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Balloon victim's family condemns pilot

By Simon Bradwell

Published: 5:44AM Thursday October 31, 2013 Source: ONE News

The family of one of the victims of the Carterton balloon tragedy has reacted angrily to findings pilot Lance Hopping was to blame for the crash.

In a statement, the family of Alexis Still, one of 11 people who died in the crash in January last year, said fault very firmly sat with Hopping.

" The pilot's drug taking habits and that he very probably used drugs immediately prior to taking 10 people on the flight, indicate that this was a man who did not consider or care what the impact of his illegal behaviour would have on those who paid him for an experience of a lifetime," the statement reads.

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission said Hopping was a known cannabis user, and it was "highly likely" he had smoked cannabis on the morning of the fatal flight.

Hopping was seen smoking by two people before the balloon took off, but post-mortem results found no trace of tobacco by-product. It did find traces of THC, an ingredient in cannabis.

"On the evening prior to her flight Alexis commented that the pilot was the 'safest around. That was a fatal assumption," the family said. They said she would not have boarded that flight if she had been aware that the pilot used cannabis.

Echoing a call by TAIC bosses, the Still family now wants to see random drug-testing in the balloon industry, as well as testing after accidents.

Hopping made errors of judgement during the flight which caused the accident, TAIC concluded in the report.
"Given that it was highly likely that it was cannabis the two witnesses saw the pilot smoking, it was only 25 minutes before commencing the flight," the report says.

TAIC investigators say it could not be excluded that the cannabis impaired Hopping's judgement during the flight.

Hopping was known to use cannabis but his partner and another witness said they did not observe him smoking the drug the night before the accident.

Smoking cannabis was a breach of Civil Aviation Rules, the report said.

Hopping also did not have a current medical certificate, as required under the rules. He suffered from gout and while that did not contribute to the accident, it showed "a disregard for complying with the rules," TAIC said.

The report also reveals there were concerns about the pilot two years earlier.
"A balloon passenger had been told their planned flight was cancelled because the pilot 'appeared too pissed and/or high to perform his piloting duties."
It said doubts by investigators meant no action was taken but the file was never closed.

The tragedy at Carterton, in the Wairarapa, in January 2012 is the worst since the Erebus disaster.

An early morning flight turned to disaster after the balloon hit high-voltage power lines and burst into flames.
Two passengers tried to jump to safety, but died from their injuries. The others on board were carried up to 150m into the air in the balloon before it collapsed, falling to the ground and killing them.

Whilst it could not proven one way or the other if cannabis caused the pilot to make mistakes, the report blamed Hopping for the tragedy.
"The accident was caused by errors of judgement by the pilot," the report concludes.

Those errors included:

Allowing the balloon to descend below the level of power lines in a paddock in which he did not intend to land

Trying to out-climb the power lines after a wind change carried the balloon towards them

Failing to descend rapidly once collision was imminent, which would have given the occupants a better chance for survival.


TAIC also found that while there had been "areas for concern regarding the maintenance of the balloon", they did not find a defect that contributed to the accident.

Hawkes Bay Aviation, the firm responsible for maintenance, told ONE News it accepted that its paperwork could have been better.

TAIC also had criticism for the ballooning industry.

"It is a safety issue that a person without any prescribed training, knowledge or medical certificate can take non-paying passengers for a balloon flight," it said.

"The regulatory oversight of commercial ballooning in New Zealand was not sufficient to ensure a safe and sustainable industry."

After the accident, TAIC urgently recommended the Civil Aviation Authority to address maintenance issues in the industry.

CAA is undertaking changes to rules to address the safety concerns.

John Key reacts

Prime Minister John Key said the report made "very tragic reading".

"This is an accident that claimed 11 people, may potentially have been avoidable," he said.

"It's inexcusable in my view for people in the adventure tourism industry where others are relying on them, to have cannabis use in place and cannabis in their system."

Mr Key said "our hearts go out" to the loved ones of the victims.