Rebecca Quilliam

Rebecca Quilliam is senior reporter at the NZME. News Service office in Wellington.

CAA knew of balloon pilot criticism

Lance Hopping
Lance Hopping

The Civil Aviation Authority knew of allegations that hot air balloon pilot Lance Hopping was a binge-drinker, had cheated on a pilot's exam, and on at least one occasion was "too pissed" or "too high" to fly, it was revealed yesterday.

A CAA report into the complaints was tabled in evidence at the inquest into the Carterton balloon disaster by Alastair Sherriff, lawyer for some of the victims' families.

It detailed numerous complaints about the pilot in the years before the fatal January 2012 crash, which claimed the lives of all 11 on board.

At the inquest yesterday, Chris Ford from the CAA confirmed no safety review had been conducted into Mr Hopping, despite the serious accusations against him over his 15-year career.

Those concerns included an Aviation Related Concern (ARC) on February 4, 2010, about a balloon flight that was cancelled because Mr Hopping appeared "too pissed and/or too high to perform piloting duties", the report said.

And that incident was not isolated.

"In one incident within the previous two years, an on-board crew person had to take over the controls of the balloon because Mr Hopping was incapable of landing it on his own, due to impairment." The report also said an unauthorised notebook had been found on the pilot as he was sitting a flying exam.

"A layman would call that cheating in that exam, wouldn't they?" Mr Sherriff asked Mr Ford, who agreed.

A medical certificate in 2004 pointed to Mr Hopping's binge drinking after he admitted to regularly drinking 24 cans of beer weekly - mostly in weekend sessions.

The concerns prompted the CAA to monitor Mr Hopping, but not to ban him from flying.

The report said one of the two CAA investigators who looked into claims about Mr Hopping found they were "probably without reasonable factual evidence and most likely rumour".

Mr Sherriff said if the information had been in the media in 2010, nobody would have flown in a balloon with Mr Hopping. "That's a fair assessment," Mr Ford replied.

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission established Mr Hopping's errors were responsible for the crash. At the time, he had cannabis in his system and a lapsed medical certificate.

- APNZ

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