Co-pilot of RAF helicopter in fatal crash during ‘jolly’ avoids jail

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The co-pilot of an RAF helicopter that crashed in North Yorkshire during a “jolly” – killing the pilot and two others – yesterday avoided jail.

Ex-Flight Lieutenant Robert Hamilton, 29, who was left paraplegic by the incident, was on board the £20m Puma when it crashed in a field at Catterick Garrison on August 8, 2007.

The pilot, Fl Lt David Sale, 28, from Norton, near Stockton, Teesside, died along with crewman Sergeant Phillip Burfoot, 27, of Cardiff, and 17-year-old Army recruit Private Sean Tait, of Glasgow.

At an earlier court martial held in Bulford, Wiltshire, Hamilton pleaded guilty to neglect in flying likely to cause loss of life or bodily injury.

Vice Judge Advocate General Michael Hunter imposed a sentence of 16 months’ imprisonment, suspended for two years.

During yesterday’s hearing the judge and five-man RAF panel heard extracts from a cockpit voice recording, during which Johnny Cash could be heard singing Ring of Fire over the Puma’s speaker system.

The crew could also be heard laughing and joking minutes before the crash as an onboard computer said “low height” on a number of occasions.

As the helicopter flew low over the ground scaring troops, people onboard could be heard making machine-gun noises.

Michael Powers QC, prosecuting, told the court martial that it reflected “totally unprofessional behaviour” from the crew.

“During that period the common sense, professionalism and self awareness seems to have broken down,” he said.

Dr Powers quoted from an expert who had examined the audio transcripts of the flight.

“It can only be described as 40 seconds of complete and sudden madness. They show no regard of their own mortality.”

Dr Powers added: “The Crown say it was a lot more than a jolly, unfortunately a fatal one.”

It was not the Crown’s case that Hamilton caused the accident but by his guilty plea he was accepting he was negligent.

The charge against him stated he failed to ensure the mission was executed in a manner which minimised the risks to the aircraft, its occupants or the general public over whom the aircraft was flown.

It added that he also failed to advise the aircraft commander accordingly and if necessary to offer specific guidance to avoid hazardous situations.

The judge told Hamilton he could have expected a prison sentence in view of the tragic outcome of the incident.

“However, in the exceptional circumstances of this case, namely that you have been rendered paraplegic by the incident and you were not directly responsible, we feel able to suspend that sentence for two years,” he said.

Hamilton now works for a company involved in the aircraft industry.

Ian Lawrie QC, defending, said the married father-of-one had been left with serious medical problems after breaking his back in the crash and now uses a wheelchair.

“There is nothing he can say via me to excuse these failings,” he said.

“I can say to the court that the progress of time has done nothing to diminish the remorse he feels.”