Cherie Howie is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Torn hot-air balloon sparks fear

A torn hot-air balloon triggered a police call-out yesterday barely two months after the Carterton balloon disaster claimed 11 lives.

A balloon company spokeswoman said no-one on the scenic flight in Canterbury yesterday was in danger. The balloon clipped a tree branch, ripping one panel. After an eyewitness called police, the Civil Aviation Authority said it would investigate the incident.

Mary Matheson answered calls on behalf of Up Up & Away company managers, who were unavailable.

"There was no compromise to the safety or airworthiness of the balloon," Matheson said. She said the balloon could still be controlled with a torn panel and she was surprised police were called.

Matheson said a certified technician would fix the torn panel. "There's a correct procedure that we stick to."

Civil Aviation Authority spokeswoman Emma Peel said: "We don't know if it was an emergency landing or if it was just a normal landing gone wrong." The CAA believed there were 18 people on board and no-one was injured.

Meanwhile, a Levin balloonist says an investigation into the Carterton crash that killed pilot Lance Hopping and 10 passengers in January is taking too long and was almost certainly the pilot's fault.

Lift off Levin balloon fiesta flight director Denis Hall said he was convinced after hearing comments from an eye-witness.

"[The witness] said the powerline was stuck on top of the basket," Hall said.

"That told me he was flying lower than the powerlines because he had picked the wire up on the end of the basket. That also told me it wasn't a near miss. It was a big miss. "

Hall, who has been flying balloons for 22 years, and four other balloonists interviewed three crash witnesses.

He believed Hopping was taken by surprise by a small gust of wind.

The height of a balloon could be controlled by experienced pilots to within centimetres. Pilots were taught to fly at least 20m above powerlines during normal flight and at least 4m above during landing, Hall said. He has sent the Transport Accident Investigation Commission a copy of a 15-page document he wrote on the final 15 minutes of the flight. He was also stunned Civil Aviation Authority director Steve Douglas grounded 16 balloons that had been inspected by the same Hawke's Bay Aviation engineer who looked after the crashed balloon.

They were grounded because the engineer used his individual experience and judgment to test the balloon envelope's strength and porosity, rather than equipment and techniques in maintenance manuals.

CAA spokeswoman Emma Peel said Douglas acted fairly because he stressed the required tests had to be done.

However, Hall said almost all the grounded balloons were quickly cleared to fly in the Balloons over Wairarapa Festival.

"The [crash] balloon was able to climb and drag the [powerline] wires up.

"The idea it was faulty is wrong." The investigation into the crash - which is not expected to be completed until next year - was too slow, Hall said, and a balloonist should be on the panel.

Commission spokesman Peter Northcote would not comment on Hall's claims. Investigations took time because there were usually a number of reasons for a crash, but an interim report was expected in a couple of months.

- Herald on Sunday

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