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Balloon crash pilot was convicted of drink-driving four times

Published 01/08/2016

Police cars block the site where the hot air balloon came down on Saturday (AP)
Police cars block the site where the hot air balloon came down on Saturday (AP)

The pilot of a hot air balloon that crashed in Texas, killing all 16 people aboard, was convicted of drink-driving at least four times and twice spent time in prison, court records show.

A former girlfriend described Alfred "Skip" Nichols as a recovering alcoholic. She said the 49-year-old had been sober for at least four years and never piloted a balloon after drinking.

Mr Nichols pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated in St Louis County, Missouri, in 1990, then twice in 2002 and again in 2010, according to online court records.

He was also convicted of a drug crime in 2000 and spent about a year and a half in prison before being paroled. He was returned to prison in April 2010 after his parole was revoked because of his drink-driving conviction that year. He was paroled again in January 2012.

Also in Missouri, the Better Business Bureau warned consumers about doing business with a balloon touring company Mr Nichols used to operate in that state.

The former girlfriend, Wendy Bartch, said Mr Nichols "did not fly when he wasn't supposed to. Having other people's lives at stake was Skip's primary concern".

Authorities have not publicly named anyone killed in Saturday's crash, saying it could take a while to identify the bodies, but Mr Nichols was identified as the pilot by his friend and room-mate Alan Lirette, who said Mr Nichols was a good pilot.

"That's the only thing I want to talk about, is that he's a great pilot," Mr Lirette said. "There's going to be all kinds of reports out in the press, and I want a positive image there too."

Authorities say the balloon, operated by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, hit high-tension power lines before crashing into a pasture near Lockhart, about 60 miles north-east of San Antonio.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating. Board member Robert Sumwalt said the pilot was licensed to fly the balloon.

The St Louis Post-Dispatch reported in 2008 that the Better Business Bureau had warned consumers about doing business with Mr Nichols. It was the third time since 2000 that he had received an unsatisfactory rating for not responding to complaints.

The paper quoted the BBB as saying Mr Nichols was on probation in Missouri for the distribution, delivery or manufacture of a controlled substance. When asked to respond, he declined to comment.

Ms Bartch, who said she met Mr Nichols in St Louis in 1989, said his alcoholism and criminal record caused tensions with his father, a decorated retired lieutenant colonel who piloted medical evacuation helicopters in the Vietnam War. According to a February online obituary, the elder Nichols was awarded a Purple Heart among other medals and had commanded a helicopter rescue unit at Fort Carson in Colorado.

Ms Bartch said "there had been a mending" in Nichols's relationship with his father in recent years.

The younger man had attempted to join the military but could not meet the physical requirements, she added.

Federal Aviation Administration records indicate that the Texas company was involved in an accident with same balloon two years ago. On August 3 2014, the balloon made a hard landing in Kyle, Texas, when the pilot touched down abruptly to avoid striking a ground-crew vehicle parked in the balloon's path. Two passengers were hurt.

It was not clear if Mr Nichols was the pilot that day.

Missouri court records show that Mr Nichols in 2013 settled a personal injury lawsuit filed by one of eight passengers in a balloon that crash-landed in suburban St Louis. The lawsuit blamed lack of propane. Mr Nichols blamed lack of wind.

AP

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