The revelation that Carterton balloon crash pilot Lance Hopping did not have a current medical certificate has come as a shock to the national ballooning association, which used him as a safety officer at its events.
A damning report by the Civil Aviation Authority, released to The Dominion Post under the Official Information Act, showed Mr Hopping's medical certificate had expired about six weeks before the fatal flight.
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, 53, and his 10 passengers, including two who jumped or fell from the basket.
Pilots must have a current class one medical certificate to fly commercial aircraft. The Civil Aviation Act specifies that a class one certificate must be renewed every six months for commercial pilots over 40.
Balloon Aviation Association president Martyn Stacey said he was shocked that Mr Hopping's licence was not current.
"I've known Lance for 15 years. We've used him as a safety officer at balloon fiestas, and he's always been very proactive about safety," he said.
"He's usually the guy who is pushing and saying: ‘These guys are slightly out of the rules, they haven't done this or that'.
"But the simple thing is, if he hadn't got a class one medical certificate, then he shouldn't have been flying in a single-pilot commercial operation."
However, he would still have been allowed to fly privately or with another pilot. "He would still have had a class two medical certificate, so he is still capable of flying an aircraft. He was just not allowed to fly a commercial aircraft."
Not having a licence also did not mean Mr Hopping was not healthy, he said.
"He hadn't actually failed it, he just hadn't renewed it. He may have gone on the Monday and got his certificate, we just don't know. It's a big question mark."
Mr Stacey said improved rules now meant such incidents were unlikely to occur again.
"A new rule [introduced in May 2012] means every aviation adventure tourism operator has to have an exposition in with the CAA and get vetted by the CAA. The exposition includes drug testing, alcohol abuse, safety and medical testing.
"It makes the company liable, as well as the pilot, if their medical certificate is not up to date. It means it's now not just the pilot who has to remember.
"The company is likely to have the information on a database somewhere with a warning that it's due."
FIT TO FLY
There are three classes of certificate:
Class one is for commercial flight crew, class two is for private pilots, class three is for air traffic controllers. A class one medical certificate must be renewed every six months for commercial pilots over 40.
A standard medical test must be performed by a licensed aviation general practitioner. It can cost between $250 and $400, plus a $313 application fee to the Civil Aviation Authority.
A pilot's general health, nervous, cardiovascular, respiratory systems, muscles, hormones, hearing and sight are all checked. Pilots must be found to be healthy, and have no history of disease, disability or injury which would impact their ability to fly an aircraft. Some conditions that could prevent a pilot from getting a certificate are behavioural problems, migraines, epilepsy, pacemakers, asthma, inner ear problems and diabetes.
A test could involve blood tests, ultrasound scans, decompression checks and an electrocardiogram.
Class two and three medicals test the same systems, but to a lesser extent.
- The Dominion Post