London helicopter crash pilot named
on 16/01/2013 14:27:35
Two people died and several were injured today when the helicopter crashed in central London after the pilot attempted to divert due to bad weather.
The helicopter spun out of control and crash-landed after clipping a crane on top of one of Europe's tallest residential towers.
It fell from the sky before exploding into flames, plunging on to Wandsworth Road near Vauxhall station.
The owners of London Heliport at Battersea said they received a request via Heathrow air traffic control from the pilot asking to divert due to bad weather.
Police said the helicopter was on a scheduled flight from Redhill, Surrey, to Elstree, Hertfordshire.
The two people killed were the pilot and someone on the ground, emergency services said.
Firefighters rescued a man from a burning car and brought a blaze caused by the crash under control.
A spokesman for Aldersgate Investments, the company owned by the billionaire Reuben Brothers, which owns London Heliport, said: "Just before 8am today a helicopter crashed in central London close to Vauxhall Bridge.
"The helicopter involved in the accident was not destined for the London Heliport.
"However, we received a request from Heathrow air traffic control to accept the helicopter, which had asked to be diverted due to bad weather."
He added: "The London Heliport never gained contact with the helicopter."
The heliport will be closed for the rest of the day.
Addressing a press conference near the scene of the incident, Commander Neil Basu, of the Metropolitan Police, said: "I can confirm the pilot has been killed."
He added: "The helicopter was on a scheduled flight from Surrey. It was scheduled to fly from Redhill to Elstree but it was diverted."
He added: "It's possible it was diverted to another helipad."
Mr Basu said the police force were working with other agencies including the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) and the Civilian Aviation Authority.
Asked if the lights on top of the building and crane were faulty, Mr Basu said: "That will form part of the investigation."
Pauline Cranmer, operations manager at London Ambulance Service, said: "The second fatality was not in the building. It was in close proximity to the helicopter.
"We believe there was one person in the helicopter and that person has died."
Peter Cowup, assistant commissioner at London Fire Brigade, said: "One driver was able to get out of his own free will and leave the scene. He was injured but we understand he's fine."
He added: "Aircrafts and helicopters do contain hazardous materials. There is no reason for anyone to be afraid of hazardous materials in the air."
London Ambulance Service has confirmed six people were treated in hospital for injuries, including a broken leg, while seven other casualties were treated at the scene.
A photograph taken by the London Fire Brigade shows the damage caused to the VW car which was hit by debris from the helicopter.
The front and side windows were smashed, the passenger door was open and the vehicle was badly charred.
A section of twisted metal from the helicopter lay next to the vehicle.
London Fire Brigade said in an updated statement: "Six fire engines, four fire rescue units, a number of other specialist vehicles, 88 firefighters and officers are attending a helicopter crash near Wandsworth Road in Vauxhall. Firefighters have now brought the fire under control.
"The police have confirmed that two people have died at the scene. Fire crews have rescued a man from a burning car. London Ambulance Service took six people to hospital and treated seven people at the scene.
"Fifty-seven firefighters and officers are also attending a crane which has been left in a precarious position at Saint George's Wharf as a result of the helicopter crash. Four fire engines and two fire rescue units are in attendance.
"The brigade's fire boat is carrying out a precautionary search of the river."
Cloud in central London was very low at the time of the accident, which happened at around 8am, weather forecasters said.
Paul Knightley, a forecaster at MeteoGroup, the weather division of the Press Association, said London City Airport was reporting a cloudbase of just 100ft (30.5m) at 8am. The top of the building would have been shrouded in cloud, he said.
London Fire Brigade station manager Bruce Grain, one of first firefighters at the scene, said it "was absolute chaos" but he revealed the fire was put out within 20 minutes.
Eight fire engines, four fire rescue units and around 60 firefighters plus officers attended the scene of the crash, a few hundred yards from MI6, on a busy road.
Four fire engines and two fire rescue units also attended reports of a crane in a precarious position. The brigade was called at 8am.
The crane was on top of a building called The Tower in the St George Wharf development.
A spokesman for Berkeley Group, which owns St George, the development company for the building, said in a statement: "Our thoughts at this time are with the friends and families of those killed in this tragic incident."
There was traffic chaos in the wake of the incident, with Vauxhall Bridge Road southbound closed, Wandsworth Road partially closed, Nine Elms Lane partially closed and South Lambeth Road partially closed.
Vauxhall Tube, railway and bus stations were also closed.
Video footage shot on a mobile phone showed an entire road blocked by burning wreckage and aviation fuel. The side of a building on one side of the street was also damaged by the flames.
Passers-by stood watching as the wreckage burned. A motorcycle was seen lying on its side in the road where it was abandoned.
Witness Nic Walker said the helicopter crashed on to the street outside his house, setting a car on fire.
He said: "I was awake in bed and heard a helicopter. I was aware of some funny sounds and then a loud engine noise, then a huge bang. I flung open my window and looked out to see fire across the street."
