From capturing airborne footage of the 2012 Olympics to shuttling film stars and politicians across London, traversing the capital’s skies had become second nature to Pete Barnes.
Precisely what caused his AgustaWestland 109 to fall burning onto its streets today remains unclear but the 50-year-old pilot was one of Britain’s most experienced helicopter aviators, respected by his peers for both his competence and bravery.
The father-of-two had clocked up more than 12,500 hours of flying time since qualifying as a commercial pilot in 1989, including 3,000 hours in the type of aircraft in which he died.
Lately, much of that flying had been done for RotorMotion, a Surrey-based helicopter operator that describes itself as “Britain’s favourite boutique helicopter charter business”.
Indeed, the company boasts an impressive client list, including the Dalai Llama, Prime Minister David Cameron, Prince Charles and Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton, pictured above with Mr Barnes.
Underlining its reputation for safety and luxury, which includes a complimentary champagne bar on each of its aircraft, RotorMotion states on its website: “Our helicopters have twin turbine engines and are certified to fly at night, over water and in cloud. Relax in the knowledge that both pilot and machine are fully instrument qualified to fly in poor weather conditions.”
Such was the reputation of Mr Barnes, from Goddards Green, Berkshire, as a safe pair of hands, he was also employed by AgustaWestland to deliver more than 50 of their aircraft.
His colleagues today described him as the archetype of the dashing pilot, mixing jobs as a pilot for multiple Hollywood flims – including the James Bond movie Die Another Day, Saving Private Ryan and Tomb Raider II – with service as an air ambulance pilot across England.
Kevin Hodgson, a paramedic who flew with him on Great North Air Ambulance, said: “Pete was as good a guy as you can imagine and one of the best pilots I’ve had the pleasure of flying with. Over the years he will have flown on dozens of missions, no doubt saving lives along the way.”
In 2004, Mr Barnes hit the headlines for a dramatic airborne rescue in County Durham when he hovered his helicopter less than a foot above a car which had been swept into flood waters, allowing the motorist to climb aboard before his vehicle was dragged away.
The pilot, who qualified in America after initially working as a ski instructor, was also one of the first to bring helicopter-based “eye-in-the-sky” traffic reports to Britain, working for a Newcastle radio station.
Alan Robson, his presenter on board the helicopter, said Mr Barnes was not afraid of making his flying look dramatic while keeping safe. “In a weird kind of way, the kind of person he was, maybe he was never going to go quietly,” he said.
Tonight, a representative at the home of Mr Barnes asked for his family to be allowed to grieve in privacy.