The latest on investigation into hot air balloon crash

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board spent Sunday documenting wreckage and collecting evidence of a hot air balloon crash in Maxwell.

“Our mission is to find out what happened so that we can keep it from happening again,” said Robert Sumwalt with the NTSB. 

The NTSB said the balloon was owned by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides.

It took off eight miles from the crash site at Fentress Airpark just after sunrise. 30 minutes later it plummeted to the ground engulfed in flames.

NTSB investigators said finding the cause of the balloon crash could take weeks or even months.

“In the big picture, I like to say we look at three things. We look at the human, the machine and the environment,” Sumwalt said. 

The human in this case is Skip Nichols, lead pilot at Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon company.

“What we know about the pilot at this point is that he held a commercial pilot certificate with a balloon rating. He did not have any other ratings. He was not rated to fly airplanes or helicopters, only balloons, and we are gathering his records from the FAA right now,” said Sumwalt. 

The machine is a Kubicek hot air balloon made in the Czech Republic and one of 110 registered in the United States.

“Our plan is to interview the ground crew. They've been busy trying to collect the maintenance records for us,” Sumwalt said. 

As for the environment, the NTSB said the balloon’s original departure time was delayed by 20 minutes, but they haven't nailed down exactly why.

A sheriff who responded to the crash told investigators there was some fog in the area and electricity at the crash site was tripped when the balloon reportedly hit nearby power lines.

“There’s physical evidence that indicates the balloon, or some component of the balloon, hit the wires themselves and not the tower,” said Sumwalt. 

16 people on board the balloon died in the crash. Caldwell County Justice of the Peace Matt Kiely said it could take weeks or months to identify the victims because they will have to use dental records to do so.

“I want to extend our sincere condolences to all of those that have been affected by this tragedy. Truly, our thoughts and prayers go out to them,” Sumwalt said. 

The NTSB said hot air balloon operators are not held to the same strict requirements as other aircraft pilots. As long as there is one mile of visibility that is clear of clouds, it's legal to fly.

However, the NTSB did write a letter to the FAA two years ago recommending better oversight of air tour balloon operators.

The NTSB said 14 electronic devices were recovered from the crash site. They will be analyzed in a lab in Washington, D.C.

Investigators are asking any witnesses, especially those who may have captured pictures or video of the balloon before it crashed, to e-mail witness@ntsb.gov.

Read NTSB: Balloon hit power lines before crashing, killing 16

Read Hot air balloon crashes in Lockhart, no survivors

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