Safety rules shake-up mooted

By Teuila Fuatai

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INQUEST SPOTLIGHT: Balloon pilot Lance Hopping. PHOTO/GEOFF WALKER
INQUEST SPOTLIGHT: Balloon pilot Lance Hopping. PHOTO/GEOFF WALKER

A coroner reviewing the deaths of 11 people killed in a hot air balloon accident is considering making recommendations around emergency pilot training and cannabis education in the adventure aviation industry.

Pilot Lance Hopping and his 10 passengers died on January 7, 2012 after the balloon they were in struck power lines, caught on fire and crashed to the ground.

An inquest into their deaths concluded its third day at the coroner's court in Wellington yesterday.

A Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) report has already established errors made by Mr Hopping were found to have ultimately caused the balloon's demise. It was also found he had cannabis in his system, with impairment from the drug unable to be ruled out as a contributing factor to mistakes he made.

UK balloon expert Phil Dunnington, who reviewed the accident, gave evidence at the inquest yesterday via video link from England.

He was asked by Mr Ryan about the safety lessons which could be learnt from the ballooning trip over Carterton.

At the time of the accident, Mr Hopping, 53, had flown the balloon over a paddock bordered by power lines on two sides. After lowering to a height of about 7m, the balloon had begun to rise when it was blown sideways into power lines.

Electrical arcing sparked a fierce fire, which consumed the balloon basket and eventually the envelope.

Coroner Peter Ryan asked him whether further pilot training may help to prevent accidents like the Carterton balloon tragedy.

"There's no harm in increased training. You have to make sure that the training is focused on achievable goals.

"For instance, there's no point at all in trying to train people on how to deal with an explosive propane fire because the only thing to do is, if your on the ground to run away, and if your in the air - you don't have any options as we found in this case," Mr Dunnington said.

The best training had to be around a pilot's "thought process".

Mr Dunnington was also asked to comment on a possible recommendation of simulator training for pilots in emergency situations.

While he was unsure about how simulator training would work for balloon pilots, Mr Dunnington said pilots in the UK were required to take a flight examination every 13 months, where they were tested on how to react in emergency situations.

In addition to this, Mr Ryan said he was considering a recommendation implementing education around the effects of cannabis use for commercial balloon pilots.

Many relatives of those who died on the Carterton flight have expressed their outrage at revelations Mr Hopping had cannabis in his system at the time of the crash, calling for laws enforcing mandatory, random drug testing in the industry.

This was backed by the TAIC report, which recommended legislation be brought in to do this.

At the moment, aviation adventure operators are required to ensure staff whose work directly affects the safety of the operation are drug- and alcohol-free in the workplace.
- APNZ

- Wairarapa Times-Age

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