Report tells of pilot's final words

By Dave GooderhamAN experienced pilot was forced to fly "blind" in rapidly deteriorating weather conditions just moments before his helicopter plunged to the ground and exploded in ball of flames.

By Dave Gooderham

AN experienced pilot was forced to fly "blind" in rapidly deteriorating weather conditions just moments before his helicopter plunged to the ground and exploded in ball of flames.

Suffolk airman Matt Radford, 35, and his passenger, London businessman Stephen Curtis, were instantly killed when their Agusta 109E spiralled out of control and crashed near Bournemouth Airport last March.

The treacherous conditions meant Mr Radford, 35, from Worlington, near Mildenhall, was forced to fly using only his flight instrument data as visual targets on the ground were impossible to see, a report into the crash revealed.

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The helicopter struck the ground nose-first at a speed of 130 knots – sending wreckage flying up to 100 metres from the impact site and creating a crater about half-a-metre deep.

Following the crash, rumours surfaced that it could have been the result of something more sinister after claims Mr Curtis had received death threats due to his involvement with a billion dollar Russian oil firm.

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The investigators said they had looked for evidence of an explosive device on board, but had been satisfied that there had been none.

Instead the team from the Air Accident Investigation Branch, which published its 26-page report yesterday, called on the Civil Aviation Authority to improve visibility standards in and around airports in the wake of the crash.

While initial weather reports suggested there was only a 30% chance of poor visibility, a sudden "lowering and increasing" of cloud and light rain forced the doomed Suffolk pilot to take drastic action as he neared Bournemouth.

Investigators said Mr Radford had "worked hard" to retrieve the situation, but his frantic attempts – which included turning the helicopter 540 degrees as it continually descended – had failed.

The airport's control tower staff said they had been unable to see the machine as it neared the runway and it burst into flames just a mile from its destination.

Mr Radford's last words were also published in the report, detailing the growing concern of the experienced pilot.

As he was given permission to land by the control tower, Mr Radford said he did not have "visual with the field" until runway and approach lighting was turned up to maximum intensity.

The pilot then frantically informed control 11 times in quick succession that he needed radar support to land. The controller asked Mr Radford if everything was okay, but the pilot responded "negative, negative".

Informing the control room that the helicopter still had power, Mr Radford, in his last transmission, said: "Okay, it's okay, I need a climb, I need a climb."

The report said the controller had been unable to locate the aircraft visually, but had seen the fireball caused when it had hit the ground. Post-mortem examinations revealed the pilot and his passenger had both died from multiple injuries.

The approach to the airfield was particularly criticised in the report. It was described it as "dark and featureless", a problem that would have been worsened by rain on the helicopter's cockpit windows.

It said that any lights visible would only have given "false visual clues" to Mr Radford, who was operating in a "seriously degraded visual environment" in the moments before the crash.

The report concluded: "The pilot had probably become disorientated and his limited instrument flying background did not equip him to cope with degraded visual environment.

"There was no evidence from the wreckage recovered of any mechanical failure or unauthorised interference with the aircraft or its systems that may have contributed to the accident.

"Whilst the pilot identified that the aircraft had power and that he needed to climb, insufficient time and height were available for him to prevent the accident."

A spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority said it would be studying the report's recommendations before making any decisions. Bosses at Bournemouth Airport declined to comment.

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