Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
A toxicology report reveals a balloon pilot had marijuana and cocaine in his system at the time of a crash that killed him and four passengers in late June on the West Side.
The Federal Aviation Administration report says the drugs were found in the blood and urine of Nick Meleski, 62. He died after his balloon struck power lines on June 26 and plummeted to the ground near Central and Unser NW.
Also killed in the crash were Martin Martinez, 62, a longtime officer with Albuquerque police and Albuquerque Public Schools; his wife, Mary Martinez, 59; Georgia O’Keeffe Elementary School assistant principal Susan Montoya, 65; and her husband, John Montoya, 61.
Teachers and co-workers had chipped in to purchase the balloon ride for Montoya as a going-away gift as she prepared to transfer to another school. Montoya had often told others a balloon ride was on her bucket list, and she invited her husband and the Martinezes along.
The National Transportation Safety Board has not released its official report on what led to the balloon crash, the deadliest in state history.
In a statement, Meleski’s family said they were “awaiting the full results of the ongoing investigation into the accident.”
“Like you, we have just received the (toxicology) report and we are reviewing the information contained in the report to gain an understanding of the findings,” the family said.
Reaction to the toxicology report was mixed Wednesday, with pilots who knew Meleski voicing surprise. But at least one prominent business owner said he had feared Meleski may have been impaired at the time of the crash.
Sam Parks, director of operations for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, said there were never any issues or concerns with Meleski, who had participated in the event for decades. He said the event follows FAA protocols, which do not require drug testing and vets balloon pilots for months beforehand.
At the time of the crash, fellow balloonists told the Journal that Meleski had flown thousands of hours in New Mexico and locales worldwide.
Buzz Biernacki, a fellow balloonist, said that he knew Meleski “a long time” and that the report was “not at all characteristic of what I thought of Nick.”
“I never saw him even drink, much less use any drugs. I was completely shocked and totally devastated to hear that,” he said, adding that the behavior is “not reflective of the local community.”
“Pilots do not do that,” Biernacki said.
Scott Appelman, founder and president of Rainbow Ryders, said he “had a feeling” and was worried about the test results. But it had nothing to do with Meleski, whom he had known since high school.
“It was a nice day of weather, hard to believe that kind of an accident happened,” he said.
Appelman drew similarities between the crash and the 2016 balloon crash in Lockhart, Texas, where an impaired pilot flew into power lines, killing 16. He said the inside of the pilot in that crash, the deadliest in American history, looked like “a Walgreens pharmacy.”
The NTSB found that pilot was “as impaired as a drunk driver” when he took off during inclement weather and hit power lines. Afterward, Appelman said, there was “a lot of talk and no action” on rule changes.
He said FAA requirements remained “very minimal” and inadequate, but Appelman implemented requirements that his pilots have medical training, flight reviews and random drug and alcohol testing.
Troy Bradley, chief pilot of Rainbow Ryders, was surprised by Meleski’s toxicology report, having flown around him for decades.
“As far as I knew, he was a good pilot. Obviously, if this all comes to light … that he was doing drugs while flying – that’s not a good pilot,” he said. “The ability to maneuver an aircraft is one thing, but to do it in an impaired fashion is not something that would ever be condoned by any other pilot.”
Bradley said he hopes the incident doesn’t cast any negativity on the ballooning community.
“It’s unfortunate when something like this does occur, but it’s kind of like a drunk driver. The majority of drivers on the road are not drunk; it’s that one that stands out. That’s how I feel this is. I think it’s an anomaly,” he said.