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Carterton balloon pilot had taken cannabis - investigators

By Simon Bradwell

Published: 6:47AM Thursday May 10, 2012 Source: ONE News

The pilot of the balloon which crashed in January, killing all 11 people on board, had taken cannabis, a report into the tragedy revealed today.

Lance Hopping was the pilot of the balloon when it crashed during an early morning flight on January 7, near Carterton. The balloon took off shortly after 6.30am, and crashed less than an hour later.

"Toxicology tests from the pilot had returned a positive test for cannabis, and further inquiry and analysis related to this issue was underway," the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) said in a news release ahead of a press conference.
Shortly before the accident the balloon had descended to between 5m and 7m as it crossed a paddock. Then it began to climb and drift towards a set of power lines alongside the paddock.

TAIC says a witness to the accident heard the pilot shout "duck down" shortly before the balloon hit the power lines.

A photographer following the balloon took images which showed one of the wires caught over the end of the basket. The balloon was lifting the wire upwards, indicating the balloon was trying to rise.

TAIC says the balloon began to slide along the power line, then after 15 to 30 seconds, an electrical arc caused fire to break out low down in the basket.
Two passengers jumped from the balloon at that point.
Investigators said the power line then broke, and the balloon shot upwards, burning fiercely.
Once it had reached a height of 150 metres, the balloon collapsed and fell to the ground.
All occupants died at the scene.
TAIC stressed that today's report is only an interim one, and warned against drawing any conclusions based on the facts so far released.
However it said that blood and urine samples from the pilot had been sent to ESR for analysis, who recorded a positive result for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a constituent of cannabis. The result will now be subject to further inquiry.

In response to a question from ONE News, TAIC's investigator in charge Ian McClelland said the cannabis finding was a "concern".
Call for 'zero tolerance'

It is the second finding of cannabis use in the aviation industry in as many days. Yesterday, TAIC revealed two parachute jump masters had cannabis in their bodies when the plane carrying them and seven others crashed at Fox Glacier in September 2010.
Although not a factor in the crash, the results prompted TAIC to call for drug and alcohol testing across the aviation industry, and a policy of "zero tolerance" for drug use.
In February, TAIC issued an urgent safety recommendation to the Civil Aviation Authority to check the maintenance of all hot air balloons.
In today's report, TAIC said there were anomalies found in the maintenance logbook, and when first interviewed the balloon engineer demonstrated he had not used the correct method prescribed by the manufacturer for testing the strength of the balloon fabric.
TAIC says it is aiming to release its final report into the tragedy in March 2013.