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Ballooning still 'safe and beautiful'

11:52 Mon Jan 9 2012

The Carterton hot air balloon crash which claimed 11 lives rivals the Alice Springs disaster more than 20 years ago, but the head of ballooning in New Zealand hopes it will not hurt ballooning's image of safe flying.

Martyn Stacey, president of the Balloon Aviation Association of New Zealand, who also runs a ballooning company in Canterbury, told NZ Newswire the disaster - where a balloon caught fire and crashed near Carterton on Saturday - would affect the industry globally.

However, he was adamant ballooning was "a safe and beautiful" way to fly and he hoped it would not change the perception of ballooning as a safe activity in New Zealand.

The deadliest hot air ballooning accident is believed to have happened at Alice Springs in 1989, when two balloons collided, causing one to fall, killing the pilot and 12 passengers.

Mr Stacey said speculating about the cause of the Carterton crash would only cause grief, but if people had jumped out when the balloon was still in the air the pilot would have had very little control over the balloon, with the sudden loss of weight.

"Tourist operators like ourselves, we desperately need to know what happened, whether it was a mechanical fault, pilot error or a fluke."

There are between 45 and 50 balloons in New Zealand, and eight commercial companies running balloon flights.

Operators' procedures were "pretty water-tight" and there had just been three fatal ballooning accidents in New Zealand in more than 100 years, which was "not bad" when compared with general aviation, he said.

New Zealand's first aviation fatality involved a balloon when David Mahoney - alias Captain Charles Lorraine - drowned after his balloon came down in the sea beyond the entrance to Lyttelton Harbour in 1899.

In 1995, three Asian tourists died when a balloon was swept out to sea off Christchurch.

There have also been balloon accidents in China, France, Germany Switzerland and the United States in the last decade.