THE DEVASTATED husband of a Kenilworth woman killed in a hot air balloon crash in South Africa has called for tighter rules regulating the industry following an inquest into her death.
Suzanne Astle was on a dream balloon safari with her husband and two children when it crashed during a so-called ‘fast landing’.
The 48-year-old was thrown from the basket and suffered serious injuries. She arrived at hospital around four hours after the crash and died later that day.
Suzanne’s husband, John, 65, and their two sons, William and Samuel, aged 16 and 13, also suffered serious injuries.
Following the crash John, a former airline pilot, instructed lawyers at Irwin Mitchell to help investigate and support the family through the inquest process. Warwickshire coroner Sean McGovern recorded a conclusion of accidental death.
John has now called on the South African Civil Aviation Authority to introduce a commercial hot air balloon licensing scheme regulating tourism rides in the country.
Former air stewardess Suzanne and John met while the pair worked for British Airways.
The crash happened early on the morning of October 25, 2016, on remote farmland near the Buffelspoort Dam, around 17 miles from the city of Rustenburg.
Suzanne, who worked at Brooke School in Rugby, helping children with special educational needs, was thrown from the basket along with two other passengers.
John and William suffered spinal injuries in the crash, while Samuel suffered hand injuries.
The inquest at Warwickshire Justice Centre was told the South African Civil Aviation Authority carried out an investigation. The resulting report found the probable cause of the crash was the pilot opting to execute a landing on open farmland when the wind speed was as high as 22 knots – which was above the safe landing speed.
Contributory factors also included the pilot not physically demonstrating the ‘fast-landing’ before take-off, safety cards not being in the balloon basket and the pilot, who was on a three-month contract with the operator, having received “inadequate” training from the balloon company.
The report also found the pilot was the only person securely fastened in the basket, and he did not radio for help following the collision. The GPS system on the balloon was also damaged in the crash and the pilot had to ask the passengers to use the GPS facility on their mobile phones.
The balloon was also removed from the crash site by the balloon operator before investigators were even notified about the crash. This hampered the investigation as evidence at the crash scene had been “tampered” with, the report said.
The report also recommended the Director of Civil Aviation at the South African Civil Aviation Authority implement a Commercial Hot Air Balloon pilot license scheme which should be in line with international best practices.
Speaking after the hearing John said: “We all miss Suzanne so much. She was the kindest, most loving and loyal wife and mum who adored her boys.
“We had all been looking forward to what should have been a memorable family trip but everything changed in a second. To see Suzanne injured and in so much pain was horrible. It was absolutely awful knowing she desperately needed medical help but it was not arriving.
“It is still so hard to believe Suzanne is no longer with us, she will not be here to see her boys grow up and witness milestones in their lives like passing their exams, starting their first job and getting married.
“The grief that our family have had to endure for more than two years has been made worse by the concerns we had about how the crash happened.
“We know that nothing can ever make up for what happened and all our family can hope for now is that Suzanne’s death is not totally in vain.
“We hope that the recommendations included in the South African Civil Aviation Authority’s report are implemented.
“It is astonishing to think that South Africa is one of the few countries in the world that does not have commercial hot air balloon pilot licensing, yet has a substantial number of commercial balloon operators who are flying thousands of passengers a year.”
Serious injury lawyer Simon O’Loughlin at Irwin Mitchell represented the family.
Speaking after the inquest, he said: “For more than two years John and the family have had a number of concerns about what happened on the day Suzanne died with the inquest hearing evidence about the events that unfolded
“Suzanne’s death is still extremely raw for all her family, and while nothing can ever make up for her tragic death, they want to ensure lessons are learned.
“While there are strict safety guidelines regulating balloon excursions in the UK, this is not always the case abroad.
“We join John in calling on the South African Civil Aviation Authority to introduce a commercial hot air balloon pilot licensing scheme reflecting international best practice as we believe this will improve safety standards.”