Champion pilots killed in helicopter tragedy

TWO Britons have died in a helicopter crash in the south of France.

Martin Rutty and Simon Lichtenstein, who had both been pilots for some time, came down in a densely wooded valley.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: "We were notified of the death of two British nationals in a helicopter crash in Tourrettes-sur-Loup in southern France on December 9.

"Next of kin have been informed and consular assistance is being provided."

The two men were directors of helicopter company Fly-Q and had both represented the UK in world helicopter championships.

Mr Rutty, 50, from Little Hereford, and Mr Lichtenstein, 49, from Bircher, both in Herefordshire, were flying the Robinson R22 craft back to the UK after it been on display in an Italian showroom.

They had left the French town of Sospel near the Italian border at 9am on a bright and clear day and were heading towards the picturesque Provencal city of Avignon, but crashed shortly after take-off.

Eyewitness reports indicate that the aircraft suffered a catastrophic mechanical failure, which was exacerbated by strong headwinds.

Herefordshire-based Fly-Q, which the two men set up about three years ago, said in a statement: "It is with sadness that we announce that our dear friends and colleagues, Martin Rutty and Simon Lichtenstein, died yesterday...

"Martin and Simon have been long-term pilots, flying together since 1999. They were highly experienced pilots, having held four British championship titles and represented the British helicopter team in the past four world championships, most recently in Belarus.

"Presently, we do not know who was piloting the helicopter.

"Our thoughts and sympathies are with Martin's and Simon's families."

Both men leave behind wives and children and members of each family are due to travel to France in the coming days.

Authorities in Nice are investigating the crash.

According to the team's website, the pair won the British national championship in 1998, 1999, 2001 and 2002, and were the 2008 British helicopter championship club class title holders.

Mr Lichtenstein was a partner in an osteopathic clinic in Leominster, Herefordshire.

A female worker at Leominster Osteopathic Clinic said staff at the practice were "very distressed" hearing of the crash.

Friends of Mr Rutty described him as a "lovely man" with "boundless energy".

A male neighbour said: "We had this news yesterday and it is obviously getting out now. We were shocked, and his partner is distraught. We have three of his helicopters parked on our land so you can imagine how we are feeling here."

About 10 witnesses in the medieval village of Tourrettes-sur-Loup described seeing the aircraft suddenly lose control and hurtle into the trees below.

Nice's air transport police said the crash was of such high impact that the two men would have died instantly.

Their injuries were so severe that it has not yet been established which of the two bodies is which, Captain Jean-Pierre Labourdenne said.

Post-mortem examinations were carried out yesterday, which found that both died in the accident, but further DNA analysis must be carried out before each body is identified.

"The helicopter crashed into the trees with such force that there's no doubt the men would have died straight away," said Capt Labourdenne.

"More than 100 people helped search for them afterwards, including firefighters, police and mountain rescue and air transport officers.

"Two helicopters were involved in the search, which took almost an hour."

The investigation into the crash is expected to take several months.

Mr Rutty and Mr Lichtenstein were killed in what was the second fatal helicopter crash in the Alpes-Maritimes region this week. Three French people died in the first incident near Sospel on Tuesday.

The single-engined R22 helicopters, made by the California-based Robinson company, first got airworthiness approval in 1979 – when the price tag was just $40,000.

By November 2007, having made steady refinements over the years, the firm had sold 8,000 R22s, making it the world's best-selling civil helicopter.