'No conflict of interest' in balloon crash

Early Morning Balloons Ltd co-director Sally Livingston addresses the coroner's inquest on July 28, 2014.
Early Morning Balloons Ltd co-director Sally Livingston addresses the coroner's inquest on July 28, 2014.

There was no conflict of interest in the co-owner of a balloon which crashed, killing 11 people, also being legally responsible for safety checks on its pilot, an inquest has been told.

Early Morning Balloons Ltd co-director Sally Livingston denied the conflict-of-interest accusation while giving evidence at this morning's resumption in Wellington of the coronial inquest into the fatal Carterton hot air balloon flight of January 7, 2012, which hit power-lines and crashed. Killed were pilot Lance Robert Hopping, 53, and his 10 passengers.

They 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.

Livingston also denied knowing Hopping was a habitual cannabis user.

Livingston told the inquest the  company, which she owned and directed with her husband Andrew Livingston, had 20 years' experience operating commercial balloon flights until the 2012 tragedy caused the business to fail.

Andrew Livingston was also appointed as one of two flight examiners for the Civil Aviation Authority. This meant that after his company contracted Hopping via his company Ballooning New Zealand Ltd in 1997, he was also the flight examiner in charge of making sure Hopping was complying with CAA requirements for his commercial balloon pilots license, via a biennial flight review.

Lawyer Alastair Sherriff, acting for some of the victims' families, questioned the professionalism of the company's contractual relationship with Hopping. He suggested "big gaps" in the company's contractual documents could have meant it did not take action over evidence indicating Hopping was a weekly recreational user of cannabis for the entire 15 years he flew for the company.

Livingston said she had "absolutely no idea" of the drug use, nor of allegations alluded to by Sherriff that Hopping sometimes broke CAA rules by dipping the balloon into a river to give passengers a "thrill".

He said the Livingstons should have made sure Hopping renewed his medical certificate, which was later found to have expired before the crash, instead of just taking his word for it.

Sherriff suggested it was a conflict of interest that Andrew Livingston was in charge of Hopping's biennial review flight, as well as directing a company which derived 35 per cent of its income from Hopping's work.

Livingston rejected the claims.

The Livingstons had no concerns about Hopping's compliance with CAA rules, she said. "We always considered his piloting first-class."

Before Livingston's evidence was heard, the coroner said a lawyer for professional photographer Geoff Walker, who took photos of the balloon as it crashed, intended to apply for a High Court judicial review of his decision to release four of the photos to media. He said he would now await that review.

The inquest continues, with CAA evidence to be heard this afternoon.

The Dominion Post