Watchdog delivers verdict on Arrowtown balloon crash

by Kim Bowden - May 18, 2023

The pilot of a hot air balloon that crash landed near Queenstown two years was not wearing a harness, despite having one available to them, and passengers were not well prepared for an abrupt landing.

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission has today published a report on the 2021 incident, where the pilot and two passengers were thrown from the balloon’s basket as it was dragged 150 metres after a hard landing.

The transport investigator says it wants to see pilots wearing harnesses during take-off and landing to stop them being flung from baskets.

The investigator has also discovered the two passengers that ended up on the ground were unprepared for the dramatic landing and were not in the correct crouched landing position nor holding on to rope handles as required. 

The report says on July 9, 2021, the Kavanagh balloon was being flown on a commercial scenic flight around the Whakatipu Basin with 10 passengers on board.

“After two attempted landings, the balloon landed fast and hard in a paddock.

“The pilot and two of the passengers were ejected during the landing and sustained serious injuries. 

“The balloon bounced and slid a further 150 metres before coming to rest. 

“The eight passengers who stayed in the balloon basket were either not injured or sustained minor injuries. 

“The balloon sustained minor damage.

The report says the pilot choose not to land during the first two attempts as they had safety concerns. On the third landing attempt, a drop in wind speed as the balloon neared the ground caused it to hit the lip of a gully. 

Hugh McLellan, of hot air balloon operator Sunrise Balloons, responsible for the flight in question, says a passenger was suffering a "fainting fit" that the pilot was dealing with during the first two aborted landing attempts - the sick passenger is noted in the report.

The report stresses the importance of safety briefings to ensure passengers are prepared to handle unusual or emergency situations.

It also suggests “pilots should include an appropriate margin of safety when selecting their landing points, and follow checklists to ensure safety-critical items are not missed”.

The transport investigator has long called for pilots to be made to wear safety harnesses at critical points during a flight, and pushes its point again in this latest report.

If the pilot is ejected from the basket, it is virtually certain that an accident will occur, potentially resulting in injury to the passengers. The pilot would have no control of the balloon and the passengers would be left unattended.”

Mr McLellan says it is now mandatory for all pilots with the company to wear a harness and be strapped in during landing - it was not the case at the time of the 2021 incident.

It is standard for the company, prior to departure, to brief passengers on the ground on landing positions and ask them to demonstrate understanding of what to do, plus there is a recap up in the air before touchdown, he says.

The Queenstown report is one of two released by the transport watchdog today. The second relates to another crash landing of a commercial hot air balloon near Methven last year, where the pilot was also thrown from the basket on landing.

This basket was dragged 35 metres across a field and, while the unharnessed pilot ended up on the ground, the seven passengers remained uninjured in their braced positions until after the balloon deflated.

The investigation report on the 2022 Methven incident says the "passengers were well briefed" before the flight and, again, before landing.

"These briefings almost certainly helped prevent injuries to the passengers."

Read more: Investigators to examine hot air balloon wreckage today


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