I can't believe Lord Ballyedmond's helicopter took off in that fog, says witness
Workers who saw Tory peer and multi-millionaire Lord Ballyedmond just moments before his helicopter crashed - killing him and three others - have described hearing a loud bang.
And one of them told the inquest he couldn't believe the aircraft took off at all, considering the adverse weather conditions at the time.
The lord, also known as Dr Edward Haughey, was on board when the Agusta Westland AW139 came down shortly after take-off near the estate he owned in Gillingham, Norfolk, on March 13, 2014.
Dr Haughey's foreman Declan Small (42), of Mayobridge, Co Down; pilot Captain Carl Dickerson (36), of Thornton, Lancashire, and co-pilot Captain Lee Hoyle (45), of Macclesfield, Cheshire, also died.
Barry Dolby, who was working at the house on the night, 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."
A jury inquest in Norwich earlier 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 take off 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, yesterday told the inquest Dr Haughey had been choosing paint colours.
Mr Hoyle said at 7.15pm that night that the helicopter needed to take off immediately or it would be grounded, Mr Savage told the inquest.
"His first response was: 'John, I'll get back to you about the colours'," Mr Savage added.
He said Dr Haughey immediately left and Mr Hoyle did not seem "stressed or concerned".
Plasterer Robert Graham added: "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 that they wanted to go. They kept checking their watches."
Labourer Gary Evans was working near the helipad when the aircraft took off. He said fog had descended by then.
Mr Evans said: "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 the tragedy that had happened.
The fog on the night was so thick that RAF rescue crews could not land. Flight Lieutenant Ian Smith, an on-call RAF search and rescue pilot at Wattisham Airfield, Suffolk, told the inquest in Norwich 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 because of low visibility, he explained.
"It was thick fog - we couldn't see anything below us," Lieutenant Smith said.
The inquest was shown mobile phone footage of the helicopter taking off captured by one of Dr Haughey's employees. It showed conditions were dark and foggy.
Dr Haughey (70), who lived at Ballyedmond Castle in Co Down, was one of Ireland's richest men with estimated wealth of £800m.
Best known as chairman and founder of Norbrook Laboratories - the largest privately owned pharmaceutical company in the world - father-of-three Dr Haughey had a range of other business interests.
A life peer with a seat in the House of Lords - first on behalf of the Ulster Unionists before switching to the Conservative Party - he had also previously sat in the upper house of the Republic's parliament, the Seanad.
Coroner Jacqueline Lake said that the inquest would focus on the events leading up to take-off, the training of the pilots - particularly when taking off in low visibility - the weather conditions at the time of the incident, and the regulation of private helicopters.
An Air Accidents Investigation Branch report has already found that the crash may have been triggered by an error in perception, along with a lack of training and procedures.