Mother relives horror of plane crash that killed son

A woman told an inquest today of the terrifying moment when a plane she was flying in crashed on take-off and killed her six-year-old son.

Jane Horne was with her son, Thomas, and husband, David, as they boarded the flight at Canaima, in the south of Venezuela, in heavy rain during a two-week holiday.

The hearing in Alton, Hampshire, was told that the family had been on a "fantastic" two-day trip, including visiting the Angel Falls, and were returning to where they were staying in April this year.

But when they got to the airport to board the single-engined Cessna 208, the weather was bad.

Mrs Horne, from Camberley in Surrey, told the inquest that the family had travelled on the plane three times before during the trip, which was part of an all-inclusive holiday based on the island of Margarita and booked through First Choice.

The trio got on board and were seated directly behind the pilot and co-pilot.

Mrs Horne said they was no safety briefing and her son, who had been flying since he was eight weeks old, said: "Mummy, there is no safety card." He had looked, she explained, because he had always been told to.

She also said the air crew did not speak English, with only the tour guide, Javier, able to speak Spanish and English.

"It was raining heavily when we boarded the aircraft and the door closed and we went halfway down the runway," she said.

"We went past an old Russian plane and, no sooner had we passed the Russian plane, we turned to face the direction to take off.

"As we went down the runway, the plane was swerving from side to side, which made us very uneasy, and then the power of the plane seemed to drop down and we thought that the pilot had changed his mind and we were not taking off.

"Suddenly there was a surge of power and we took off steeply and it was like being on a white-knuckle ride.

"There was a warning siren in the cabin and the plane dipped to the left and dived into the ground."

She went on: "I was very aware of what had happened. I can clearly recollect that day: the sound of crashing metal and trees as we hit the ground and then that complete silence.

"I could smell aviation fuel and there was our child - grey, lifeless and bleeding.

"My husband said Tom was badly injured and we had to get him out."

Mrs Horne said local people had rushed to the scene and her son was passed out of the wreckage to a doctor and taken to a nearby medical centre but he died.

A post-mortem examination found the cause of death was a fractured skull.

Mrs Horne suffered severe cuts and described how her skin peeled away in two places on her head. She said she also suffered a shoulder injury and subsequent memory loss.

There were 10 other passengers on board the plane, including eight Britons, and all survived with cuts and broken bones. Several of them attended the hearing.

Air crash expert Tim Atkinson, from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch, based in Farnborough, Hampshire, told the inquest that his inquiry had been hampered by a lack of co-operation from the Venezuelans.

But he said that witness accounts had made him very confident he knew what had happened.

He said the plane had stalled soon after take-off because it had not had sufficient time to gather enough speed and therefore lift to stay in the air.

Mr Atkinson put the accident down to "human error" by the pilot of the aircraft, which was operated by Linea Turistica Aerotuy (LTA). He said he had at first decided to abort the take-off but then changed his mind, leaving not enough runway to safely get into the air. Flooding on the runway had also slowed the plane.

Mr Atkinson said that, although the weather was bad and the plane could only fly in good visual conditions, he could not say if it should have attempted to fly.

He said a crucial consideration was that the plane was not allowed to fly at night and, when it took off at about 3.30pm, that would have been the last time it could have flown that day before a substantial delay.

He also explained that Thomas and the other passengers had not been correctly strapped in because the seats had shoulder restraints in addition to lap belts.

He said it was difficult to put the shoulder straps on without a safety briefing and so only the lap belts were used by all the passengers.

He said it was likely that Thomas's head had collided with something during the crash.

"The impact was not severe. I would not have expected a fatality if the passengers had been restrained properly," he said.

Recording a verdict of accidental death, North East Hampshire Coroner Andrew Bradley said the lack of proper restraint was a significant factor in the death of the youngster.

"No-one seems to have used the shoulder strap, or seems to have known how to operate it," he said.

In addition, he said the pilot was under pressure to fly in daylight.

Giving his sympathy to Mr and Mrs Horne, he said: "He (Thomas) would not have known anything, but that's the only comfort."

Speaking after the hearing, Mrs Horne said the family had started legal proceedings against First Choice over the death of their son.

"Thomas was our wonderful, beautiful son and our only child, and this has been the most horrific experience of our lives," she said.

"We know Thomas died from catastrophic injuries but we strongly believe that his death was due to pilot error and to the fact that there were not sufficiently robust safety procedures in place on the flight.

"Nothing will ever change our view that he may have survived had he been wearing a four-point safety harness.

"We are also gravely concerned to hear that there had been another crash involving First Choice customers just a few years earlier on the same route we were travelling.

"It shows that something was wrong and makes us even more sure that Thomas's tragic death was wholly avoidable.

"We urge all tour operators, including First Choice, to look carefully at who they use to provide trips for their customers."

Outside the hearing, a spokesman for First Choice said the company had stopped using LTA and that a statement would be released later.