CAA must take some responsibility for deaths

July 30th, 2014 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

When the Wairarapa ballooning tragedy which killed 11 first occurred, I thought it was just incredibly bad luck.

It then emerged the pilot was probably under the influence of cannabis, and I basically blamed the pilot – but thought there was not much you can do if a pilot who is also the owner is stupid enough to do such a thing – that it was a one off.

But it turns out the CAA had complaints in the past and did nothing. That is appalling. The Dom Post reports:

The Civil Aviation Authority took no action when told a balloon pilot had been too “pissed and/or high” to fly, an inquest has been told.

It had also been told Lance Hopping, 53, had cheated on pilot exams and impersonated a CAA official.

And he was still licensed!

Sherriff suggested that if the complaints had been revealed that would have prevented the tragedy.

They included an allegation Hopping had on more than one occasion been too “pissed and/or too high” to fly, causing flights to be suspended.

And nothing happened!

Earlier, a CAA manager said further safety restrictions on commercial balloonists could put some out of business.

Tough. 11 people would still be alive though.

The Herald reported:

During questioning in the inquest, Chris Ford from the CAA confirmed there had been a number of Aviation Related Concerns (ARC) about Mr Hopping in the years before the crash.

Those concerns included an ARC on February 4, 2010 about a balloon flight that was cancelled because Mr Hopping appeared “too pissed and/or too high to perform piloting duties”, the report said.

That incident was not isolated, the report said.

“In one incident within the previous two years, an on board crew person had to take over the controls of the balloon because Mr Hopping was incapable of landing it on his own due to impairment.”

Another related to an unauthorised notebook being found on the pilot as he was sitting a flying exam.

“A layman would call that cheating, wouldn’t they?” Mr Sherriff asked Mr Ford, who agreed.

So twice before they knew he had been too pissed or stoned to pilot, and again did nothing. And they knew he cheated on his exams.

The two CAA investigators tasked with looking into the ARCs decided the information they had was “insufficiently reliable” to justify an interview with Mr Hopping, the report said.

“This was because the information provided was of a hearsay nature, from persons who may have had their own agenda in making the assertions.

But they didn’t even talk to him!!!!

A medical certificate in 2004 pointed to Mr Hopping’s “binge drinking” and a note that he should drink more moderately was made.

So the warning bells were not subtle!

Hopping is the person most to blame for what happened. But the CAA are complicit in the 11 deaths in my view.

Stoned in charge of a balloon

November 1st, 2013 at 7:20 am by David Farrar

Stuff reported:

TAIC Chief Commissioner John Marshall QC said he could not say for sure how much cannabis use, either long-term or recent, had contributed to the Carterton accident.
“While it is difficult to say how much each type of use contributed to the result, cannabis is known to affect a person’s judgement and decision-making ability,” TAIC said.
“Poor judgement and poor decision-making were factors contributing to this accident. The commission found that the pilot’s use of cannabis could not be excluded as a factor contributing to his errors of judgement, and therefore to the accident.”
“Both long term and recent use of cannabis may significantly impair a person’s performance of their duties, especially those involving complex tasks.”
He had levels of THC – an active ingredient of cannabis – of 2 micrograms per litre of blood.
On the balance of probabilities, that level of THC resulted from both longer term and recent use, TAIC said.
“On reviewing the evidence available, it was highly likely that the pilot smoked cannabis on the morning of the flight.”
Two witnesses had seen him smoking on the balcony of a shed shortly before the flight.
The pilot was not known to smoke regular cigarettes and his urine tested negative for cotinine, which was normally found in the urine of someone who smoked regular tobacco.

That’s appalling that a balloon operator would be smoking cannabis just before a commercial flight. 11 people died in one of the more horrific ways possible – burnt alive in a small basket up in the sky. If Lance Hopping had survived, he could well be facing manslaughter charges.

Tour operators must be tested for drugs, families of the victims of the Carterton ballooning tragedy say after a damning report.

The call came as the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) said it had investigated six incidents in the past 10 years where people had tested positive for performance-impairing substances. Thirty-five people had died in those accidents.

The commission called for more stringent laws around alcohol and drugs in the transport sector.

I suspect drugs such as cannabis play a significant role in our road toll also.

The full report is here. They note:

Both long-term and recent use of cannabis may significantly impair a person’s performance of their duties, especially those involving complex tasks. Under no circumstances should operators of transport vehicles, or crew members and support crew with safety-critical roles, ever use it.

Indeed. Hitting the power lines wasn’t the fatal part of the accident. It was the decision to try and rise above them, rather than descend, which turned it from a likely bruising crash landing to the biggest aviation death toll since Erebus.


