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Blowing lots of hot air over a balloon block

Developments at Masterton’s Hood Aerodrome have me wondering if Masterton District Council [MDC] wants to have its cake … and eat it too.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of locals emerged from their homes at sunrise and sunset to enjoy this year’s Hot Air Balloon Festival.

Balloonists from all corners arrived in our backyard during the Easter break and put on a brilliant display of skill and grace. The event ranks highly on the Wairarapa calendar, and with good reason.

Not only is it unique and colourful, but it also brings plenty of visitors who, I assume, happily open their wallets and pay for accommodation and all the other things one needs to stay a few nights or more.

It’s a perfect fit for us, you might say. It also sits nicely alongside Wings over Wairarapa and other events that draw visitors from near and far. The festival is scheduled to return next year and, hopefully, for many years after that.

I don’t recall any word either before or after the festival from MDC regarding issues about safety. This is good news. When there is a festival-sized number of hot air balloons in our skies, it is important to know that Hood Aerodrome can offer everything a balloonist might need, including safety.

So why has MDC tried to use a commercial lease agreement to prohibit one particular operator from flying balloons from the site?

Let’s make no mistake – safety is paramount. No one is suggesting otherwise.

Indeed, safety applies in many aspects of our lives, be it hot air ballooning or trimming the hedge. The venerable Civil Aviation Authority says that all aircraft [including hot air balloons] are safe when operating within their rules and procedures, regardless of type. Good to know.

It’s perfectly reasonable, then, that it should be the Hood Aerodrome Safety Committee who met with MDC staff this week. Hood users are at a loss as to why the council would consider stopping one particular operator from flying balloons from the site rather than making a blanket restriction on the activity. It seems a fair enough question to ask.

A blanket restriction could suddenly become an issue for the whole aviation community. The council surely wouldn’t do that, would it?

Lease applicant Michael Shouse wants to bring two old planes in need of restoration and one balloon, collectively worth about $1.2 million, all the way from the United States to store them in a hangar and fly them from the aerodrome – presumably bringing plenty of work for other businesses at Hood and possibly further afield.

For its part, MDC says a lease agreement is an appropriate tool for restricting ballooning. A council document states that hot air balloons posed an extremely high risk of infringing on the sealed runway [during inflation] and adding complexity to the airspace.

At dawn, when the best flights launch? Surely not.

If Hood can comfortably manage a festival of balloons, surely it can have all the necessary safety measures in place for one balloon.

I’m hoping common sense and commercial considerations will prevail here. It could so easily be a win-win for all parties concerned rather than a basket case.

Roger Parker
Roger Parker
Roger Parker is the Times-Age news director. In the Venn-diagram of his two great loves, news and sport, sports news is the sweet spot.

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