Eleven people, including the pilot, have been killed in a hot air balloon crash in the Wairarapa.
Pilot Lance Hopping, CEO of Ballooning New Zealand Ltd, and five couples from the Wellington region were killed when their balloon (a Cameron A 210 named "Mr Big" reg. number ZK-XXF) burst into flames and became caught up in powerlines near Carterton this morning, cutting power to the town for some hours.
This is New Zealand's largest air disaster since the death of nine people, including tourists, in a light plane crash at Fox Glacier on 4 Sept 2010. That event went largely unnoticed outside of New Zealand because it happened on the same day as the first Christchurch earthquake. For more read Fox Glacier air crash.
Few people know that New Zealand's first fatal air accident (1899) involved a balloon which landed in the sea, drowning the pilot.
Another similar tragedy happened in 1995, when a balloon belonging to a company called Balloon Adventures ditched in the sea off Waimairi Beach in Christchurch. Three tourists drowned.
It is not known whether any foreign nationals were involved in today's crash, nor have any names been released other than the pilot's.
The company, Hastings based Early Morning Balloons ltd (Facebook page) is said to be involved and is cooperating with civil aviation investigators. It has issued a statement expressing their condolences to the families and loved ones of the victims.
According to the company's website it charges $350 per person for its Wairarapa flights which take off from behind the paua shop on Kent Street, Clareville, a street criss-crossed with overhead powerlines.
A sequence of photographs taken by local photographer Geoff Walker just days ago shows the balloon seemingly very close to overhead power lines, and one news report stated he was on the ground taking photos as the balloon burst into flames and crashed.
Those photographs are likely to form an important part of the investigation into what went wrong with ZK-XXF.
Our thoughts are with the family and friends of the deceased and with the witnesses to the crash who must've been traumatised by what they've seen.
In a police statement
"Wairarapa Area Commander Inspector Brent Register says Police began receiving reports from eye witnesses about 7:25am, where they reported a hot air balloon in distress.Video of crash site
"It appears the hot air balloon operated by Early Morning Balloons left Kent Street, Carterton (behind The Paua Factory), between 6:40am and 6:45am."
He says after a 45-minute flight, the balloon was to land in a paddock in Somerset Road, Carterton. As the balloon was preparing to land, it hit wires on a power line, causing sparking in the basket.
"At this point, two of the 11 people onboard, believed to be a male and a female, appear to have jumped from the basket."
Inspector Register says the balloon then made a sharp ascent, a fire ignited on board and the balloon plummeted into a paddock approx 200 metres away on Somerset Road.
All 11 people on board, including the pilot and five couples from the wider Wellington region, were killed in the crash.
"We are continuing to work with our partner agencies, which include the Coroner's office, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Transport Accident and Investigation Commission, Dept of Labour, NZ Fire Service and Victim Support."
Inspector Register says a thorough investigation is being conducted to ascertain the cause of the tragedy..."
Adventure tourism, deaths and regulation
New Zealand has a shocking safety record for some of its tourism activities, something we've often blogged about.
The CAA recently drafted new rules to force all aviation adventure tourism activities, including hot air balloons, microlights, warbirds, and tandem hang gliders and paragliders to hold air operator certificate.
The CAA safeguards civil aviation in New Zealand and has control over which operators can fly passengers and authority to make sure they meet safety standards.
Under Part 115 of the new civil aviation rules, all adventure aviation operators must hold an Operator Certificate.
"For those currently operating under Parts 101, 103, 104, 105, and 106, here are the transition timeframes for gaining a Part 115 Operator Certificate:Despite several high profile deaths and injuries, a number of prosecutions and the introduction of a auditing and registration system for all tourism operators, we're saddened to learn that these tragedies are still occurring.
Those currently conducting an adventure aviation operation under a Part 119 AOC may continue to do so until the expiry of that certificate, or 10 November 2012, whichever comes first."
- Hot air balloon, hang glider, paraglider, tandem parachute, and parachute drop aircraft operators must be certificated by 1 May 2012.
- Microlight aircraft operations must be certificated by 1 Nov 2012.
- Glider operations must be certificated by 1 May 2013.
An all encompassing set of Adventure tourism regulations finally were enacted in October 2011, three and a half years after the drowning death of British tourist Emily Jordan sparked a review of the adventure tourism industry within NZ.
Incredibly there is a further delay of three years until all 1,500 adventure tourism businesses within New Zealand must be registered and in possession of a safety audit certificate.
We don't know if Early Morning Balloons ltd was registered or had ever received a safety audit.
More more about adventure tourism safety in NZ read posts tagged accordingly, or our stats and facts page
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