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Aircraft stall led to horrific crash that killed three

A light aircraft spluttered and stalled seconds before it nosedived to the ground, killing three people in Kilkeel, Co Down, an inquest has heard.

The plane slowed so much while approaching an airstrip in limited visibility that it fell from the air and burst into flames in a field, an expert investigator said.

Pilot Hugh McKnight (54), a former policeman, and passengers Stephen Annett and Andrew Burden, both 24, died instantly in June last year on their way back from the Isle of Man TT motorcycle races.

Their charred bodies were unrecognisable and had to be identified by their dental records.

Geraint Herbert, a senior inspector at the Air Accident Investigation Branch of the Department for Transport, said: “The reduction in power would have led to reduction in airflow over the wings. This, combined with reduced air speed, caused the aircraft to stall.”

Mr McKnight had switched to the Kilkeel airfield en route from the Isle of Man because of poor conditions at another airstrip. But by the time he reached Kilkeel low hanging cloud and drizzle had rolled in off the Irish Sea.

Mr Herbert told the Newry inquest that as he tried to land at the airfield the pilot was flying in higher than normal and reduced power.

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“It is possible that the pilot did this to lower the aircraft's approach path,” he added.

The engine was still running and the inspector said Mr McKnight would have given it full power to try to take it back up.

The inquest heard from the airstrip owner, Gary Nicholson, that Mr McKnight had owned his aircraft for over five years.

Witness Peter Trainor was in his kitchen 100 yards from the accident near Belmont Road. “I heard an engine splutter,” he confirmed. “I saw the plane dive towards the ground at approximately 45 degrees. It impacted the ground with a loud bang and burst into flames, the flames went up a good height.”

Mr McKnight, from Kilkeel Road, Annalong, had flown his two passengers to the Isle of Man early that morning on June 13.

He returned that evening with another man, Gareth McKnight, and the flight was uneventful.

He had then returned for stoneyard worker Mr Annett, from Ballyveaghbeg Road, Kilkeel, and steel fabricator Mr Burden, from Back Road, Annalong.

Another air accident investigator from the Department for Transport, Peter Coombs, said the plane was mostly made of wood and had been destroyed by the fire. The engine was the only readily identifiable part to survive.

Coroner John Leckey expressed his sympathies to family members of the victims, who packed the courtroom.

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