30 Jul 2014

No CAA action despite complaints

9:47 am on 30 July 2014

Despite repeated complaints about the pilot of a hot-air balloon that crashed in Wairarapa, killing 11 people, the Civil Aviation Authority took no action against him, an inquest has been told.

An inquest into the crash has resumed at the Wellington Coroner's Court. On 7 January 2012, pilot Lance Hopping and his 10 passengers died after the balloon struck power lines before plummeting into a paddock near Carterton.

Pilot Lance Hopping.

Pilot Lance Hopping. Photo: Geoff Walker Photography

In the two years before the crash four complaints were made about Mr Hopping, including that he had been too impaired by alcohol or drugs to land his craft and had been selling cannabis at a bikers' bar next to his ballooning site.

Civil Aviation Authority general manager Chris Ford admitted on Tuesday that the organisation took no action over the complaints and didn't investigate Mr Hopping until two months after the fatal crash.

The inquest was told Lane Hopping had come to the notice of aviation authorities on several previous occasions.

Mr Ford said Mr Hopping had been caught cheating in a pilot's exam in the 1980s and on another occasion pretended to be a CAA staff member to try and gain information about another pilot.

Mr Ford said four other complaints had been made, including that Mr Hopping was too impaired by drugs or alcohol to take a commercial flight, and on another occasion couldn't land his balloon for the same reason.

Two Wairarapa staff members investigated those concerns, but only monitored Mr Hopping's operation afterwards, he said.

In other evidence, a woman whose parents were killed in the crash told the inquest the accident could have been avoided if Mr Hopping had been subject to proper testing. Earlier this year, the Coroner was told that he had been a regular cannabis user.

Fiona Rouse, whose parents Ann and Des Dean died, said they would not have gone on the flight if they had known Mr Hopping did not have a valid medical certificate.

Changes must be made in the aviation industry to ensure that pilots were drug tested and held current certificates, she said.

New safety rules in effect

Civil Aviation changes introduced in May 2012 have brought adventure aviation operators up to the same standards as airlines, the inquest was told.

Steve Moore, the general manager of general aviation for the CAA told the court in Wellington on Tuesday that new measures introduced in May 2012 meant that companies had to have more robust policies for safety and hazard management.

Mr Moore said previously, commercial balloon operators couldn't be audited by the CAA to ensure that they were achieving minimum safety standards because those companies did not have paperwork which could be audited.

However, they now have to have documented hazard minimisation policies which the CAA can monitor, as it does with other flying operations which carry fare-paying passengers.

Photographer doesn't want photos published

The family of a woman killed say the issue of whether photos of the crash site should be published is a side-show. The Coroner had planned to release the images, but photographer Geoff Walker is fighting the order allowing their publication.

Allan Still's daughter Alexis was one of those who died, and Mr Still said the photographer is grandstanding.

"We really want this process to get through as quickly and as efficiently as possible without all these distractions. Our objective really is to see change in the adventure tourism industry and these photos in a sense they don't really hold anything material as regards to that."

Mr Still said he would probably support publication of the photographs on the grounds of public safety.