Sunday, January 08, 2012

Crew meet to honour pilot

Photographer Geoff Walker in Wild Oats Cafe under a poster advertising Lance Hopping's balloon adventures. 

In a corner of a busy Carterton cafe yesterday morning - in a town subdued by the tragic and unforgettable events of Saturday - one table was more sombre than the rest.

Gathered to have breakfast at High St's Wild Oats Cafe, a favourite spot of balloon operator Lance Hopping, was the ground crew of Saturday's balloon ride, as well as photographer Geoff Walker, and Mr Hopping's fiancee, Nina Kelynack.

"It was just a chance for us to get together and just be together," said Mr Walker, a long-time friend and colleague of Mr Hopping.

"It was a little surreal, outside all the press and everyone is racing round, and there we were enjoying a quiet breakfast."

The ballooning party had intended to return to Wild Oats Cafe after Saturday's flight for a champagne breakfast. Instead, the eatery remained closed for the day out of respect for those who died.

Mr Walker said rather than going over the events from Saturday morning, those gathered yesterday focussed on what made Mr Hopping the partner and friend he was. "We just talked about Lance, my buddy Lance.

"He was such a great guy, very generous with giving away free balloon rides and that, and he's done so much for the community."

Mr Walker captured the whole traumatic incident on film, from the moment the balloon struck the powerlines on Somerset Rd "with a huge flash", to the moment the fiery balloon plummeted to earth from about 70 metres shortly after.

He has surrendered all of the images to the police and Civil Aviation Authority, saying he won't release any to the media out of respect for those who died.

He doesn't know exactly what went wrong, but is convinced "something out of the ordinary" must have taken place.

Just last week, in the same cafe, Mr Walker had chatted and joked with Lance and Nina about the possibility of a new balloon.

"I was saying he should get a nice bright one because the dark green one was a horrible colour, and we were joking about getting a special shape.

"He said he had already investigated it and he was going to get [one in the shape of the rocket] Thunderbird Two."

Mr Walker said he had been involved in 99 per cent of Mr Hopping's flights, often on board himself, and before Saturday the worst that had happened was "going through a fence" a few years ago.

He said it would be a long time before he and the town recovered from the accident.

"It was just a magic, magic morning, [those on the flight] were just such great people. We were all joking and ... and we got all the photos of them waving and then taking off."


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