Been there, done that

February 27th, 2013 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

At least 19 people, most of them Asian and European tourists, died when a hot air balloon crashed near the ancient Egyptian town of Luxor after a mid-air gas explosion, officials said.

The balloon came down in farmland a few kilometres from the Valley of the Kings and pharaonic temples that draw tourists to Luxor.

Rescue workers gathered the dead from the field where the charred remains of the balloon, gas canisters and other pieces of wreckage landed.

I’ve been to Luxor and have done that exact dawn balloon trip. It is spectacular seeing the sun come up over the Valley of the Kings.

But chilling to have such a nasty fatal accident at the exact site where I had been three years ago.

All tourist activities have a degree of risk – ballooning in Egypt, safaris in Africa etc. But you do have a real sense of vulnerability when you are stuck in a fairly small basket scores of metres above the Earth, with large hot flames powering the balloon.

After the Carterton accident and now this one, I think it will be a fair while until I go ballooning again. Am thinking of skydiving at some stage though!

The Carterton balloon inquiry

February 23rd, 2013 at 10:01 am by David Farrar

Matt Stewart at Stuff reports:

Carterton balloon crash pilot Lance Hopping should not have been flying the day he and 10 passengers died, a damning report by the Civil Aviation Authority reveals.

The health and safety report shows Mr Hopping’s medical certificate had expired about six weeks before the fatal flight. He should not have been piloting a commercial aircraft.

At 7.22am on January 7 last year, the balloon burst into flames after hitting a power line, then crashed into a paddock just north of Carterton, killing Mr Hopping and his 10 passengers, including two who jumped or fell from the basket.

It has not been revealed how many other flights he piloted after his medical certificate lapsed. The six weeks covered Christmas and New Year, which are usually busy times for ballooning.

That’s very bad, especially considering Hopping was the current of former President of Ballooning industry body.

In May, an interim report by the Transport Accident Investigation Commission showed toxicology tests on Mr Hopping’s body four days after the crash proved positive for cannabis.

The CAA report says Mr Hopping had time to activate the safety valve at the top of the balloon, which allows for a quick but controlled descent, but did not do so. It finds that he failed to meet his obligations under the Health and Safety in Employment Act, and those failures contributed to the accident.

“The balloon had on-board safety features, including a rapid deflation system and a parachute valve, but there was no evidence that the passengers were ever briefed on their use, and in the event, they were never deployed,” CAA director Graeme Harris said this week.

“Insufficient communication between the balloon and the ground crew, particularly during the landing phase of the flight, was also cited as a contributing factor.”

I initially though the accident was a freak unavoidable event. Sadly it seems it was not.

The CAA website is horrific for finding info. I’m not sure if the report is online or not. Can anyone locate it?

The ballooning industry

March 30th, 2012 at 9:00 am by David Farrar

I have to say I am growing more and more unimpressed with the ballooning industry in New Zealand. After the horrific incident in the Wairarapa where 11 people burnt to death, they complained that the TAIC ordered safety checks on all balloons. They should have seen it as an opportunity to reassure people.

Then last weekend, we had another incident, luckily not fatal. Stuff reports:

A terrified passenger on a hot air balloon that hit trees yesterday said she thought about jumping to save herself.

An eyewitness, who did not want to be named, said he heard screaming from the 18 passengers as the balloon, operated by Up Up and Away, was hit by a strong wind gust and tore on trees while trying to land in North Canterbury about 8am. …

Savannah Hyssong was riding with her partner: “At least half the balloon hit the tree, and the basket was also in the trees. There were massive holes. It freaked me out. The only thing I was thinking was should I jump out and grab a branch.”

A 7-year-old girl was crying during the ordeal, and her father was hit on the head by a branch, Hyssong said. “There were sudden screams of panic. I think a lot of people were terrified.”

In the final attempt at landing, the balloon hit the ground “really hard” and bounced back up, and the basket tipped over, she said.

“We all landed on our backs. It was insane. Freaky – scary as hell. That’s not the way it is supposed to be. After we landed there were still huge pieces of tree stuck in the balloon.

Sounds pretty messy to say the least. But what is the reaction of the company:

A spokeswoman for Up Up and Away, who would not be named, said there was “no forced landing” and “no incident”.

“There was no risk to passengers, no emergency landing, no forced landing. They did a landing under standard procedure. There was a small tear that did not compromise the safety or the air-worthiness of the balloon.”

That sort of response concerns me, and in fact I’d never use that company based on their labeling this as no incident.

A HoS story also said:

 Meanwhile, a Levin balloonist says an investigation into the Carterton crash that killed pilot Lance Hopping and 10 passengers in January is taking too long and was almost certainly the pilot’s fault.

Again, this concerns me. The industry should be demanding the investigation is as thorough as possible, not demanding it cut corners, and just blame it all on the pilot.

