Pilot of deadly hot air balloon crash had ties to St. Louis area - KMOV.com

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Pilot of deadly hot air balloon crash had ties to St. Louis area

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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV.com) – The pilot at the center of investigation into the deadliest accident in hot air balloon history had ties to St. Louis area.

The NTSB says the hot air balloon was not overloaded even though there were 16 people on board when it crashed.

Investigators say the balloon hit a power line and caught fire over the weekend in Texas. They say the balloon could carry more than 20, 200-pound passengers.

Steering the balloon was Skip Nichols. Nichols spent most of his career in the St. Louis area before relocating to Texas. While in Missouri, Nichols ran a hot air balloon business out of Chesterfield.

Lee Patton, a local attorney involved in a lawsuit against Nichols says there are loopholes that need to be closed when it comes to licensing for balloon pilots. He says if they are not, the public will be in danger.

“Quite frankly when I heard it was Nichols didn't surprise me. I found the way he operated the flight for my clients was quite cavalier and disregards the rules of safety,” said Patton.

Patton says he handled the lawsuit against Nichols for Mark and Carol Brcic. The Brcic’s took a ride with Nichols in 2009 outside of St. Louis when the balloon crashed in the Mark Twain National Forest. The couple sued and settled out of court but it was not a large settlement.

“He shouldn't have been flying and we wanted to make him accountable for it,” said Mark Brcic.

Patton says Nichols had no insurance, a criminal record that included drug dealing and DUI convictions. The courts suspended his driver’s license.

“He had people's lives in his hands. He could fly a balloon but couldn't drive a car. It shocked me actually,” said Patton.

Customers are often in the dark when it came to knowing who they are flying with. Patton says there needs to be tighter regulations, a bi-annual medical review and bring the balloon license in line with someone who flies a motorized aircraft.

“There should be some kind of mechanism for the FAA to find out a background check so the Skip Nichols don't worm their way through the system,” said Patton.

But Nichols’ friends told News 4 that he was very safety conscious when it came to ballooning.

Wendy Bartch was not only a close friend, but one of Nichols former crew members.

“You were up in the heavens with Skip,” said Bartch.

When she heard about the accident on Sunday, Bartch immediately thought of Nichols and phoned his mother. On the phone, she learned of Skip's death and the death of all the passengers aboard.

As the investigation continues, Bartch said there are a lot of variables that go into piloting this type of aircraft. “You’re dealing with an aspect of elevation, propane, fire, people, weather, and God-related incidents.”

Bartch said Nichols was full of life and always flew by the rules.

“Knowing Skip and having been on tons of flights with him and his respect for safety, if the weather wasn’t right, he wouldn’t have gone up.”

Although Nichols is gone, Bartch said he is not forgotten.

“If I had one word to use to describe Skip, it was love. He was a free spirit. He loved God, he loved people, he loved dogs, [and] he loved flying. That was his passion.”

Patton mentions he does not see how Nichols could separate his life as a hot air balloon pilot from his private life.

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