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Helicopter crash that killed Lord Ballyedmond may have been triggered by 'illusion' in thick fog

By Helen William

Published 08/10/2015

The wreckage of the crashed helicopter in a field
The wreckage of the crashed helicopter in a field
Lord Ballyedmond
Pilot Carl Dickerson
Co-pilot Lee Hoyle

The helicopter crash which killed Northern Ireland's richest man, Lord Ballyedmond, may have been triggered by an error in perception.

Investigators also blamed a lack of training and procedures to handle the flight which took off in thick fog.

An error in perception by the crew who had lacked visual clues before the flight, known as the somatogravic illusion, may also have played a part in the crash on March 13, 2014, according to the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB).

The two passengers - Lord Ballyedmond (70) and Declan Small (42), who worked for him, died along with captain Carl Dickerson (36) and co-pilot Lee Hoyle (45).

The Agusta AW139 G-LBAL helicopter crashed just 460 yards after taking off from the Tory peer's home at Gillingham Hall in Norfolk at around 7.20pm.

Take-off had originally been set for about 6.30pm, but by the time the passengers were ready to leave, a dense fog which cut visibility down to "the order of tens of metres" had set in, according to the AAIB report.

The investigators said that because the flight was from a private landing site, there was no requirement for a particular minimum visibility.

The helicopter had reached an altitude of 82ft above ground and a ground speed of 90 knots (just over 103mph) when it crashed nose-down in a field.

It hit a line of large hay bales lying in the ploughed field and the "cabin structure was destroyed", according to the report.

In the final few seconds, the co-pilot had made two verbal prompts to the captain regarding the aircraft's pitch attitude. Recorded data showed that steps had been taken to rectify this.

The helicopter manufacturer said that, based on the recorded data, "the helicopter had responded appropriately to the crew inputs". There is no evidence the helicopter struck a tree or any other object during the flight.

A second mark was made 45m beyond the first ground mark and three of the five main rotor blades had been stripped away.

The wreckage indicated the helicopter had become airborne after the second ground impact.

The investigators concluded: "Evidence suggests that the flight crew may have been subject to somatogravic illusion caused by the helicopter's flight path and the lack of external visual cues.

"The absence of procedures for two-pilot operation, the pilot's lack of formal training in such procedures, and the limited use of the automatic flight control system, may have contributed to the accident."

Somatogravic illusion could have led to the progressively abnormal attitude of the helicopter "feeling" normal to those on board, investigators suggested.

They explained that in the absence of visual clues, the "down" direction is sensed from accelerations that can be felt. This sensation can be compromised in an accelerating aircraft when gravity is not the only force being felt.

Self-made multi-millionaire Lord Ballyedmond had an estimated wealth in excess of £800m.

He was best known as chairman and founder of Co Down-headquartered Norbrook Laboratories, the largest privately-owned pharmaceutical company in the world.

The father-of-three was a life peer with a seat in the House of Lords, first on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party before switching to the Conservative Party. He previously sat in the Seanad, the upper house in the Republic.

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