A hot air balloon pilot involved in a crash that killed all five people on board is said to have had drugs, including cocaine, in his system.
An investigation was launched by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) after the crash in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2021. The NTSB said in its final report released this week that the pilot, Nichola Meleski, did not maintain enough clearance from power lines while trying to land.
He ended up hitting the power lines before crashing the hot air balloon into a busy intersection. Investigators found no evidence of mechanical malfunctions or failures.
The amounts of cocaine and marijuana found in his system suggested “recent use” which likely would have had “impairing effects” that contributed to the crash on June 26, 2021, according to the report. The report said Meleski had used cannabis “within the last few hours” and had also used cocaine recently.
“Some impairing effects of THC would likely have been present, that would have effected the pilot’s ability to successfully operate the balloon.”
Meleski’s family said in a statement their hearts go out to the families of the passengers – Mary Martinez, her husband Martin, and their friends, Susan and John Montoya.
“We cannot express the depth of our grief and sadness for the pain this accident has caused – our hearts go out to the families and loved ones of the passengers,” they said. “We also want to thank the entire hot air ballooning community of New Mexico and across the world.
“The outpouring of love and support has been overwhelming and we continue to grieve with you. Nick loved this community so dearly, and our family will continue to support the sport any way we can. Whether you crew for a pilot or are a veteran in the skies…
“May the winds welcome you with softness.
May the sun bless you with its warm hands.
May you fly so high and so well that God joins you in laughter
And sets you gently back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.”
Witnesses told investigators that the balloon’s envelope, the actual ‘balloon’, separated from the basket after hitting the power lines and floated away. It was found south of the crash site.
Martin Martinez worked as a police officer, first for the city of Albuquerque and later for its public school system. Mary Martinez, a mum-of-two, is remembered for her love of helping people. Susan Montoya was an assistant school principal and her husband worked with special educational needs students.
Federal officials said the hot air balloon crash was the deadliest in New Mexico’s history and the second deadliest in the US since 2016. Albuquerque is home to an annual international balloon fiesta that draws hundreds of pilots and tens of thousands of spectators every October.