Matthew Backhouse

Matthew Backhouse is a journalist based in Auckland.

Balloon deaths spur drug warning

Families of the victims who died in the Carterton balloon crash have hit out at New Zealand's "high level of complacency" towards drug use.

Findings of a Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) inquiry into the January 2012 tragedy, released yesterday, lay blame with pilot Lance Hopping, who had cannabis in his system at the time.

The investigation found the 11 victims might have survived if the 53-year-old had decided to immediately descend when it became clear the balloon would strike power lines.

His decision to instead try to out-climb the power lines was an "error in judgment".

The pilot had 2mcg of cannabis per litre of blood in his system, consistent with smoking the drug four to six hours beforehand. The report found the possibility that Mr Hopping's performance had been impaired by the drug could not be excluded.

Sheryl Rule, a relative of two women on the fatal trip, said the report showed her aunt, Valerie Bennett, and cousin, Denise Dellabarca, had died in an avoidable tragedy. The report "confirms to us the high level of complacency we have as a nation to drug use, especially cannabis," she said.

"While what people do in their own time is not our concern, when they take other peoples lives in their hands ... it should be everyone's concern."

Allan and Vivienne Still, parents of Alexis Still, 19, who was on the early morning trip with her boyfriend Chrisjan Jordaan, 21, said their daughter wouldn't have boarded the flight if she had known Mr Hopping was a "chronic cannabis user".

"The pilot's drug-taking habits and that he very probably used drugs prior to taking 10 people on the flight, indicate this was a man who did not consider or care what the impact of his illegal behaviour would have."

The Stills and Ms Rule have called for mandatory random drug testing in the industry.

Prime Minister John Key said while mandatory testing would be "ideal", enforcing the practice could be difficult. "Mandatory testing would be ideal, but it's not easily enforced in this small-operator industry, however we're not ruling it out if problems persist," a spokeswoman said.

The Civil Aviation Authority said it now placed greater scrutiny on the adventure and tourism aviation industry, but further drug and alcohol testing was needed in the sector.

John Marshall of the TAIC said drug testing was needed within the aviation, marine and rail sectors.

Father says probe looked for scapegoat

The father of the Carterton balloon crash pilot doesn't believe his son smoked cannabis before the fatal flight, and says investigators had to find a scapegoat.

Hawkes Bay man Robert Hopping said he had not seen the Transport Accident Investigation Commission's (TAIC) report.

"They've said these things, but you've got to remember too that he was a member of a pub where it was smoked.

"You've only got to walk through the room and it stays in your system for a week."

Mr Hopping said he would "naturally" be disappointed if his son had smoked cannabis.

"As any parent would be."

He had been told other theories about the crash. "I think the conditions at the time were unusual, according to one of his other balloonists that knew him well. So whatever happened, I don't know, and I still don't - I've never seen the report or anything."

Asked if he would like to see the TAIC report, Mr Hopping said it was all "cut and dried now".

"They've got to find a scapegoat."

Mr Hopping said nobody from the TAIC or police had contacted him. "They've never even bothered to ask or ring or anything."

The news he got came from family members.

"Of course it's been upsetting. We're still bloody suffering."

Mr Hopping said it was "too late now".

"We're trying to get over these things, not to dive back into that again. It's been hard enough as it is."

Key findings

• A last-minute change in wind direction carried the balloon towards the power lines which the loaded balloon was probably not capable of out-climbing.

• Pilot Lance Hopping exercised poor judgment by attempting to out-climb the power lines.

• Mr Hopping did not have a current medical certificate as required by Civil Aviation rules.

• Toxicology showed Mr Hopping had cannabis in his blood.

• The accident was caused by errors of judgment by Mr Hopping.

• The possibility that the pilot's performance was impaired as a result of ingesting cannabis cannot be excluded.

Key recommendations

• Introduce maximum levels for alcohol.

• Prohibit persons from operating an aircraft, vessel or rail vehicle if impaired by drugs.

• Require drug and alcohol detection and deterrence regimes, including random testing.

- Additional reporting: Teuila Fuatai

- APNZ

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