Sunday, May 11, 2014

Cameron Balloons A210, ZK-XXF, Early Morning Balloons Ltd; Accident occurred January 07, 2012 in Carterton, New Zealand

Carterton tragedy: Co-worker didn't know pilot smoked cannabis 

A man who worked with a hot air balloon pilot found to have cannabis in his system after his craft crashed, killing him and 10 passengers, had no idea he smoked the drug, a coroner's inquest has been told.

Clive Peters, the ground crew chief on the day of the Carterton balloon accident, gave evidence today on the fourth day of an inquest into the deaths of those on the flight.

Eleven people, including 53-year-old pilot Lance Hopping, were killed on January 7, 2012 after the balloon they were in struck power lines, caught on fire and crashed to the ground.

Mr Peters, who had worked with Mr Hopping for about six years, was directly below the balloon basket when it was tangled in power lines, his evidence showed.

A previous crash report from the Transport Accident Investigation Commission has already established errors made by Mr Hopping ultimately led to the balloon's demise.

Toxicology results also showed he had cannabis in his system at the time, and impairment from the drug could not be ruled out as being a factor in the mistakes he made.

Evidence given by Mr Hopping's friend earlier at the inquest showed Mr Hopping was a regular user of the drug.

Today, Mr Peters read a statement he made to police after the fatal crash.

He told the inquest, before Coroner Peter Ryan in Wellington, he did not know Mr Hopping smoked cannabis, and that the pilot took safety very seriously.

"He is very safety conscious. He would not fly a balloon if the situation was slightly dodgy."

He had also been appointed the overall safety officer for the Wairarapa Balloon Fiesta and "in general a good guy," Mr Peters said.

"I did not know Lance was using marijuana at all," he said.

His evidence covered details of the entire morning of the fatal flight, including a 10-15 minute period when Mr Hopping was alone in his shed.

"I cannot think of what Lance has to do in the shed," Mr Peters said.

He described the moments of the horrific crash.

"I turned around and saw the basket of the balloon was caught up on the top power line on Somerset Rd."

Mr Hopping was "burning a lot"in an attempt to lift the balloon off the power lines, he said.

"I was practically under the basket."

When he realized the wire was going to snap, Mr Peters ran away to avoid being electrocuted.

He also saw young couple Alexis Still, 19, and Chrisjan Jordaan, 21, jump from the basket after a fire, sparked by intense electrical arcing, broke out.

"I saw that she was tumbling when she was falling to the ground.

"I then saw a male jump out the basket as well. He jumped feet first."

Shortly after, the basket was engulfed in fire, and it was beginning to spread up the side of the envelope.

"Once the envelope was burnt, that was it. No one jumped down."

After the balloon crashed to the ground, Mr Peters kept his distance from the wreckage as there was a risk of further fire from LPG bottles on the balloon, he said.

"I could still see several bodies in the basket while it was burning."

The inquest, at the Wellington District Court, continues.

 A coroner's inquest into the deaths of 11 people following a hot-air balloon crash near Carterton has begun more than two years after the accident occurred.

The four-day hearing began in the Wellington District Court this morning before Coroner Peter Ryan and will hear from 15 witnesses, including family members, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), a ballooning expert from the UK and a forensic pathologist from Australia.

Before the actual hearing got underway, Coroner Ryan spoke to the families, who filled the public gallery, in private for almost an hour.

Eleven people including pilot Lance Hopping, 53, perished when the hot-air balloon collided into power lines and plunged to the ground in a paddock near Carterton on January 7, 2012.

Coroner Ryan went to the crash site the day after the accident and said it was apparent the cause of death for all those on board was as a result of the "clearly unsurvivable" incident.

The focus of the hearing is to understand what happened and why and make recommendations to prevent a similar incident happening again.

"This will be particularly distressing or families of the victims and those giving evidence," Mr Ryan said.

"Unfortunately that cannot be avoided."

Detective Inspector Sean Hansen said a number of witnesses to the crash, which included family members of the victims following the flight in their cars, saw the collision with the power lines, the subsequent fire and the emergency service response.

Witnesses also went to the scene to perform CPR on two of the younger passengers, Alexis Still and Johannes Jordaan, who jumped from the balloon's basket while it was around 20 metres from the ground.

Carterton Mayor Ron Mark told Firstline today he hoped whatever recommendations are made in the Coroner's final report would be put in place immediately without exception.

"People don't want to go through this whole exercise only to find that the recommendations put up by authorities aren't followed through, and if they're not, they'd really want to know why."

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission's (TAIC) investigation into the crash found Mr Hopping had tested positive for cannabis use and made errors of judgement throughout the flight.

Chief commissioner John Marshall QC said it was "highly likely" Mr Hopping had smoked cannabis the morning of the accident.

TAIC called it the worst single New Zealand aviation accident since the loss of a DC10 aircraft on Mt Erebus in Antarctica in 1979. At the time, it was also the second-worst recorded single hot-air balloon accident in the world.

Story and video:


Accident Report: 

A gruelling week lies ahead for families of the Carterton hot air balloon crash victims as they again hear evidence of how their loved ones died. 

Today is the first day of Coroner Peter Ryan's inquest into the deaths of the 11 people on board the ill-fated flight on January 7, 2012.

Four days have been set aside, with evidence from emergency officers, forensic experts, witnesses and family members being submitted to the court.

"It's just your worst nightmare," said Bronwyn Brewster, daughter of the late Desmond and Ann Dean. Her parents were aged 70 and 65 when they died in the crash.

"Every time a report comes out - it's kind of like we're taking two steps forward and one giant step back at a time.

"If anything good can come out of what's happened, then it would be recommendations being put in place to change the legislation, to bring in mandatory, random drug testing, to stop any other innocent family from going through what we've been going through."

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission has already established pilot errors were ultimately responsible for the balloon crash.

At the time, Carterton pilot Lance Hopping, 53, had cannabis in his system. While a raft of recommendations have been made, legislation specifically implementing mandatory random drug testing has not been passed - adding to the frustrations of families involved.

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.

As part of this, operators must implement drug and alcohol policies - however the rules stop short of enforcing mandatory, random drug testing.

Sisters Sheryl Rule and Bronwyn Tayler, who lost their aunt Valerie Bennett, 70, and cousin Denise Dellabarca, 58, believe things could have been different if a mandatory, random drug testing regime by an outside authority had been in place that morning.

The Traffic Accident Investigation Commission report highlighted a previous "concern" raised with the Civil Aviation Authority about Mr Hopping and the cancellation of a balloon flight because of his appearance of being "too pissed/and or high".

For Robert Hopping, the next four days are going to be another painful reminder of the sad end to his son's life. The 90-year-old maintains that his son, Lance, never smoked cannabis.

Geoff Walker, the photographer who took pictures of the doomed balloon ride, said that in all the years he worked with Lance Hopping, including the day he died, he never flew under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

"He was very safety conscious ... and I would have known."

Implementing mandatory, random testing will not necessarily catch those who risk flying on drugs, says Aviation New Zealand.

"You can have all the rules and regulations in place, but if people are not buying into it, and living and breathing that, then they're largely ineffective," said chief executive Samantha Sharif.

Since December 2012, all adventure aviation operators have been required to implement alcohol and drug policies in the workplace.

While it was not a requirement for operators to perform random drug testing, Ms Sharif said, many in the industry had included it in their policies anyway.


Accident Report: