Every hot air balloon in NZ to be inspected

Photo / Geoff Walker
Photo / Geoff Walker

All 73 hot air balloons operating in New Zealand will be urgently checked for safety issues, after a preliminary report into the Carterton balloon crash found the balloon may not have met maintenance requirements.

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) has today released preliminary findings into the incident, with an urgent recommendation that New Zealand's 73 hot air balloons be checked for airworthiness.

Earlier today TAIC chief commissioner John Marshall QC, said it was too early to say whether maintenance issues actually contributed to the accident, but evidence pointed towards substandard maintenance of the Early Morning Balloons Ltd balloon involved.

"Evidence gathered by our investigators suggests the balloon's maintenance may not have complied with civil aviation rules. When an aircraft is not maintained in accordance with those rules then it would not meet the standard for 'airworthy condition'.''

The evidence did not relate to examination of the balloon wreckage, he said.

So far, the investigation has singled out three incidents of non-compliance before the incident.

Firstly, it appeared that the mandatory "grab test'' to test the strength of the material that makes up the part of the balloon holding the hot air was not being used.

Secondly, the required procedure for inspecting the balloon's burners and liquefied petroleum gas fuel system was not followed.

And finally, the balloon log book did not show that all the necessary airworthiness orders for balloons in New Zealand had been assessed.

The 10 passengers and pilot on board the balloon died when it struck powerlines in Carterton and burst into flames during an early-morning flight over Wairarapa on January 7.

The tragedy has been described as the worst aviation disaster since the Erebus crash in 1979.

At a press conference this afternoon, TAIC chief commissioner John Marshall QC said he would have refused to get into the basket had he been aware of the safety issues.

"I wouldn't have gone up in the balloon anyway,'' he said.

"If I had known - as a person about to get in a balloon - that maintenance requirements had not been complied with, obviously, personally, I would not want to get in that balloon.''

Last week the TAIC recommended the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) director check hot air balloon maintainers' practices and the airworthiness of the remaining 73 hot air balloons across the country.

"Because of the concern that these issues might go wider than the balloon lost with 11 lives in January, the commission last Wednesday issued an urgent safety recommendation which we are making public today after having given the CAA director the opportunity to consider it and put in place his response,'' said Mr Marshall.

Now all 73 balloons in New Zealand, which were maintained by seven approved people or organisations, were being investigated.

"In our view this is a matter that needs to be investigated to ensure public confidence in the ballooning industry, which I'm sure the ballooning industry will welcome.''

Chief inspector Tim Burfoot said he was not aware of any balloons which had been grounded as a result of these initial recommendations.

The TAIC investigation into the disaster continues. An interim inquiry report describing what happened was expected within the next few months, he said.

A final inquiry report analysing why the event unfolded as it did, and what might be done in order to reduce the chance of a recurrence, was expected early next year.

However, if any significant issues were found along the course of the investigation, there would be an immediate call for action to address the issues, Mr Marshall said.

In response to the TAIC's initial findings, the CAA has launched an investigation into the maintenance practices of the Early Morning Balloons Ltd balloon involved in the January 7 tragedy. It will also examine maintenance practices associated with other balloons serviced by the same maintenance provider.

An initial report documenting the investigation findings is expected on February 29.

- APNZ

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