Monday, September 08, 2014

Helicopter safety warnings ignored before London crash: Heliport operators told Civil Aviation Authority helicopters would be forced too close to new skyscraper in cloudy weather - Agusta A109E Power, G-CRST

Warnings of a threat to the safety of helicopters flying above central London were ignored ahead of a crash last year in which two people died, according to a new report. 

Pilot Pete Barnes, 50 was killed along with Matthew Wood, a pedestrian, when an Agusta A109E helicopter crashed into a crane at St George’s Wharf, Vauxhall, amid heavy fog in January 2013.

But an official report into the disaster, to be published this week, reveals that concerns were raised with the Civil Aviation Authority in 2009 about how the development would affect flight paths.

The operator of London Heliport warned the CAA that pilots travelling along the south bank at low altitude due to cloudy conditions would be forced to breach rules which ban them coming within 500ft of any buildings.

According to a copy of the Air Accident Investigation Branch report, leaked to The Telegraph, the message “does not appear to have led to further discussion or action”.

Following the accident NATS, the air traffic controller, ruled that helicopters should no longer be instructed to fly on the south bank at low altitude to avoid coming too close to buildings.

“Any pilot routing along the south bank of the river and passing within 500ft vertically of the top of the crane, or the building once the crane is removed, would be in breach” of the rules, the AAIB said in its report.

It noted that pilots and not air traffic controllers are responsible for obstacle clearance, but added: “Controllers should not issue clearances which imply permission to breach regulations.

“It is possible that they did so inadvertently during the period between the construction of this building and implementation of the amended air traffic procedures introduced by NATS after the accident.

“During this period, traffic instructed to route along the south bank of the River Thames, while also restricted to altitudes below 1,300ft, would have had to break [the 500ft rule] in order to comply with this instruction.”

An experienced helicopter pilot told The Telegraph the large number of skyscrapers in central London have made it dangerous to fly over parts of central London at low altitude.

“On a normal day it is not a problem, you stay above a certain height and you are clear,” he said. “As soon as the weather drops, you start to have problems because to keep to the 500ft rule you start having to snake around the river, moving across from one side to the other and back again.

“With the building at St George’s Wharf and the building across the river, it is now virtually impossible to fly within the limits.”

Captain Barnes, one of the most experienced pilots in the country, had been flying from Redhill to collect Richard Caring, the millionaire boss of the Ivy restaurant, at Elstree airport in Hertfordshire.

 Despite being urged by his client twice not to fly due to poor visibility, Cpt Barnes told him by text message: “I’m coming anyway will land in a field if I have to.”

Unable to land at Elstree, he turned back for Redhill but received another message from Mr Caring telling him London Heliport in Battersea was open, and requested permission to land.

Travelling at low altitude on an established flight path along the River Thames, and unable to remain clear of cloud, Capt Barnes made a right turn towards The Tower at St George’s Wharf, one of Europe’s tallest skyscrapers.

The report claimed it was most likely obscured by the weather, and the pilot could have been distracted by changing radio frequencies as he approached the site.

The helicopter struck the crane’s jib, detaching its rotor blades, after flying within 105ft of the skyscraper. Capt Barnes died as it crashed 700ft to the ground, also killing Mr Wood, 30, and injuring a dozen more people.

The report added that the skyscraper was not listed as an obstacle in the helicopter’s navigation system, and that Capt Barnes had not logged onto an online database containing updated flight information for pilots for the past three years.

It also noted that there is no effective system for ensuring all potential obstacles for pilots are registered, and the crane had only been added to databases "by coincidence" after being spotted by an off-duty member of staff at the Defence Geographic Centre.

The AAIB made a number of recommendations to improve the assessment of obstacles before planning permission is granted, and the reporting of potential hazards to pilots.

Spokesmen for the Civil Aviation Authority and the Department for Transport declined to comment before the publication of the report on Tuesday.

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