San Antonio Express-News
March 10, 2017
After the deadliest hot-air balloon crash in U.S. history killed 16 people near Lockhart on July 30, 2016, the San Antonio Express-News spent five months examining how such a tragedy could happen by relying heavily on FOIA requests, analyzing thousands of public records and persistently digging for answers.
The result was a two-part series, Adrift, that revealed the Federal Aviation Administration had ignored years of warnings about the dangers of commercial hot air balloons.
The balloon piloted by Alfred “Skip” Nichols had struck high-voltage power lines, plummeted to the ground, and caught on fire, killing everyone on board. Nichols had a string of DWI and drug convictions on his record and his drivers’ license had been revoked – but the Federal Aviation Administration had granted him a pilot’s license.
There had already been excellent reporting in Texas about the horrific crash and Nichols’ criminal background. Adrift unearthed new information. The Express-News discovered that balloons suffer higher crash rates than other types of aircraft, despite their tranquil image. Yet balloon pilots don’t have to undergo drug tests or medical exams, even as modern commercial balloons carry enough passengers to rival small commuter planes.
With limited protection by the Federal Aviation Administration, consumers must fend for themselves if they want to check the track record of a balloon operator. It’s no easy task.
The stories were based on National Transportation Safety Board databases of aviation crash reports and disciplinary hearings, FOIA requests for FAA emails and memos, and leaked documents. Most open records requests were made under FOIA. Some requests, such as the sheriff’s offense report about the crash, were made under the Texas Public Information Act.
The stories empowered family members of victims and helped spark action by Congress. Sen. Ted Cruz filed a bill that would mandate medical exams for balloon pilots after the Express-News published a story noting how members of Congress had not responded to family members of the crash victims. Cruz’s office thanked the Express-News for bringing the problem to its attention. That bill is still pending.
The FAA is still considering whether to tighten regulations of the balloon industry. But the series helped galvanize family members who are demanding answers from the agency, and they thanked the paper for a series that exposed problems in the balloon industry in a clear, compelling way.
“Our lives changed completely on July 30th of last year, and your story – with its passion and completeness – helps us to understand and piece together how all of this became our permanent reality,” one family member wrote to the Express-News.
“Your piece will be a narrative that will help us heal and move forward. I know that it will also give us direction on how to work for change — so an accident like this one will not happen again and tear apart other families so needlessly.”
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Submitted by Jamie Stockwell.