Waikato balloonists have welcomed calls for random drug testing of tourism operators to prevent disasters like the Carterton ballooning tragedy.
The response follows a Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) finding that Carterton balloon pilot Lance Hopping probably smoked cannabis before his poor judgment caused the balloon to crash, killing all 11 people on board.
The commission said it had investigated six incidents over the past 10 years where people had tested positive for performance-impairing substances. Thirty-five people had died in those accidents.
Mark Brown, the co-owner of Hamilton-based Kiwi Balloon Company, said random drug testing was already in place at his business.
After being approached by the Civil Aviation Authority earlier this year, he made it mandatory for employees.
"I was happy to accept. I don't touch drugs and neither does my co-pilot."
Although he had no problems with extending it across the sector, he doubted it would have much of an impact on the aviation industry.
"I think most operators and pilots are very responsible."
Michele Connell, the general manager of Hamilton's Balloons over Waikato festival, said anything that increased safety was welcome.
Drug testing was not something that had been discussed with operators involved in the festival, but it could be something that was looked at in the future, she said.
The commission's finding had divided friends of Mr Hopping and angered victims' families.
The man who checked Mr Hopping's skills when he began flying balloons 20 years ago said he was "disgusted" that drug use was indicated.
"The rumours have always been out there. Now the rumours have come true . . . I'm totally devastated. I've lost all respect for the man," said Rick Walczak, a professional balloonist of 30 years' standing who took Mr Hopping on training flights two decades ago.
Toxicology tests on 53-year-old Mr Hopping's body indicated long-term and recent cannabis use, the commission found in its final report on the accident, released yesterday.
"Poor judgment 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 judgment, and therefore to the accident."
Mr Hopping had levels of THC - an active ingredient of cannabis - of 2 micrograms per litre of blood. This is within the range considered enough to stop a driver from satisfactorily completing a police-conducted impairment test.
The report said the typical effects of cannabis on a pilot included deteriorating flying skills, an increase in errors, and being unaware of performance problems.
It said two witnesses had seen Mr Hopping smoking on the balcony of a shed shortly before the flight. He did not smoke tobacco, and his urine tested negative for cotinine, a marker of tobacco use.
Mr Hopping was one of 11 people who died when a balloon belonging to Early Morning Balloons, of Carterton, flew into power lines, burst into flames and crashed into a paddock near the town, about 7.30am on January 7 last year.
Also killed were Howard and Diana Cox, 71 and 63, of Wellington; Desmond and Ann Dean, 65 and 70, of Masterton; cousins Valerie Bennett, 70, of Masterton, and Denise Dellabarca, 58, of Paraparaumu; Stephen Hopkirk, 50, and Belinda Harter, 49, of Lower Hutt; and Chrisjan Jordaan, 21, and Alexis Still, 19, of Wellington.
Members of victims' families reacted with anger to the findings.
"I just feel it didn't need to happen," said Mr Hopkirk's mother Merle. The fateful flight was a surprise present from Ms Harter for his 50th birthday.
The family of Ms Bennett and Ms Dellabarca said in a statement that Mr Hopping had shown "complete disregard for the value of other people's lives".
Ms Still's family said: "This was a man who did not consider or care what the impact of his illegal behaviour would have on those who paid him for an experience of a lifetime."
However, other friends and acquaintances of Mr Hopping defended him.
Former neighbour Matt Carter said the pilot was "meticulous" and "very serious" about his profession.
Wairarapa photographer Geoff Walker, who was photographing the flight and witnessed the crash, disputed the report's findings that Mr Hopping had probably smoked cannabis shortly before takeoff.
"He did have dope in his system, that's just a reality . . . [But] I was there; there was no smell of dope."
Neither Mr Hopping's partner, Nina Keynack, nor other members of his family were available for comment.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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