Nichols suffered multiple medical problems including type II diabetes, depression and chronic pain from fibromyalgia. Some of those conditions should have prohibited him from operating an aircraft.
As part of his treatment, he was taking 13 prescription medicines, many of which are also prohibited for pilots at the controls. A toxicology test found seven different drugs in Nichols’ blood and urine that were prohibited by the FAA, including oxycodone and the sedative diazepam, also known as Valium. Such drugs can impair brain function and motor controls, according to the NTSB documents. [No shit]
While pilots are prohibited from flying after taking those drugs, balloon pilots are exempt from having to receive the periodic medical checkups required for other commercial flight crews. Therefore, the agency was less likely to discover the drug use.
Similarly, the paperwork for those FAA-required medical exams is the chief way for pilots to disclose convictions for driving while impaired.
Nichols had one such medical exam in 1996 and he didn’t reveal the first of his driving violations, a 1985 infraction in Missouri.
U.S. law requires pilots to notify the FAA of such infractions whether they get an agency-sanctioned medical exam or not. Nichols didn’t do so.
The pilot’s actions associated with the weather are also under scrutiny. While the balloon was supposed to fly only in clear conditions, photos taken on the craft shortly before the accident showed clouds obscuring the ground and the forecast had predicted clouds and fog.
In a recorded phone call with an FAA weather station, Nichols was told, “Those clouds may be a problem for you.”
“Well, we just fly in between them,” Nichols replied. “We find a hole and we go.”
Out of a panel of six balloon industry representatives at the hearing, all said they would not have flown that day based on the weather report Nichols received.
As the full article makes clear, balloon pilots are basically untrained (20 hours flight experience) and unmonitored for drug and alcohol usage, even while flying. I don't think I'll be taking a balloon flight anytime soon.