Pilot likely failed to see power lines

Last updated 10:05 14/05/2014

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A UK expert has told an inquest the most probable cause of a balloon tragedy that killed 11 people was that the pilot failed to see power lines that ignited a fire on board.

Phil Dunnington was giving expert evidence to the inquest by video link to England about factors in the crash where the balloon hit powerlines, caught fire and fell on January 7, 2012 in Carterton.

On board were Valerie Zillah Bennett, 70, Diana Madge Cox, 63,  Howard Cox, 71, Ann Lynette Dean, 70, Desmond Athol Dean, 65, Denise Dellabarca, 58, Belinda Elisabeth Harter, 49, Stephen Robert Hopkirk, 50, Johannes Christoffel Jordaan known as Chrisjan, 21, and Alexis Victoria Still, 19.

Pilot Lance Robert Hopping, 53, was later found to be a long term user of cannabis.

The balloon was in the process of coming in for a landing at a field in Somerset Road.

Dunnington assessed several factors include weather conditions, fuel shortage, mismanagement of fuel supply, age and possible deterioration of the balloon but said they were unlikely.

He said the most probable cause was that Hopping failed to see powerlines before it was too late.

He said once the fire began after electrical arcing, the loss of two passengers who jumped from the basket and the sudden lift of the balloon, survival become impossible.

Dunnington said the fire on board appeared to be fueled by propane from a severed fuel line.

He said landing decisions were always made at the last minute because of wind speed, the approach and obstacles.

He said the size of the paddock for landing was not unreasonable and it was not always possible to see power lines which could be hard to see from angles and against some backgrounds.

He said it was unlikely Hopping was unaware of the power lines but the flight path could change unpredictably.

Dunnington said there were two particular risks with balloons of fire, with contact with power lines and fires from fuel although onboard fires were rare.  Those risks were more acute during landing and take off.

The inquest is also expected to hear from ground crew who were working on the day of the crash.

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- The Dominion Post

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