Final words on doomed jet heard
Tuesday 31 May 2011
The final words from on board a doomed private jet moments before it crashed into a house, killing all five people on board, were heard at an inquest today.
The twin-engined Cessna Citation 500 was given permission by air traffic control to ascend to 2,400ft after it took off from Biggin Hill airport in Kent to Pau in south-west France.
But about a minute after take off, pilot Michael Roberts asked to make an immediate return after reporting engine vibration, the inquest at Bromley Civic Centre heard.
Mr Roberts, from Effingham, Surrey, then told air traffic control: "We have a major problem, a major problem. It looks as though we're going in, we're going in."
Witnesses reported seeing the Bermuda-registered aircraft flying low above a residential area and a playing area. It then hit a house in Romsey Close, Farnborough, Kent, causing a major fire which destroyed the building.
All five people on board the Cessna were killed, including Mr Roberts, 63, co-pilot Michael Chapman, 57, and passengers David Leslie, 54, Richard Lloyd, 63, and Christopher Allarton, 25.
Coroner Roy Palmer said it was "extremely fortuitous" that no one was in the house at the time and through "great good fortune" that no one was killed on the ground.
Although an experienced pilot, Mr Chapman, from Shoreham, West Sussex, had only recently qualified on this type of aircraft, the inquest jury was told.
Nicholas Dann, of the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), said Mr Roberts had considerably more experience on board such planes and it was understood that he was mentoring Mr Chapman during the flight.
Both pilots were qualified to operate on the day, March 30, 2008 and the weather conditions were good with a light westerly wind and good visibility with a cloud base of 4,000ft.
In Mr Roberts' first contact with air traffic control following take off at around 1.30pm, he said: "We're making an immediate turn, to return to the airport, immediate turn to the airport."
After being asked what the problem was, he added: "Er, don't know Sir. We're getting engine vibration. We'll come straight back."
Mr Roberts went on: "Er, we'll come straight round on two one, Sir. We'll come straight in. Er we have a 5 POB Sir. We're coming straight back round. We'll join ... left hand, coming straight round for two one if that's OK."
Moments later Mr Roberts reported the "major problem" during his final transmission before the aircraft started to descend. Mr Dann said: "At about the time of the final transmission several witnesses saw the aircraft about two nautical miles north of Biggin Hill.
"It was observed flying low around an area by a playing area and houses."
Dumfries-born former British Touring Car Championship driver Mr Leslie was a father-of-two while Belfast-born Apex Motorsport boss Mr Lloyd had three daughters and lived in Brackley, Northamptonshire.
Mr Allarton, who lived in Coventry, had graduated from Coventry University and had just started working for Apex Motorsport.
Keith Conradi, chief inspector of the AAIB, said the investigation into what caused the crash was made more difficult by the absence of any "black box" recorder on the plane, registration VP-BGE.
The Cessna was not required by law to have had a black box flight recorder but among the recommendations made by the AAIB in the wake of the tragedy was for aircraft of this type to be fitted with them.
Mr Conradi said: "This investigation was particularly difficult because of the lack of recorded data, ie a black box. We had to do an awful lot of work to try and understand what happened in this event."
By 1.20pm on the day of the crash, permission had been granted for the jet to taxi for take off and it was observed by air traffic control taking off normally without any apparent problems.
All five people on board died at the scene, which was in a built-up area less than a mile from the Princess Royal Hospital, from injuries to their chest and head, as well as suffering from smoke inhalation.
Detective Chief Inspector Jane Corrigan, of the Metropolitan Police, said it was clear early on from their inquiries with Biggin Hill airport that five people had been travelling on the jet when it crashed.
She said: "We spoke to a number of people including one who said she saw the plane flying low with its left wing at an angle and then it nose-dived into the ground and exploded.
"Another witness heard a very loud jet engine as if it was trying to change gear and then saw the plane flying low and the engine struggling."
The house owner, Edwin Harman, was away on holiday while his wife, Pat, had returned from the break before her husband and was heading home at the time of the tragedy after spending the night at the home of her daughter.
The garage of a neighbouring house and a car parked next to it were also destroyed by the impact and ensuing fire. But no one on the ground was injured.
No evidence was found to suggest a crime had been committed, Ms Corrigan added. No medical event on the part of either Mr Roberts or Mr Chapman was believed to have played a role in the crash.
The inquest heard that it was "most likely" that a mechanical failure within the air cycle machine - part of the air conditioning and pressurising system - caused the engine vibration which led the crew to try to return to Biggin Hill.
Mark Jarvis, senior engineering inspector at the AAIB, said the bearing cage had failed, giving rise to the possibility of vibration.
The manufacturer had no other reports of vibration on this type of air cycle machine. Mr Jarvis said: "They have never had one fail in this manner."
He added that a rivet head which secured the left engine fuel cut-off lever was missing, which was not as a result of impact or fire.
Mr Jarvis said the detachment of the rivet head could have resulted in the inadvertent shutdown of the left engine, even though as a Category A engine it is capable of operating using one engine.
It was unclear when the fault happened but it is believed to have occurred before the accident. A bid to relight the second engine was most likely started before the relit first engine reached idle speed.
It meant there was not enough time for thrust to be built up to help halt the jet's rate of descent before it crashed into the cul-de-sac.
The AAIB made recommendations to the US-based Federal Aviation Administration to have rivets included as part of maintenance checks and also to review the wording of a checklist document.
However, the FAA said that it believes the current system is adequate and has not acted on the recommendations made by the AAIB.
There was no evidence of pre-existing defects with the aircraft and it had undergone an inspection in the January before the crash.
Dr Palmer said he expected only a verdict of accidental death would be considered by the jury who will begin their deliberations tomorrow from 10am.
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