Hot Air Balloon Tragedy Pilot Had Smoked Marijuana, Probe Finds

The pilot of a hot air balloon that crashed in New Zealand in January, killing him and all 10 passengers, was flying with marijuana in his system, investigators said.

While findings hadn’t yet linked cannabis use to the accident, the test results were “concerning”, the Transport Accident Investigation Commission said in its interim report on the tragedy. The findings are one of seven main lines of inquiry the Commission is pursuing, according to the report.

The balloon struck power lines and caught fire as it was preparing to land after a 45-minute flight near Carterton, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northeast of the capital, Wellington. After flames erupted, two passengers jumped from the basket to their deaths before the craft crashed to the ground.

“Toxicology tests from the pilot had returned a positive result for cannabis, and further inquiry and analysis related to this issue was underway,” said TAIC on its website.

The commission is also investigating the certification and maintenance of balloons and any potential malfunction during the accident, as well as “performance-impairing substances and their effects on pilot performance,” it said.

The Jan. 7 accident followed recent New Zealand disasters including last year’s earthquake in Christchurch that killed 185 and subsequent aftershocks that left the nation facing a damage bill of at least NZ$20 billion. Explosions at the Pike River coal mine in October 2010 claimed 29 lives.

The balloon accident was the biggest loss of New Zealand life in an air accident since 1979, when an Air New Zealand Ltd. sightseeing flight over Antarctica crashed into Mount Erebus and killed all 257 passengers and crew.

An accident in 1989 resulted in 13 deaths when two balloons collided near the central Australian town of Alice Springs.

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Bourke in Wellington at cbourke4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Edward Johnson at ejohnson28@bloomberg.net

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