The rally driver Colin McRae did not have a valid pilot's licence when the helicopter he was flying crashed into woods in Scotland, killing himself and his three passengers, an official accident report revealed yesterday.
And in the seconds before the fatal crash, the 39-year-old had broken flying regulations, flying too close to buildings and performing complex manoeuvres just 20ft from trees, the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) found.
The former world rally champion was flying with his five-year-old son, Johnny, and two friends, Ben Porcelli, six, and Graeme Duncan, 37. All four died instantly in the crash, in September 2007.
McRae's licence had expired in February 2005 – more than two years before the accident – and he had never applied to renew it, the AAIB report said.
It also revealed that, in the three years before the crash, McRae, had made 80 illegal flights in the helicopter when either his licence or type rating – a secondary document that allows pilots to fly certain types of aircraft – had expired.
The report singled out one occasion in March 2006 when McRae flew from Scotland to London. It pointed out that he knew his type rating had expired because the purpose of the flight was to meet an examiner to renew it.
The report also noted McRae, who had been flying helicopters since 2000, was "undertaking a demanding manoeuvre" shortly before the crash. But it added that "the cause of the accident was not positively determined".
Mark and Karen Porcelli, the parents of six-year-old Ben, said yesterday that McRae had taken "unnecessary risks" and that the accident was "completely avoidable". The report revealed much of the detail surrounding the crash and offered suggestions about what had happened. It said that at 2pm on 15 September 2007, McRae had flown the helicopter to a farm in Larkhall from his home in Lanark, eight miles away. Duncan filmed much of the journey on a camcorder which was recovered from the crash site. The flight took six minutes, during which McRae broke air regulations by flying too close to buildings.
After an hour at the farm, they took off again at 3pm. McRae performed several complex manoeuvres, flying within 20ft of trees and making the helicopter climb steeply at sharp altitudes out of a valley. The report says McRae's passengers appeared to enjoy the manoeuvres "with laughs and shouts audible on the video".
The investigators noted that the helicopter flew along a valley, which was not an obvious flight route between the destinations, but that it was chosen because it "presented an opportunity for the pilot to link together the manoeuvres previously flown and which were apparently enjoyed by his passengers".
Less than a minute after the camcorder had been turned off, the helicopter, which was close to the bottom of Mouse Water Valley, clipped a fir tree with its main rotor blade before crashing into an oak tree and bursting into flames. It was 150ft from the helipad at McRae's house, where it had been due to land.
The final moments of the flight were not recorded, but the report listed a number of possible scenarios that could have forced the crash. One is the possibility that the helicopter – a Eurocopter Squirrel – was affected by a phenomenon, known as servo transparency, which made it appear that the controls were jammed. Although no technical reason was found to explain the accident, "a technical fault, while considered unlikely, could not be ruled out entirely", the report said.
It also said that a birdstrike could not be ruled out, nor could the possibility that the camcorder was dropped and either interfered with the controls or distracted McRae at a critical moment. A post-mortem examination found that McRae was not under the influence of drugs and had not been drinking alcohol on the day of the crash.
McRae's father, Jimmy, said: "It has been confirmed by instructors, examiners and pilots with whom he flew, that Colin's skills as a helicopter pilot were of the highest order."