EXCLUSIVE: Local woman describes ride on same balloon a week before deadly crash

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Local woman rode on same balloon before deadly crash, Lauren Lea reports. (KTRK)

Friends and families are mourning the loss of 16 people who died in a hot air balloon crash last weekend near Lockhart. A Sugar Land woman says she flew on the same balloon, just a week before the accident.

A balloon ride was big on Katherine Crowley's bucket list, and last month she took the trip of a lifetime. She snapped pictures of the Heart of Texas hot air balloon before takeoff in Katy on July 23.

"It was real slow, real quiet," she said on Tuesday. "The views were nice and everything. Just kind of a real calm thing."

Crowley took selfies with the pilot Skip Nichols during the flight and she was focusing more on the scenic sunrise than on safety.

"At the time, I had no questions or concerns. He talked a lot about safety, so no questions in my mind at the time," she explained.

The very next Saturday, Nichols flew the same balloon in a doomed flight in Central Texas. He and 15 passengers were killed in a crash near Lockhart. Investigators say part of the balloon hit power lines on the way down. Court records found after the accident show Nichols was convicted of drunken driving four times in Missouri and twice spent time in prison. Crowley says she signed a waiver for her first flight, which may also be her last.

"Doing something like that, you think that there's regulation and these people are certified and I never questioned anything along those lines. Now seeing that, it's really scary," she said.
VIDEO: No survivors in fiery hot air balloon crash near Austin

Hot air balloons are required to be inspected annually, or every 100 hours of flying time, said Philip Bryant, an inspector and pilot instructor who owns Ballooning Adventures of Texas. Pilots must have a certificate to fly and annual safety training is voluntary, he said. He added that overall, ballooning is very safe and crashes are rare, and his inspections are very detailed.

"That's what we do. We're professionals at preventing accidents," he said about ballooning.

During an inspection, Bryant says he makes sure every required document is on board, pointing to a standard airworthiness certificate and a registration certificate issued by the FAA located in his own basket. He checks every piece of equipment, including all the vent valves and fuel valves and the burner, which is dissembled and lubricated. He also checks every stitch and thread on the balloon.

More than a year ago, Bryant inspected the Heart of Texas hot air balloon that crashed Saturday near Lockhart. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident.

"More than anything, after we finish grieving the loss of our friend and the 15 innocent souls that went with him and that was the biggest tragedy of all, is that we learn from this, take the facts and develop common sense regulations, if any are needed," Bryant said.

The NTSB says the balloon that crashed passed inspection in September 2015. It will be up to investigators and the FAA to determine if any additional regulations should be required.

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hot air balloon crashTexas
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