Leicester City helicopter crash was ‘tragic accident’, say inspectors | Air transport

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The pilot of the helicopter in the fatal crash at Leicester’s football stadium in 2018 told his passengers “I’ve no idea what’s going on” as the aircraft spun out of control, accident investigators reported.

Inspectors said the crash, which killed the owner of Leicester City Football Club, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, three other passengers and the pilot, was a “tragic accident”. Mechanical failure, through a worn ball bearing in the tail rotor, led to a loss of control after takeoff from the King Power Stadium.

A report from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), published almost five years after the crash on 27 October 2018, has cleared the pilot of any error and ruled out a collision with a drone.

Four of the five people onboard were found to have survived the initial crash, before dying when the aircraft was engulfed in fire less than a minute later.

The helicopter had flown in to land on the Leicester pitch half an hour after a match to collect Vichai. Investigators said the pilot had been “relaxed” before the fatal flight 50 minutes later.

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But soon after takeoff, the pedals became disconnected from the tail rotor and the helicopter took a sharp right turn, which was impossible to control.

Cockpit voice recordings picked up a shout of: “Hey, hey, hey!” from the rear cabin, where Vichai and two of his employees, Nusara Suknamai and Kaveporn Punpare, were seated, as the helicopter started turning uncontrollably.

Eric Swaffer, a highly experienced pilot who was accompanied in the front seat by his partner, Izabela Roza Lechowicz – also a professional pilot – responded by saying: “I’ve no idea what’s going on” and “uttered an exclamation”, the report said.

The helicopter reached a height of about 130 metres before spinning to the ground outside the football stadium. Swaffer “performed the most appropriate actions”, the AAIB said, including retracting the landing gear to cushion the impact.

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After it hit the ground, landing on a concrete step, fuel that leaked in the crash caught fire, causing a blaze too intense for emergency services to get to the helicopter.

Investigators found that a bearing in the tail rotor had seized after “fatigue damage”, built up over a period of time. Inspection of the part would have been required after 400 hours of service, but the helicopter had only been flown for 331 hours before it crashed.

Crispin Orr, chief inspector of air accidents, said: “This was a tragic accident in which five people sadly lost their lives. Our thoughts are with their loved ones, and everyone affected.”

He added: “The nature of the failure, in the tail rotor, was really very serious, of a sort that left them in a very poor situation. There was nothing more that the pilot could do.”

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Orr said that it had been “an incredibly complex technical investigation” and inspectors had “gone very deeply into understanding the cause of that failure”, including using simulators, commissioning endurance tests and reviewing data from thousands of flights.

The long inquiry involved experts from Canada, France, Italy and the US, where significant components in the Leonardo AW169 helicopter were manufactured.

The AAIB said action had already been taken to ensure the continued airworthiness of the aircraft type and set out further recommendations to improve helicopter safety, including more checks on critical components.

A statue of Vichai, the Thai billionaire who bankrolled Leicester’s fairytale success on the football pitch and became warmly embraced by the city, was unveiled at the stadium last year.

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