Investigation begins into Harrogate helicopter crash

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

A millionaire with insufficient training died after he crashed a helicopter he had picked up just hours before, an inquest has heard.

One shocked eyewitness to the horrific smash at Harrogate’s Rudding Park Hotel - which killed businessman Paul Spencer and his wife Linda - said he initially thought the expensive Gazelle was performing “an outlandish manoeuvre or stunt” as it began to tumble.

Paul and Linda Spencer. (S)

Paul and Linda Spencer. (S)

Sadly this was not the case and the tragic air accident in January 2008 left Paul, 43, and 59-year-old Linda dead at the scene, near the golf course at the luxury hotel.

An inquest today heard that Mr Spencer had picked up the military style helicopter from Essex on the day of the crash, flown it, with a friend, to pick up his wife at their business in West Yorkshire, before landing at Rudding Park Hotel where the pair owned a lodge.

The inquest jury in Harrogate 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 the multi-million pound business Country Baskets, based in East Ardsley with his wife, had only received his helicopter pilots licence the month before, the inquest heard.

Investigations held after the crash by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) showed that Mr Spencer’s flying records were not accurate.

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

A string of eyewitnesses from that fateful day on January 26 spoke of seeing the helicopter flying low over woodland at around 4pm.

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

Mr Woodford told the court when he saw the tail drop he knew something was wrong.

“At first I thought they were trying to do an outlandish manoeuvre or stunt, for a split second, then I realised they were in trouble and they were going the crash,” he said.

Another witness, Jonathan Wilkinson, told the jury that he saw “a military style helicopter” above the treeline and it was “swaying and seemed to tilt on its side”.

He added that he thought something was going to happen and told the children he was travelling with to look away, just before the tail dropped.

Bernard Reed, who also had a lodge at the hotel not only saw the Spencer’s helicopter go down but was one of the first on the scene to offer help.

Describing the helicopter as a “powerful machine” Mr Reed said he saw it go straight down into the trees and then hearing “a thud”.

“Just a big thud and that was it,” he said.

Mr Reed said he immediately jumped in his car and made the short journey to where he thought the craft was, he described seeing the helicopter laying on its side and the smoking engine lying a few metres away, there was a stink of aviation fuel.

He opened one of the doors and finally located the pair at the front of the cockpit.

“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,” said Mr Reed.

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 multiple injuries consistent to having been in a helicopter crash.

The Spencers started their business by selling artificial flowers and sundries from a market stall in Halifax in 1991 and built up a cash and carry business with a wholesaling and import operation and a team of buyers working all over the UK, Europe and the Far East.

Flight instructor, Ian King, 53, was found guilty earlier this year of making a false statement to the Civil Aviation Authority with intent to deceive, after he certified that Paul had complied with all the training requirements and flown the required amount of hours.

The inquest continues.