Disaster hit ballooning industry

By nathan.crombie@age.co.nz, Nathan Crombie

The Carterton balloon disaster last year muddied commercial ballooning around the world, says renowned Wairarapa balloonist Rick Walczak.

The Carterton-based pilot, who has been involved with the sport for 30 years, said business was only just starting to recover after the tragedy that claimed 11 lives.

"It actually hurt commercial ballooning considerably. It was the single largest balloon accident in the world and it got on every news show going," Mr Walczak said.

"For private operators it wasn't so bad because, like me, they know ballooning is still one of the safest sports. But public perception seems to be everything and commercial operators were definitely hit hard."

Mr Walczak said his colleagues internationally had commented on the impact on their business.

"Everybody was talking about it, especially when they knew I was from New Zealand. Business really slowed worldwide in the ballooning sector and there was a big drop off in people just inquiring," he said.

"It's taken a whole year but things have started picking up again."

Mr Walczak said the tragedy had also made the operation of ballooning events and festivals throughout New Zealand and internationally much more stringent.

Hamilton balloon pilot Mark Brown, who runs the Kiwi Balloon Company, said business had been a struggle in the wake of the tragedy but passenger numbers had rallied over the past two months.

"It was quiet in the middle of the year but it wasn't just the accident.

"Some of that drop-off was the economy and the weather," he said.

Martyn Stacey, Balloon Association of New Zealand president and owner of Aoraki Balloon Safaris, agreed that business dried up for a time, but "atrocious" weather and the Christchurch earthquake had a greater impact.

"At first there was a kneejerk reaction internationally, especially in Europe, and in New Zealand there was an initial 'I don't want to go there'. People baulked at it," he said.

"But it's not the sole factor. I'm in Methven and the earthquake hurt us more than anything else. People thought the South Island was closed."

Mr Stacey said domestic passenger numbers had started picking up about July and more tourists had been flying since September.

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) released an interim report into the crash in May.

Tim Burfoot, TAIC chief investigator of accidents, said a final report was due for release in June or July.

A draft report had been completed and is undergoing peer review ahead of the commissioners meeting next month.

Mr Burfoot said the coroner would be sent both the draft and final report, once released, and would decide whether and when an inquest would be held.

The interim report revealed that traces of cannabis had been discovered in the blood of pilot Lance Hopping, who died in the crash.

The presence of the drug in Mr Hopping's system was unlikely to have contributed significantly to the crash.

The ongoing investigation was to pursue seven main lines of inquiry, including whether a malfunction contributed to the crash, balloon and pilot performance, and the effects of substances on pilot performance.

The investigation was also focused on the certification and registration of balloons, the maintenance and continuing airworthiness of balloons, the regulatory framework around ballooning in New Zealand, and a review of wire strikes and in-flight fires involving balloons.

- Wairarapa Times-Age

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