The Chinook helicopter which crashed on the Mull of Kintyre, killing elite counter-terrorist officers from Northern Ireland, may have suffered mechanical problems just before it struck a mountain and exploded killing the 29 people on board.
An eyewitness who saw the aircraft plough into the 1,400ft Beinn na Lice on the tip of the remote peninsula told the official inquiry into the accident yesterday that he could not hear the aircraft's engines as it flew over his head. Russell Ellacott, 35, who was on a cycling holiday on Kintyre, said he felt a downdraft from the helicopter's rotors but could not hear any noise from the engines.
The Chinook, flying from Belfast to Inverness, was so low that he could feel "a heat" from the craft and ducked to avoid it. Seconds later he heard a dull thud as it crashed close by him into a mist-shrouded hillside smashing into the slopes of the mountain, disintegrating "like a fireworks display".
Mr Ellacott, from Sussex, is the only person who saw the US-made aircraft crash. Lawyers representing the two pilots, whom the Ministry of Defence blame for the crash, regard his evidence as crucial. They argue the accident in June 1994, the RAF's worst-ever helicopter disaster, was the result of mechanical, not pilot, error.
They will present evidence to the inquiry in Paisley that the helicopter suffered an engine "flame out" moments before the crash. Tests carried out by RAF safety experts weeks before the accident uncovered flame- outs on other Chinooks and test flights were suspended. Chinooks already in service, however, continued to fly.
Further evidence of mechanical problems emerged yesterday from a witness who described how the Chinook was flying dangerously low and making "a peculiar noise" as it left Northern Ireland. Anne Tyler, 40, from Carnlough in County Antrim, described how the twin-rotor craft "skimmed tree tops, roof tops [and] chimney pots" as it left the Irish mainland.
"The helicopter was up the glen from our house, and was flying very low," she said. "It was a very loud noise. There was something strange about it. It wasn't a familiar noise."
She conceded she was not an aviation expert but she said she had heard military helicopters in the province before and when the Chinook came overhead she had "a gut feeling" something was wrong. "There was something strange about the noise." At the time she recalled that she thought the helicopter's two rotors might be "out of sync".
Mark Holbrook, 39, turned his attention from the helicopter once he realised it was not taking part in sea manoeuvres in his immediate vicinity, and did not see the crash happen. But he saw it flying straight and level at a height of 200ft to 400ft, as if it was heading for the nearby RAF Machrihanish airbase.
Mr Holbrook, a scientific instrument maker from Stewarton, Strathclyde, told the inquiry he could see the helicopter from about a quarter to half a mile away, its landing gear, markings and flashing light all clearly visible.
He told the inquiry: "If you are seeking to establish whether the pilot could see the location of the Mull lighthouse, yes, I believe he could."
The inquiry at Paisley Sheriff Court continues.Reuse content