A HELICOPTER pilot who died today in a crash in central London that claimed the life of one other person and injured several others has been named by sources as Pete Barnes, a former flyer with the Yorkshire Air Ambulance service.
Mr Barnes, who also piloted helicopters in action scenes in movies Die Another Day, Tomb Raider II and Saving Private Ryan, worked for flight operator RotorMotion. Yorkshire Post feature on Pete Barnes from 2006
The helicopter spun out of control and crash-landed near Vauxhall station after the pilot attempted to divert the aircraft to a helipad due to bad weather.
The AgustaWestland 109 Power clipped a crane on top of one of Europe’s tallest residential towers, falling from the sky before exploding into flames and crashing into the streets below.
Captain Philip Amadeus, managing director of RotorMotion, an executive helicopter charter business, said the aircraft was on a commercial flight from Redhill, in Surrey, to Elstree.
He said: “Our main priority now is for the family of the pilot and we extend our greatest sympathy to the friends and relatives of those who have died and been injured.”
Addressing a press conference near the scene of the incident, Commander Neil Basu, of the Metropolitan Police, said: “It was something of a miracle that this was not many, many times worse.”
It is understood the eight-seater aircraft was owned by Cornwall-based Castle Air but was leased to RotorMotion, which is based at Redhill Aerodrome.
Staff at Redhill Aerodrome confirmed it left the site at 7.35am amid low cloud cover and poor visibility, while the owner of London Heliport said he requested to land at one of its sites via Heathrow air traffic control.
But the Heliport never established contact with the pilot and shortly before 8am the aircraft crashed into the crane on top of The Tower in the St George Wharf development on the River Thames.
Witnesses described hearing a loud explosion as debris scattered across the sky and the helicopter plummeted to the ground, crashing near Wandsworth Road.
Video footage and photos flooded on to social media sites revealing chaotic scenes, with roads blocked off, burning wreckage and buildings damaged by flames.
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.
“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.”
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.
Six fire engines, four fire rescue units, a number of other specialist vehicles and 88 firefighters attended the scene of the crash, a few hundred yards from MI6 and the future American embassy site.
Four fire engines and two fire rescue units also attended reports of a crane in a precarious position.
The brigade was called at 8am and 57 firefighters and officers were involved.
A photograph taken by the London Fire Brigade shows the damage caused to a 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.
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.
“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 confirmed 12 people were injured in the incident.
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.
“There were a number of injuries that would potentially be consistent with being hit by debris. Our primary concern is about treating the injuries.”
The police force is working with other agencies including the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) and the Civilian Aviation Authority (CAA).
RotorMotion’s website has pictures of famous passengers including David Cameron, the Dalai Lama, Simon Cowell and Cheryl Cole.
The business has been operating for 15 years and describes itself as a “boutique helicopter charter business”.
On its website, RotorMotion says: “Our helicopters have twin turbine engines and are certified to fly at night, over water and in cloud. Relax in the knowledge that both pilot and machine are fully instrument qualified to fly in poor weather conditions.”
Mr Barnes had around 9,000 hours of flying time, including 3,500 hours on the type of craft involved in the incident.
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 added.
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.
Stephen Swan, who lives in St George Wharf, said when he heard the collision 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?’.”
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe said 60 officers were at the scene and added: “Obviously for the families involved it is a pretty awful event.”
It is understood that there were lights on top of the crane, which were checked twice a day and were checked yesterday.
The Civil Aviation Authority said helicopter regulations for flying over London included “requirements for lighting on tall structures”.
The authority said: “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.”
There had been confusion over whether the lights were functioning correctly, but it looks increasingly likely that they were obscured by the thick mist shrouding the tower.
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.”
Five people have been treated at hospitals in London - four for minor injuries and one 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.
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.
Redhill Aerodrome chief executive Jon Horne said the aircraft was heading to Elstree for 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 - landings and take-offs - each year, including 17,000 helicopter movements.
Speaking from the crash scene, 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.
The owner of London Heliport, Aldersgate Investments, which is owned by the billionaire Reuben Brothers, confirmed the pilot requested to land at one of its sites.