Coroner criticises RAF base over crash

Three men died when an RAF Puma crashed in flames because the pilot was attempting low-flying manoeuvres both beyond his capabilities and that of the helicopter, a coroner said today.

However, coroner Geoff Fell stressed that the mistakes made by the pilot, Flight Lieutenant David Sale, took place “against a background of deteriorating administration, airmanship and discipline” at his base, RAF Benson, in Oxfordshire.

The inquest heard that at one point during the fatal training flight, which killed Flt Lt David Sale, Sergeant Phillip Burfoot and Private Sean Tait, the aircraft was so low that a taxi driver had to stop his journey because he felt “threatened and intimidated,” Mr Fell recounted. “He was eyeballing the pilot and described the helicopter as just 5ft above his car.” In cockpit voice recording Flt Lt Sale could be heard to say: “Let’s scare the shit out of this taxi.”

During the training flight in August 2007, which was meant to familiarise the crew with combat conditions, the Johnny Cash song Ring Of Fire was being playing through the speakers and a former army captain on board, Captain Robert Earle, shouted a line from the film Top Gun: “Yeah, Jester’s dead!” as the Puma flew low and fast over the countryside near Catterick Garrison, North Yorkshire.

Mr Fell, delivering his verdict at the inquest in Harrogate, said that the “inexperienced” crew members were undertaking their first trip without an instructor. But no one seemed to have laid out the ground rules to the crew and Flt Lt Sale, 28, of Norton, Teesside, missed an opportunity to remind himself of what he was authorised to do during the flight.

The coroner said most of the flying on the day of the crash “seems to have taken place at less than 100ft”, that the tactical manoeuvres were “excessive in number and irregularity”, the crew was “oblivious” at times and there was a deterioration in discipline. He continued: “One can see that while some of the factors individually might not lead to a hazardous situation, collectively they are almost certainly leading to a mishap.”

Returning the verdicts, Mr Fell said: “The pilot of the helicopter was attempting a flying manoeuvre which was beyond his capabilities, or those of the Puma, or a combination of both, against a background of deteriorating administration.”

The co-pilot of the Puma, Flt Lt Robert Hamilton, who was left a paraplegic as a result of his injuries, said while giving evidence: “I will hold my hands up to say it was unprofessional.” Flt Lt Sale, he added, “had frightened himself” during one low-flying manoeuvre minutes before the crash. Eight other crew members survived with less serious injuries.

Speaking outside the court after the verdict, Group Captain Jonathan Burr, Station Commander at RAF Benson, said there had been changes the way administration procedures were carried out.

Capt Burr said: “The verdict today will reinforce action we have already taken. We have changed the way that we supervise, manage and task our Puma operations, both at home and overseas, to ensure that such events are not repeated as far as is humanly possible.”

Capt Burr offered his condolences to the friends and families of the three men who died and praised them for “their courage in dealing with their loss together with the additional pressures of the ongoing investigation”.