‘Erratic’ pilot killed 114 people in African crash, inquest told

Anthony Mitchell, one of three Britons killed
Anthony Mitchell, one of three Britons killed
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A pilot’s handling of his plane was “erratic” before it started to roll to the right and nose-dive into a Cameroon swamp, killing all passengers on board, an inquest has heard.

The unnamed pilot panicked when he realised the Boeing 737-800 he was in charge of was severely banking, Lincoln Coroner’s Court was told yesterday.

A total of 114 passengers were killed on the Kenya Airways flight, including Britons Anthony Mitchell, 39, 43-year-old Adam Stewart and his wife Sarah Stewart, 50, and 45-year-old Stuart Claisse.

The plane crashed at midnight, just three miles from the end of the Douala runway from which it had taken off for Nairobi, Kenya, on May 5, 2007.

At an inquest into the four deaths, families of victims heard in a report from the Cameroon authorities, read by Marcus Cook, an inspector at the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), that the pilot and co-pilot made a series of errors before the fatal crash.

Asked why he thought the pilot had been unable to control the plane once it started to roll, Mr Cook said: “Because he’s completely confused and unaware of the situation at the time. I would say he’s run out of ideas.”

The report said not long into the flight, which was delayed by nearly an hour because of heavy rainfall, the plane began to bank to the right but could have been easily corrected if the captain had steered left.

He had not successfully engaged autopilot, which resulted in the plane not actually being flown by anyone – man or machine – for a period of 55 seconds shortly after take-off.

When he did realise it was rolling, he tried to correct it but his “inputs were erratic, leading to excessive bank angle”, the report said.

The pilot, who was fully qualified and had 8,600 hours of flight experience, could have been suffering from spatial disorientation – where he did not think the plane was in fact rolling – despite a bank alarm sounding, and so tried “random inputs” to control it.

The aircraft eventually rolled so far to the right the nose dropped and it went into a “spiral dive”, Mr Cook said.

A series of possible causes were highlighted, one of which was that the pilots had not been monitoring their instruments and could have been spatially disorientated when excessive banking occurred, which resulted in the “erratic” control inputs.

It also said there was a “steep authority gradient” between the pair and so the first officer, who was 23 and had around 800 hours of flying experience, may not have been confident enough to speak out if he thought the plane was not being piloted properly.

The inquest was also told that post-mortem reports in all four cases recorded a cause of death as multiple injuries sustained from an aircraft crash.

The inquest continues.