Families brace for balloon crash inquest

Lance Hopping, who was piloting the balloon. Photo / APN
Lance Hopping, who was piloting the balloon. Photo / APN
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.

- Teuila Fuatai, NZ Herald

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