Friends and family of the pilot who died in yesterday's balloon crash will this week start to receive invitations to his dream wedding.
Balloon pilot Lance Robert Hopping, 50, and the 10 passengers he took up yesterday for a dawn balloon trip over the Wairarapa all died when the Early Morning Balloons flight hit powerlines and burst into flames.
Hopping was to marry long-time partner Nina Jane Kelynack at Easter weekend.
"The invitations are in the mail now, they were posted yesterday. We were all looking forward to a big reunion," said Hopping's cousin, Robert Clyde.
Friends have nothing but praise for the safety conscious pilot, and sympathy for Nina.
Hopping's father Robert - better known as Buster - said everyone in the family was in shock. "We are coping, but we are a bit of a zombie house at the moment."
Today Clyde, his wife Rose and their son Jarred will head to Carterton to be with family. Other family members are on their way from Australia.
Clyde said his cousin had been excited about his upcoming marriage to Nina.
"Lance rung me a few weeks ago to say to expect an invitation, and that he hoped we could make it for the wedding."
Hopping has two children - Henare and Hayley - from a previous marriage, and two grandchildren.
Photographer Geoff Walker, who was following Hopping on the ground when disaster struck, said his friend was a "brilliant guy".
"He started out as a freezing worker and got himself to be a helicopter pilot - that's pretty amazing. He just loved ballooning and taking people up to share the experience."
In an interview with Fairfax Media earlier this year, Hopping, a truancy officer, said: "There is a unique appeal about ballooning. It's something that people think they can imagine, but never really get to grips with until they've been and done it."
Clyde said he had attended Hopping's 50th birthday last year at The Shed, a motorcycle club where Hopping was a long-time and "highly regarded" member.
The Shed is next to Carterton's Paua Factory, from where the balloon left yesterday.
"That's when my stomach dropped [when I heard news of the crash] because that's where he flew from most of the time.
"I knew straight away, I just had that feeling," Clyde said.
"I got hold of Lance's cellphone and of course there was no answer.
"I rung The Shed and his voicemail was on its answerphone. I had my little cry."
As a teenager Clyde lived with Hopping and his adoptive parents, Val and Buster.
Clyde said he was left with fond memories of flying with his cousin, who was a popular person and "had a whole lot going for him".
"Lance was a genuine guy, he loved his ballooning and he was a helicopter pilot as well.
"I went up with him just a few years ago and, shivers, he was very strict, very safety conscious. He checked everything - gave us all the safety rules.
"His first passion was actually chopper flying. He used to land at the school in King St and we'd just climb aboard. We went over the Tararuas, it was awesome."
Former Carterton mayor Gary McPhee, also a member of the motorbike club, described Hopping as a "great guy".
"He was a bloody good guy. He was community-minded and involved in trying to promote things in the area."
In 1998 Hopping crash-landed his balloon when flying with businessman Sir Robert Jones and seven other passengers.
"My God, we hit the earth at speed," Jones said at the time.
"We smashed down and bounced and bounced again and rolled over . . . it was pretty bloody frightening."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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