines that were found in his system — diazepam (i.e. Valium), oxycodone (i.e. Oxycontin) and methylphenidate (i.e. Ritalin) — are drugs that legally prevent a pilot from obtaining a medical certificate. Other medicines that were found — cyclobenzaprine (a muscle relaxant) and diphenhydramine (i.e. Benadryl) — are medicines that pilots are told not to fly while taking, as those drugs could impair the pilot and prevent the pilot from flying safely, according to NTSB documents.
Nichols also suffered from “major depressive disorder,” according to Nichols’ medical records obtained by the NTSB. And while Nichols was taking medication to treat this condition, one expert suggested that may not have been enough.
“Someone taking anti-depressants does not necessarily guarantee the anti-depressants are effective,” Federal Aviation Administration Chief Psychiatrist Charles Chesanow testified today in Washington, D.C.
Currently, the FAA does not require hot air balloon pilots to hold a medical certificate, even though both fixed-wing and helicopter pilots do need this certificate.
And though Nichols may not have legally needed a medical certificate to fly, depression is a disqualifying condition for pilot medical certification.
The FAA may issue a “special issuance of a medical certificate,” which would allow those pilots suffering from depression to fly, but only if the pilot proved that after six months of treatment, the pilot was clinically stable on one of four FAA-approved medications.
In Nichols’ case, bupropion (an anti-depressant) was found in his body at the time of the accident, and is not one of the four FAA-approved medications.
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SOURCE: ABC News, Becky Perlow