Skip Nichols, a free-spirited balloon enthusiast who frequently took people up in hot air balloons over the Texas countryside, has been identified by ABC 13 Houston as the pilot of the hot air balloon that crashed in Lockhart, Texas.
“Skip, he was just a great guy,” Wendy Bartch, his former girlfriend, who was still in touch with Nichols and had crewed for him on hot air balloon rides, told Heavy. “He was a hippie. He loved people, he loved the earth, he loved what he did, he just loved. He was optimistic. Everything turned good for him, in his mind.”
However, Fox News reported that Nichols had four previous drunken driving convictions (the last in 2010) and had spent time in prison for a drug crime. He had also been previously sued by a passenger who said she was injured in a crash landing, said Fox News.
Tragically, the balloon caught fire and plummeted into a field over Lockhart, Texas, in the early morning hours of July 30, killing all 16 people onboard, according to the local sheriff. That makes the balloon crash one of the world’s and nation’s deadliest.
The cause of the fire and crash remains under investigation, and the Federation Aviation Administration has rushed to the scene. Lockhart, Texas is located about 30 miles from Austin, Texas. Nichols was the first victim whose name was released. An eyewitness at the scene told The Austin American-Statesman that she thinks the balloon may have hit power lines that caused it to burst into flames. CNN, citing sources, said it appears that the balloon might have crashed into the power lines.
Margaret Wylie, who lives near the scene, told the Austin American-Statesman newspaper that “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.'”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Nichols Flew in Hot Air Balloons ‘All The Time,’ Reports Say, & He Posted Videos of Himself in Balloons
According to ABC News, citing the Associated Press, “Nichols would fly all the time — seven days a week, travel between San Antonio, Austin, Houston.” His Facebook page captures his love of hot air balloon piloting. One caption from a previous flight read, “Hiho hi ho it’s off to fly we go.”
People left tributes to Nichols on the Facebook page of the balloon company July 30, and one man wrote, “I’m sending a call out to Skip’s friends and associates and asking that they check on his pets ASAP and make sure they are well cared for, thank you.”
Another friend wrote, “On this day of July, it is with a heavy heart, that i say ‘I’ll see you on the other side brotha!’ Skip Nichols, one of the best pilots ive ever known has passed today doing what he loved. Love you brotha…I (we) would like to give our condolences to the families and the passengers that were on the Too Cool American. May god be with Skip and the passengers. I would ask that every one, take a moment of silence and pray.”
Bartch recalled that Nichols was very concerned about safety and would go through a checklist before flying. For example, people with knee problems, pregnant women, or people wearing flip flops could not go up in the balloons for safety reasons. She says they were planning a trip together, but she didn’t know details of his July 30 fatal ride. He had recently started attending church, she said. The Associated Press is reporting that the FAA had rejected calls for greater safety regulation of hot air balloons.
Bartch talked to his mother July 30 and learned that Nichols had died after a friend texted her a news report (Nichols’ mother has hot air balloons as her Facebook profile and cover pictures). Bartch tried calling and texting Nichols to no avail after receiving the text from the friend. “He was a very, very experienced with safety always a primary concern,” she said. She described him as a “free spirit” who previously piloted hot air balloons in St. Louis, Missouri before moving to Texas about five years ago.
2. Nichols Was Chief Pilot for the Balloon Company Involved in the Crash & Was Also a Motorcycle Enthusiast
The balloon company was initially identified as “Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides,” in an ABC 13 Houston story, citing the AP. However, officials have not yet officially identified the balloon company involved, some news sites reported. The Austin American-Statesman newspaper identified Nichols as the pilot and said he was the owner of Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, which the newspaper said “officials believe was involved in Saturday’s deadly crash near Lockhart.”
The newspaper attributed that contention to Erik Grosof with the National Transportation Safety Board, saying, “Grosof said it appears the balloon in the crash was operated by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon rides,” which is based in Texas. The Better Business Bureau had given the balloon company a “D+” rating; Fox News reported that Nichols “had a long history of customer complaints against his balloon-ride companies in Missouri and Illinois dating back to 1997. Customers reported …that their rides would get canceled at the last minute and their fees never refunded.”
On his Facebook page, Nichols says he was the chief pilot for the company and identifies himself as single. Under a recent photo of Nichols in a balloon, which is not the same ride that crashed, Nichols wrote, “another great flight in Houston.” His death was confirmed in news reports and by Bartch.
