Fog too thick to land, RAF pilot tells Haughey inquest
FOG on the night of a helicopter crash which killed Co Down multi-millionaire Lord Ballyedmond and three others was so thick that RAF rescue crews could not land at the wreckage site, an inquest has heard.
Flight Lieutenant Ian Smith, an on-call search and rescue pilot at Wattisham airfield in Suffolk, told a jury inquest in Norwich yesterday that he was sent to the scene of the crash.
But even with night vision goggles, radar and military training, his helicopter was unable to land.
"It was thick fog, we couldn't see anything below us," he said.
Lord Ballyedmond, also known as Dr Edward Haughey, was killed when the Agusta Westland AW139 came down shortly after take-off near an estate he owned in Gillingham, Norfolk on March 13 2014.
His foreman Declan Small (42), from Mayobridge, pilot Captain Carl Dickerson,(36) from Lancashire, and co-pilot Captain Lee Hoyle (45) from Cheshire also died.
Barry Dolby, who was working at the house, watched the helicopter take off.
He said: "I could not believe they took off in that fog.
"I've worked on oil rigs and any time there was a sign of fog we would be stuck until it cleared."
The inquest was shown mobile phone footage of the helicopter taking off captured by one of Dr Haughey's employees.
It also showed that conditions were dark and foggy at the time.
On Tuesday the inquest heard that Mr Dickerson had warned the helicopter needed to take off "no later than 7pm" because of bad weather.
It did not in fact leave until 7.22pm as Dr Haughey oversaw the hanging of pictures as part of his renovation of Gillingham Hall.
Painter-decorator John Savage from Newry told the inquest yesterday that Lord Ballyedmond had been choosing paint colours.
Mr Savage said at 7.15pm Mr Hoyle said the helicopter needed to take off immediately or it would be grounded.
"His first response was 'John, I'll get back to you about the colours'."
He said Dr Haughey immediately left and Mr Hoyle did not seem "stressed or concerned".
Plasterer Robert Graham also told the inquest: "They said they needed to take off by 7pm or air traffic control would not let them fly because of the fog.
"It was clear they wanted to go. They kept checking their watches."
Labourer Gary Evans was working near the helipad when the aircraft took off. He said by that point the fog had descended.
"I suddenly heard a loud bang, it was so loud it really shocked me. It was a cracking sound, like an engine backfiring.
"It was about 10 to 15 seconds after the helicopter started to fly off. Afterwards everything was very silent."
Some of the workmen suspected the bang was the helicopter but it was not until police arrived that they fully realised what had happened.
Dr Haughey (70), who lived at Ballyedmond Castle in Co Down, was considered to be one of Ireland's richest men, with an estimated wealth in excess of £800 million.
Best known as chairman and founder of Norbrook Laboratories, the largest privately-owned pharmaceutical company in the world, the father-of-three also had a range of other business interests.
Coroner Jacqueline Lake said the inquest would focus on events leading up to take-off, the training of the pilots particularly when taking off in low visibility, weather conditions and the regulation of private helicopters.
The inquest is expected to last until Friday.