The pilot of a hot air balloon who was thrown from the basket in a “freak accident” during a New Year’s Day flight had got engaged on Christmas Day and is recovering in hospital with his fiancee at his side.
Owner and chief pilot of Adventure Balloons New Zealand Graeme Church was seriously injured after he was “ejected” from the basket, caught in a rope and dragged during a rough landing on Saturday, Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) chief investigator of accidents Harald Hendel said.
Seven other people were onboard, but no other injuries were reported, Hendel said.
The TAIC has launched an investigation to understand what caused the incident, which happened about 9.10am on Lyndhurst Rd, Lauriston, near Ashburton.
Sam Clark, the driver of a chase vehicle tracking the Adventure Balloons flight, said Church was “pretty beaten up and pretty sore” and had a “bit of recovery ahead of him”.
Church had only recently got engaged, he said, and his fiancee was with him in hospital, where he is in a stable condition.
“They’re riding a bit of a high so it was a bit sad to tell her. She’s been in hospital with him for the last couple of days … I think he was glad to see her.”
Clark was at the scene of the incident and said the flight had been going smoothly up until that point.
“It was just a freak accident.”
The company, based in Methven in Mid-Canterbury, offers scenic flights across the Canterbury Plains, as well as private charter flights.
The TAIC is appealing for any witnesses to the crash or anyone who saw the balloon while it was flying.
“We are particularly keen to receive photographs or videos,” Hendel said.
“The circumstances reported to TAIC were that the balloon pilot was ejected from the basket during a rough landing, was caught in a rope and dragged some way before the balloon came to rest and the basket tipped over.”
An investigation team was at the scene on Saturday and would continue to gather evidence over the next few days, including at the crash scene and securing wreckage, as well as cellphone data from the people onboard such as photos, videos and location data.
“We’re interested in what the balloon occupants recall, along with the relevant professional and personal backgrounds of the pilot and other operator staff, what they knew, thought, experienced, and did,” Hendel said.
Hendel said elements of the aircraft, its type history and performance, maintenance and design would be assessed.
“The operating environment is also of interest, including physical, weather, operating company safety system, organisational culture of the operator, traffic control, regulatory matters.
WorkSafe and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) were notified, police said.
In July, two people were seriously injured after a gust of wind caught a balloon as it came in to land in a paddock near Arrowtown, Otago, dragging it across the ground.