The balloon company’s Facebook page says that it is located in Austin, Texas, and announces: “Offering breathtaking hot air balloon flights for the San Antonio, Austin, and surrounding areas. Come join us for a sunrise champagne celebration.” The company frequently posted pictures of Nichols on rides. No one answered the phone at the company on July 30.
On its website, the company said, “Hot Air Ballooning is our passion. Let us launch you into the majestic world of hot air ballooning. Experience the sheer joy of the oldest and most romantic form of aviation in the world. The incredible feeling of time suspended as the world drifts quietly below you. It’s something you will never forget. From the minute you pick up the phone to the traditional champagne reception, we’ll give you ‘the experience of a lifetime.’ We service the San Antonio, TX, Houston TX and Austin, TX areas.”
3. Nichols Considered His Rescue Dogs as Family & He Used to Sell Water Beds Before Flying Hot Air Balloons
Although Nichols was single, Bartch said he treated his dogs like his family and named some of them after musicians that suited his free spirit – He had raised dogs named Joplin and Zappa. He also had a dog named Elmo. “He rescued dogs; his dogs were his children. He took his dogs to parks” like people take children to parks, said Bartch. The last photo that Nichols uploaded to Facebook, on July 28, was of his dog, Elmo. He most recently posted about a Missouri “wing ding” event.
Bartch met Nichols 28 years ago when they were both selling water beds for a living. She said that he fell into hot air balloon piloting by chance: “Somehow he did it as a hobby or a favor to a friend and found a passion and love for it,” she said, adding that Nichols was raised in a military family. Why did he love flying hot air balloons? The people he took up on the trips, she said.
“He loved relationships with people,” Bartch said. “Skip was very much a people’s person. Every flight, whether he took 2 people or 16 or 28 people out, they became family.”
4. Nichols Frequently Shared Photos & Videos on Facebook of His Balloon Rides But a Passenger Had Sued Him in The Past
On Facebook, many of Nichols’ photos capture the now haunting scenes of past balloon rides. He frequently sprinkled positive comments that captured his love of hot air balloons in the captions. On one ride, he wrote, “Great freaking morning thank you Houston.” He posted pictures of hot air balloons with yellow smiley faces, writing on one photo, “Good morning Houston we love Flying here. Everyone passengers and land owners have been great. Please bless us with more good weather and smiling faces.”
However, Fox News says Nichols had lost his driver’s license at least twice and was sued by a passenger who said “she was hurt when Nichols crash-landed a balloon in the St. Louis suburbs.” Fox said a former girlfriend described Nichols as a recovering alcoholic who was sober for years and didn’t fly balloons while drinking.
Some on social media were raising questions about how 16 people could fit into the basket of a hot air balloon, but videos and photos that Nichols’ posted on Facebook clearly show the size of the basket:
On July 19, Nichols posted a series of photos in hot air balloons and wrote: “Love flying in Houston mile high terminal descent about 1000 foot per minute. Only eight passengers this morning and the 300 so it was playtime.” In May, he wrote, “Hill Country flying beautiful a little challenging on the retrieval the van might have a couple new scratches. I feel blessed to have such great guest and crew.”
Some other victims of the crash have now been identified, including Joe and Tresa Owens and newlyweds Matt and Sunday Rowan, who were on the balloon because Sunday bought the balloon trip for her husband’s birthday.
5. The Crash Is One of the Deadliest Hot Air Balloon Crashes in History & Its Cause Is Under Investigation
It was not clear why the balloon crashed or its basket caught fire. According to The Austin American-Statesman, the balloon crash in Lockhart, Texas, is one of the world’s — and certainly one of the United States’ — deadliest. In 2013, 19 people died when a hot air balloon caught fire in Luxor, Egypt, NBC said, meaning the Texas hot air balloon crash was the deadliest since that time.
KXAN said that, from 2002-2012, 16 people in the United States died in hot air balloon accidents. The cause of the Lockhart crash was still being investigated later in the day on July 30. Everyone in the balloon’s basket perished in the crash, although an official death
toll was not announced because, as officials noted, balloons don’t always carry lists of passengers like an airplane would.
Note: A previous version of this article included an unverified YouTube video purporting to be the crash site.