Harrogate helicopter crash pilot was underqualified

The scene of the crash. (S)
The scene of the crash. (S)

The pilot of a helicopter which crashed in Harrogate killing himself and his wife was underqualified and inexperienced, an inquest has ruled.

Paul Spencer, 43, and his wife Linda, 59, were killed when the Gazelle helicopter crashed in the grounds of Rudding Park Hotel on January 26, 2008.

Paul and Linda Spencer (S).

Paul and Linda Spencer (S).

The jury at the Harrogate inquest told Coroner Rob Turnbull: “Paul Spencer, an underqualified and inexperienced helicopter pilot died whilst piloting a Gazelle helicopter which crashed in adverse flying conditions.
“Linda Mary Spencer died when she was a passenger in a Gazelle helicopter which crashed in adverse conditions whilst being flown by an underqualified and inexperienced helicopter pilot.”

The Harrogate inquest began on Tuesday this week.

Shocked witnesses to the crash spoke earlier this week of desperate attempts to save the millionaire couple.

Eyewitnesses told a jury how they initially thought the Gazelle helicopter was performing an “outlandish stunt” as it began to tumble.

This was not the case and the tragic air accident left Paul, 43, and 59-year-old Linda dead at the scene.

The inquest heard that Mr Spencer had picked up the military style helicopter from Essex just that day, picking up his wife in West Yorkshire before travelling to Rudding Park where they owned a lodge.

The Harrogate jury were told that soon after landing, the couple took off again in weather described as “blustery” and were seen flying low to the treeline.

Mr Spencer was piloting the Gazelle helicopter when it crashed.

Mr Spencer, who ran Country Baskets in East Ardsley, had only just received his licence, the inquest heard.

Investigations held after the crash by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) showed his flying records were not accurate and he had insufficient training to pilot the aircraft.

“The cause of the crash was adverse weather conditions and the fact the pilot had not received sufficient training to qualify for his licence,” said coroner Rob Turnbull.

A string of eyewitnesses spoke this week of seeing the helicopter flying low over woodland at around 4pm.

Former member of the armed forces Scott Woodford, driving back from a riding centre with his daughter when he saw the helicopter, was immediately aware it was a Gazelle.

“At first I thought they were trying to do an outlandish stunt. Then I realised they were in trouble and they were going to crash,” he said.

Another witness, Jonathan Wilkinson, told the jury the helicopter was “swaying”. Realising something was about to happen, he told the children he was travelling with to look away just before it dropped.

Bernard Reed, who also had a lodge at the hotel, was one of the first on the scene.

Describing the helicopter on its side and the smoking engine lying a few metres away, he said there was a stink of aviation fuel. He rushed to help.

“I checked Linda Spencer first and couldn’t find a pulse, I tried her wrist and her neck and I couldn’t find anything at all,” he said, adding the grounds manager of the hotel alerted him to the fact Mr Spencer was moving his lips.

“Paul’s alive, Paul’s alive, I can see his lips moving. And he was right they were moving, but only for a split second,” added Mr Reed.

The couple both died from injuries consistent to having been in a helicopter crash.

Flight instructor, Ian King, 53, was found guilty earlier this year of making a false statement to the CAA, after he certified that Mr Spencer had complied with all the training requirements and flown the required amount of hours.

On Wednesday, the inquest heard from Frederick Cross of the CAA Personnel Department, who had been asked to review Mr Spencer’s training records.

He found three advanced exercises were missing from Mr Spencer’s logbook. The exercises he said, in advanced take off and landing, limited power exercises and flying in a confined area, all could have applied to Mr Spencer’s flight action on the day of his death.

He added that Mr Spencer had recorded an extremely unusual number of training hours in November 2007, given the amount of light available.