Fatal Accident Inquiry into the deaths of Colin McRae, Graeme Duncan, Ben Porcelli and John McRae

A Fatal Accident Inquiry has concluded that the deaths could have been avoided if Mr McRae had refrained from flying the helicopter into Mouse Valley and had not engaged in low level flying when it was unnecessary and unsafe to do so. Sheriff Nikola Stewart at Lanark Sheriff Court

This is an Inquiry instituted by the Lord Advocate under the discretionary provisions of the Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths Inquiries (Scotland) Act 1976.  It was considered expedient in the public interest that such an Inquiry should be held into the circumstances of the deaths of Colin Steele McRae, aged 39, Graeme Arthur Duncan, aged 36, Ben Telfer Porcelli, aged 6 and John Gavin McRae, aged 5, which occurred when the helicopter piloted by Mr McRae and in which they were passengers crashed on 15 September 2007.

The Inquiry took place at Lanark Sheriff Court and evidence was heard over 16 days between 12 January and 26 May 2011 with final submissions heard on 8 August 2011.  A locus inspection of the crash site and points along the helicopter’s final flight path took place on 25 January 2011.

Graeme Duncan filmed much of the outbound and return flights on his personal camcorder.  5.3 minutes of video and sound track were recovered in total.  The video was taken from his front passenger seat and ended approximately 55 seconds prior to the accident.  This source provides confirmation from pre-flight checks at the start of the outbound journey that all engine and system indications were normal and flight instruments appeared serviceable. 

The video recording provides detailed information as to the manner in which Mr McRae piloted G-CBHL that day.  He consistently flew the helicopter at unnecessarily low heights.  He clearly breached the 500 feet minimum separation requirement on at least one occasion when he detoured to fly at 275 feet over farm buildings and may well have done so on others.   He undertook significant manoeuvring at low level and the helicopter seems to have encountered significant g-loading as a result, to the evident enjoyment of his passengers.

 The episodes of extremely low level flying and the excessive manoeuvre parameters, particularly the descent into the valley by Larkhall, all as captured on the video recording, are indicative of an aircraft being flown imprudently, without due regard to the principles of good airmanship, and in such a way that normal safety margins would be reduced.

The deaths and the accident resulting in the deaths might have been avoided had Mr McRae not flown his helicopter into the Mouse Valley.  Such a precaution would have been entirely reasonable.  There was no necessity to enter the Mouse Valley. There were no operational or logistical reasons to enter the Mouse Valley.  Mr McRae chose to fly the helicopter into the valley.  For a private pilot such as Mr McRae, lacking the necessary training, experience or requirement to do so, embarking upon such demanding, low level flying in such difficult terrain, was imprudent, unreasonable and contrary to the principles of good airmanship. 

In order to pilot an aircraft in the UK it is necessary to hold a pilot’s licence, a valid relevant medical certificate, to have had the pilot’s licence validated with the type of aircraft to be flown and to hold a Licence Proficiency Check (“LPC”) in respect of the type of aircraft to be flown.  On the date of the accident Mr McRae possessed the necessary medical certificate but did not hold a valid flying licence or a valid AS350B2 type rating.  He was accordingly in breach of Article 26 of the Air Navigation Order 2005 when he flew his helicopter on 15 September 2007 and should not have flown that machine at that time.
In terms of section 6(1)(c) of the Act it would have been a reasonable precaution to refrain from flying helicopter G-CBHL into Mouse Valley wherein the pilot engaged in low level flying when it was unnecessary and unsafe for him to do so and whilst carrying passengers on board.  The accident occurred when, due to an unknown occurrence, the aircraft deviated from its intended flight path and crashed into trees lining the side of Mouse Valley.  Whatever happened was sudden, unexpected and took place in circumstances where Mr McRae did not have scope to recover.

The aircraft was in powered flight at the time of the collision and attempts were being made by Mr McRae to recover from that unknown event.  These attempts were rendered ultimately unsuccessful because of the position and speed of the helicopter within Mouse Valley and the resultant restrictions on opportunity to land or fly the helicopter to safety. 

Such options would have been available to him had he adhered to rules of good airmanship and desisted from flying in the valley at low height and high speed.

The full Determination is available here.