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Pilot in New Zealand balloon crash was high: commission

Investigators called for tighter drug restrictions following
the crash in January 2012, when the balloon hit power lines before plunging to
the ground in a flaming wreck.

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission said pilot
Lance Hopping was a long-term cannabis user and a post-mortem examination found
the drug in his system.

Chief commissioner John Marshall said two witnesses saw
Hopping smoking a substance on the morning of the accident and forensic tests
showed no indication he had inhaled tobacco.

Marshall also noted there
were no maintenance issues with the balloon and the weather was calm before it
crashed near the town of Carterton, north of Wellington, as relatives
of those on board watched in horror.

He said it appeared “highly likely” that Hopping,
53, smoked cannabis before the flight.

“Having considered all the evidence, the commission
found that the accident was caused by errors of judgement by the pilot, and the
possibility that the pilot’s judgement was impaired by the use of cannabis
cannot be excluded,” Marshall
told reporters.

He said Hopping made a mistake in taking the balloon below
the level of the power lines, then when it began drifting towards them he
applied the burners to try to climb over them, instead of descending as quickly
as possible.

Marshall
called for tighter regulations in all sectors of the transport industry,
including random testing.

“It is totally unacceptable for anyone in a safety-critical
transport role, such as a pilot, to be working while impaired by a substance,
whether legal or not,” he said.

“Cannabis has both short and long-term impact on
judgement, decision-marking, and reaction time depending upon the person, the
quantity, and the frequency of use.”

Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee said his department was
considering the recommendations and wold report back to cabinet early next
year.

The 10 passengers who died on the flight with Hopping
were five couples from the Wellington
region.

It was New Zealand’s
worst aviation disaster since 1979, when an Air New Zealand jet crashed into
Mount Erebus in Antarctica, killing 257 people.

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