Balloon checks

February 24th, 2012 at 9:53 am by David Farrar

Seamus Boyer at Stuff reports:

Balloonists have rejected as “unnecessary” calls for an urgent maintenance review of all hot-air balloons after an investigation into the Carterton disaster.

The investigation found the balloon should not have been in the air on January 7, when it crashed killing all 11 people in it.

The burners and LPG fuel system had not been correctly inspected, the balloon material had not been properly strength-tested, and a safety logbook was left incomplete, preliminary findings from the Transport Accident Investigation Commission show.

Though it is not yet known if these oversights caused the crash, they meant the balloon may have been in breach of Civil Aviation Authority standards, and therefore not “airworthy”.

The commission has recommended that the CAA make urgent checks on the maintenance of all 74 balloons in the country – a move that balloon operators have labelled as unnecessary and “knee-jerk”. …

Balloon Aviation Association president Martyn Stacey described the recommendation as a “knee-jerk reaction”.

“I’m getting calls from balloonists all over the country worrying if their balloons are safe. They’re saying it might have an effect on customers, and that is a worry.”

Ummm I think 11 people dying is what has had the effect on customers, and made people worry about whether their balloons are safe. I certainly would never fly in a balloon again in NZ, until the full report from the accident investigators is known, and I am confident any factors in the crash could not occur elsewhere.

The Balloon Aviation Association should see the recommendation as an opportunity to restore confidence in their industry, rather than an attitude of “We’re all right Jack”.

How safe is ballooning?

January 9th, 2012 at 1:00 pm by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

A prominent Canterbury balloonist and friend of the pilot of the balloon at the heart of Saturday’s disaster in the Wairarapa has cautioned against speculation over the cause of the tragedy.

Martyn Stacey, of Methven, was also at pains to stress that the sport is safe.

Stacey, the Aoraki Balloon Safaris operator and Balloon Aviation Association of New Zealand president, was a close friend of pilot Lance Hopping, who was killed along with 10 passengers in a fiery crash in Carterton early on Saturday morning. …

“It’s a shock to the whole community. What we’ve got to reiterate now is that ballooning is safe. People have to understand that ballooning is a major tourist operation.”

The deaths have been a major international story. They even made the Drudge Report which gets 30 million views a day. It was reported in UK and Australia also. The reality is that no one will be wanting to book a balloon ride in New Zealand for some time. In fact, it may damage the practice internationally for a period of time.

My flatmate has a voucher for two to do a balloon ride in the Wairarapa. Even though I’ve done one before in Egypt, I’m like “Don’t invite me to go with you”. It is a bit creepy thinking that if she had redeemed them this weekend, it could have been her up there.

In another close call, I’m horrified to see this video of a bungee cord snapping over crocodile infested waters.

I wondered where this happened, and it was at Victoria Falls over the Zambesi, where I spent Christmas Day. I saw several people bungee from that bridge, and almost did one myself. As I had done a bungee before at Skippers, I didn’t feel the need to do a second one.

Horrified to see the cord snap, or somehow not be secured correctly. A miracle the young girl survived. She had to swim to shore with the cord still tying her legs together.

Anyway going back to the ballooning:

There had been only three fatal balloon accidents in New Zealand in the past century, he said.

“You’ve got more chance of drowning or being run over by a car.”

I’m not sure that is the case. It’s like when people say elephants kill more people than sharks. What is a better comparison is how much time do people spend in the vicinity of elephants compared to swimming with sharks, and what is the fatality rate.

I’m not sure how many people balloon a year, and for how long, but to compare to road deaths, you need to compare per (say) million hours of an activity.

In NZ let’s say three million people spend 10 hours a week driving. That is 30 million hours per week, or 1,500 million hours per year. If 300 people die in car crashes then that is 0.2 deaths per million hours.

Now I have no idea how many people balloon in NZ every year. So I’ll guess some figures just so one can do a potential comparison. Please note these are not actual figures, and I am not saying ballooning is or is not more safe than driving. Just showing what a proper comparison would be.

Let’s say there are 50 ballooning operations in NZ. Also assume each goes up once per day (tends to be sunrise) with 10 people in them, and they stay up for an hour. That is 500 person hours a day which is 3,500 a week and 175,000 person hours a year.

Now if car fatality rate is 0.2 deaths per millions hours (or 1 death per five million hours), then you would expect one ballooning death around every 30 years, for ballooning to be safer than driving.

How with three accidents in the last century that could suggest they are of equal risk. But only if just one person died in each accident, and that is unlikely.

It would be great if someone somewhere (maybe an insurance company) calculated and published the fatality incidence rates for everything from driving to cycling to bungee jumping to ballooning to rafting to safari touring on a per (million) hours basis. That would be an interesting comparison.