The victims of the Carterton
balloon crash might have survived if the pilot had decided to
immediately descend when it became clear the balloon would
strike power lines, an investigation has found.
Instead, pilot Lance Hopping made the fatal decision, likely
while he was under the influence of cannabis, to try to
out-climb the power lines.
The findings of a Transport Accident Investigation Commission
(TAIC) inquiry into the January 2012 tragedy were released
Eleven people were killed when the balloon caught fire and
crashed to the ground after hitting power lines near
Carterton on January 7.
The report comes after an interim report, released in May
last year, found Mr Hopping, 53, had cannabis in his system.
The interim report said it was not known whether that was a
factor in the crash - but the final report found the crash
was caused by errors of judgment, and the possibility that Mr
Hopping's performance was impaired by cannabis could not be
It was "highly likely" that Mr Hopping had smoked cannabis
shortly before the fatal flight, with two witnesses saying
they saw him smoking only about 25 minutes before the flight.
Toxicology results found he had 2 micrograms of cannabis per
litre of blood, which was consistent with smoking cannabis
4-6 hours prior, and that he was unlikely to have been
The report pointed to errors of judgment that could have been
linked to his smoking cannabis.
Among those was the decision not to rapidly descend once the
balloon struck the powerlines, which was the advice given in
the balloon flight manual.
"Had he done so there would have been a better chance of
survival for the balloon's occupants," the TAIC found.
Instead, Mr Hopping tried to out-climb the power lines, which
the TAIC said was an error in judgment.
The TAIC found it was highly likely that Mr Hopping knew the
location of the power lines and had seen them before allowing
the balloon to descend to their height.
A last-minute change in the wind carried the balloon towards
the lines, two of which became stuck on the balloon's basket.
The pilot applied the burners, causing the balloon to climb
along the snagged power lines, while passengers tried to push
the power lines off with their hands,
Electrical arcing from the power lines punctured the
balloon's LPG tanks, causing an intense fuel-fed fire that
consumed the basket.
Heat from the basket and, to a lesser extent, the decision of
two passengers to leap from the balloon while it was still
20m off the ground, caused it to rapidly rise and break free
of the power lines.
The balloon continued to rise before plummeting to the
ground, killing all nine who remained on board.
The report addressed speculation the balloon's rapid rise was
caused by two passengers jumping off, noting the speed of the
balloon's ascent was significantly higher than expected had
the load been lightened by two passengers alone.
The TAIC found Mr Hopping did not have a current medical
certificate, which showed a disregard for complying with the
Its said the use of drugs like cannabis by the crew of any
transport vehicle was a serious safety issue that needed to
be addressed as a matter of priority.
The report said the regulatory oversight of commercial
ballooning in New Zealand was not sufficient to ensure a safe
and sustainable industry for the public.
There were safety concerns that non-commercial balloon pilots
- which was not the case here - could take non-paying
passengers for a balloon flight without any prescribed
training, knowledge or medical certificate.
The report comes after an urgent safety review of commercial
balloon operators following the tragedy.
The victims were: Masterton: Pilot Lance Hopping,
Bennett, 70; Husband and wife Desmond and Ann Dean, aged
70 and 65. Wellington: Ms Bennett's cousin Denise Dellabarca,
58; Husband and
wife Howard and Diana Cox, aged 71 and
63. Lower Hutt
couple Stephen Hopkirk, 50, and Belinda Harter,
49. Couple Chrisjan
Jordann, 21, and Alexis Still, 19.