He added: "The crane operator was about to go up. The scaffolders evacuated to here told me there isn't a crane big enough in the UK to get the wreckage down."
Stephen Swan, who is living with a friend in St George Wharf, said when he heard the collision that he thought the nearby MI6 building had been attacked.
"We heard a big crash, the bang, and then we got up and went out on the balcony. We thought something terrible had happened at MI6, it was scary," he said.
"I'd just watched the film Skyfall not so long ago, and seeing that place (MI6) pretend blown up I thought: 'Oh my God, what's going on?'."
The aircraft is understood to be an AgustaWestland AW109, a lightweight, twin-engine helicopter with eight seats.
One person was taken to a south London hospital in a critical condition, three people suffering minor injuries were taken to south London hospitals and five people were treated at the scene for minor injuries.
A spokesman for the RNLI said London Coastguard was contacted by Battersea London Heliport, which confirmed it had lost contact with an aircraft.
A lifeboat was launched from the Tower RNLI lifeboat station to search the Thames but was later stood down.
The Civil Aviation Authority said helicopter regulations for flying over London included "requirements for lighting on tall structures".
The authority added: "In addition, where appropriate, very tall structures are also notified to pilots for flight planning purposes, as was the case with the crane that was involved in this morning's accident."
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe told the London Assembly: "Two people have been confirmed dead. One of those has been identified as the pilot of the helicopter."
The second fatality has yet to be identified, he said.
He said 60 officers were at the scene and there were extensive road closures in place.
It is understood that there were lights in place on top of the crane, which were checked twice a day and had been checked yesterday.
There had been confusion over whether the lights had been functioning correctly, but it looks increasingly likely that they were obscured by the thick mist shrouding the tower.
Eyewitness and mother-of-five Sharon Moore, who lives on the nearby Wyvil Estate, said: "Usually I can see a red light on top of the cabin but today you couldn't see anything.
"I think it was because the building was covered by fog.
"Sometimes that happens all day and you wonder how they (aircraft) are meant to see."
Later, Mr Basu said: "It was something of a miracle that this was not many, many times worse."
Mr Cowup said: "Our operation is now focused on the tower crane. We're doing what we can to make that safe and working with specialist contractors to assess the damage sustained to the crane.
"In the meantime, we will have to maintain a cordon around it and ask people to stay away from the area."
He added: "Some people were evacuated. We will allow them back into their homes as soon as we can."
Asked about the stability of the crane, Mr Cowup said: "At the moment there's no imminent risk of that crane collapsing."
London Ambulance Service said 12 people were injured.
A spokesman said: "We have treated five patients - four for minor injuries and one patient for a broken leg. Three of the patients were taken to St Thomas' Hospital and two - a man and a woman in their 50s - were taken to King's College Hospital.
"Seven patients were treated at the scene."
Casualties looked after at the scene were treated for shock and minor injuries which did not require them to be taken to hospital.
Pauline Cranmer from London Ambulance Service said: "There were a number of injuries that would potentially be consistent with being hit by debris. Our primary concern is about treating the injuries."
She said the two fatalities were pronounced dead at the scene by air ambulance crews.
A spokesman for King's College Hospital said the two patients - a man and woman - who were taken there from the scene in an ambulance had been discharged and left the hospital.
The helicopter took off at 7.35am from its current base at Redhill Aerodrome in Surrey.
Aerodrome chief executive Jon Horne said the aircraft was heading to Elstree to undertake a chartered flight.
He said: "It's a huge shock and tragedy. Our thoughts are with those people who have been killed and injured in this morning's terrible tragedy and with the family and friends of those involved."
The aerodrome, which has been on the site since the 1930s, experiences 43,000 movements - that is landings and take-offs - each year, including 17,000 helicopter movements.
Records for the helicopter thought to be involved in the crash - G-CRST - show that it was built in 1997 and has twin engines made by Pratt & Whitney of the USA.
It has been registered with leasing company Castle Air of Liskeard, Cornwall, since February 2011.
Speaking from the crash site, Julian Firth, an investigator with the Air Accidents Investigation Branch, said the wreckage will be taken to its site at Farnborough, Hampshire.
He said it will take "several months" to produce a full report into the incident.
Castle Air Charters, based in Liskeard, Cornwall, refused to comment on reports that the AgustaWestland helicopter is registered to the company.
A spokeswoman said they would be releasing a statement later today.
The company specialises in chartered helicopter flights across the county and many of its aircraft are also use in London.
Castle Air describes itself as the UK's "premier helicopter service" and has been operating since 1979.
Its helicopters are used to transport high profile personalities and it also specialises in aerial filming, with credits including 'Top Gear', 'Dragons Den' and 'Time Team'.
Castle Air's website states: "Nestled in the Cornish countryside you will find Castle Air's facility, arguably one of the best in the country.
"Inside you will find numerous helicopters mainly Agusta 109s owned by Castle Air, and a dedicated team of engineers in attendance."