A pilot's exhaustion caused by his heavy administrative workload might have contributed to the fatal crash of his RAF jet, an inquest was told yesterday.
Squadron Leader Mike Andrews juggled extra paperwork with 12-hour shifts and twice-daily sorties in the cockpit, a regime that was "wholly excessive", according to the testimony of his friend and colleague Flight Lieutenant Anthony Dalton, which was read to the inquest jury.
"I saw him cat-napping in his office on the afternoons. He felt his exuberant personality would conceal his fatigue," Flt Lt Dalton said.
Sqn Ldr Andrews, 38, a divorcee from Hampshire, died with his navigator, Flight Lieutenant Steve Todd, 28, who was married and from Lincolnshire, when their Hawk trainer jet clipped a road bridge and crashed into a holiday home near the village of Shap, Cumbria. They were simulating a low-flying dogfight.
Neither man attempted to eject and both were killed on impact in a region notorious for military training accidents.
An RAF Board of Inquiry report agreed last year that "air crew fatigue" might have been a contributory factor.
The report, which was read to the jury of seven women and five men, ruled out severe weather and mechanical failure as contributory factors. But it concluded that other causes might have included distraction caused by the proximity of other aircraft at a critical moment or a potential distraction in the cockpit. Either problem could have resulted in the aircraft "not maintaining a safe flight path".
After its investigation, the Board of Inquiry recommended that the Hawk fleet be fitted with either ground proximity warning systems or radio altimeters to provide crews with warnings of unsafe flight paths and unsafe heights.
Last night, the Ministry of Defence said the cost of installing the new systems meant that the Hawk fleet was still being kitted out.
The inquest, held at Penrith magistrates' court, revealed how close to calamity the village of Shap had come when Sqn Ldr Andrews crashed on a 100 Squadron sortie from the RAF Leeming base in North Yorkshire on 22 October 1999.
Colin Murray, a local resident, was driving his white Ford Escort van over a railway bridge across the A6 when the bridge was hit by the jet.
Mr Murray escaped serious injury when the aircraft demolished the bridge and ploughed into a field, narrowly missing the village.
The crash was 200 yards from the northern part of the village, which includes a post office and a petrol station. About 50 residents were moved from their houses because of possible risks from hazardous materials used in some aircraft, the inquest heard.
At the time, a schoolteacher said residents had the impression that the pilot had "known he was close to the village, known he was going to crash and [had] done his best to avoid the houses before he ploughed into the field".
Ian Morton, the North-east Cumbria coroner, said the steep, rugged terrain was treacherous for the pilots who approached Shap at average speeds of seven miles a minute and relied on the naked eye to gauge whether they were travelling at a safe height of at least 250ft above ground level at all times.
"I imagine this can be quite deceptive at times," Mr Morton said. "I would think it is a matter of constant adjustment. You can't just fly at a constant height above sea level. This is something that leads to a high level of concentration. In the Shap area the terrain can change steeply in a very short space of time."
The jury returned a verdict of accidental death.
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