Call for drug tests after New Zealand balloon tragedy

WELLINGTON (AFP) - Adventure aviation operators should face random drug tests, a New Zealand coroner said on Thursday, after finding the pilot of a balloon that crashed killing 11 people was a "chronic cannabis user".

Coroner Peter Ryan said pilot Lance Hopping's judgement was probably impaired by cannabis when the balloon hit power lines in January 2012 before plunging to the ground in a flaming wreck.

Ryan said cannabis would account for some of the "inexplicable" actions taken by Hopping in the lead up to the crash, which killed everyone on board - all New Zealanders - as relatives watched from the ground in horror.

Hopping first allowed the balloon to descend into a field bordered by two sets of power lines, which Ryan called an "inherently dangerous environment".

Then when a wind gust took it towards the cables, he ascended in a futile attempt to fly over them, rather than attempting to land so the basket did not become entangled in live wires.

"It is possible that his judgement and decision-making ability were impaired due to the carry-over effect of having smoked cannabis," Ryan's report said.

"The likelihood of this scenario is strengthened by the fact that Mr Hopping made a gross error in attempting to out-climb the power line." The inquest into the crash at Carterton, north of Wellington, was told the 53-year-old should not have been flying because his pilot's medical certificate had expired six weeks before.

It also heard that such certificates relied on pilots to disclose any drug use voluntarily, with Ryan saying Hopping had obviously lied when his documentation was last renewed.

"Mr Hopping was clearly dishonest in answering this particular question in 2010," he wrote.

"The question that must then be asked is: was Mr Hopping's piloting of a commercial balloon with THC (cannabis) in his system an isolated incident, or is this a widespread problem within the adventure aviation sector?" Adventure aviation includes hot-air ballooning, gliding, tandem hang-glider and paraglider operations, as well as commercial parachuting.

They are popular activities in New Zealand, which markets itself internationally as a centre for high-adrenaline activities.

Ryan said operators should face a mandatory drug test when they renew their medical certificate, followed up by random drug tests with significant suspensions for any positive results.

He also said authorities should consider making commercial ballooning take a second crew member on flights, so they could take over if the main pilot was incapacitated.

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