Tensions simmered behind the scenes at Bond Helicopters in the run-up to the fatal crash that killed a Police Scotland aircraft crew and seven customers of the Clutha bar in November 2013, the fatal accident inquiry has heard.
Paul Booth, a qualified helicopter engineer, seems to have been near the end of his tether as he composed a routine update email to colleagues at Bond's Glasgow Heliport base, copied to four managers at company HQ in Staverton, Gloucestershire. It was 3.57am on Thursday 28 November – the day before the crash. His shift had finished at 3.30am.
'I am extremely concerned at the way we are having to carry out in-depth maintenance at Glasgow at the moment. It is an accident waiting to happen!!' Mr Booth concluded his handover, which had included a litany of faults covering several aircraft under his supervision, including the ill-fated Police Scotland helicopter. Mr Booth, now 60 and working for another helicopter company at Prestwick, told the inquiry: 'It was at the end of a very busy shift, and I just felt that we were getting to a point where something was potentially going to go wrong. I never for a moment thought that might be an air accident. I wanted my management to know we were extremely busy with a lot of maintenance'.
Mr Booth told Gordon Jackson QC, representing the family of victim Gary Arthur, that he heard nothing back from Bond managers at Staverton. 'It did surprise me. I was expecting a phone call,' he added. He said that he and his colleagues were working very busy shifts, 'probably above and beyond' their normal duties. At times he would be 'absolutely shattered' by the end of a shift.
His email was opened a few hours later by Anthony Dowsing, then a line maintenance co-ordinator at Staverton, who said that he felt it was 'unprofessional'. Mr Dowsing printed off the memo and handed it to his boss, Mr Wayne D'Andilly. He told the inquiry that he expected Mr D'Andilly to take up the issue with Mr Booth. 'I knew Paul Booth. I had worked with him for years. I didn't feel it was very professional. There were no concerns from my point of view about how maintenance was being carried out at the time.' He said that Bond's engineering operation in Glasgow had greater autonomy than most of the other centres for which he was responsible around the United Kingdom.
The brief insight into behind-the-scenes tensions to be detected within the normally banal corporate environment came as the inquiry, before Sheriff Principal Craig Turnbull, continues to discover more about what was happening before the ill-fated flight. At the heart of the probe is the 2015 Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) report, which pinpointed pilot error as the cause of the accident. Its evidence is based largely on a reconstruction of the aircraft's final flight, which began at 8.44pm on take-off from Glasgow, and ended with the crash into the roof of the Clutha at 10.22pm that Friday autumn evening.
The AAIB report concluded that Captain David Traill and police observers PC Kirsty Nelis and PC Tony Collins must have seen and heard no fewer than five caution or warning alerts about low fuel, which probably began just as they began a new surveillance task near Bothwell, Lanarkshire. Despite the flashing lights and gong sounds which AAIB witnesses have described to the inquiry, the crew continued their surveillance tour over Uddingston and Bargeddie before starting back towards Glasgow. They made no comment to air traffic control about any problems. Neither police observer contacted force control, as they could have done separately.
Both fuel pumps, which supplied two supply tanks from the main tank, were switched off during the flight. When the first engine failed, the period before the second 'flamed out' was just 32 seconds, and not the three to four minutes stated in an aircraft handbook. Almost immediately, Captain Traill was thrust into attempting an 'autorotation' procedure that failed to prevent the crash.
Police inspector Nick Whyte, then duty sergeant at Glasgow Heliport, had flown the Police Scotland helicopter with fatal crash pilot Captain David Traill many times, most recently just seven days before the fatal crash. He said that police observers Nelis and Collins could have responded in several ways to the warnings. Pilots and observers are schooled regularly in 'crew resource management', a system whereby any member is empowered to speak out about safety concerns. The front seat observer, in this case PC Nelis, would be expected to assist the pilot by calling out any alerts. Both observers would be able to ask the pilot for reassurance about the aircraft's fuel.
Asked by Donald Findlay QC, representing the partner of one of the crash victims, how he would have responded, Inspector Whyte said that, even if the pilot had said things were okay, he would have insisted: 'You need to land'. Asked to use his experience to 'take us there, what is going on?' by Mr Findlay, Inspector Whyte replied: 'It does not make sense that the flight would continue for the length of time that it did, given the evidence we have over the red warnings. It does not make sense that those individuals, that I knew, continued with that flight. The only theory that I can present is that they actually were not presented with the warnings that we saw'.
The police witness agreed with Mr Findlay that it would be 'inexplicable' for everyone on board to ignore fuel warnings. Asked how the two observers might have responded if the pilot had suggested that they should not worry, Inspector Whyte replied: 'They would not have accepted that'.
Ms Emma Toner, representing the manufacturers Airbus, pointed out that the information about the fuel warnings and subsequent loss of control, had been tracked by AAIB investigators from the memory chips within various components. Inspector Whyte agreed that his possible alternative scenario was 'speculation'.
The inspector recalled several issues with faulty fuel sensors during 2011, 2012 and 2013 involving Bond's EC135 helicopters based at Glasgow, including the ill-fated Police Scotland aircraft. 'On one particular occasion in 2012 there had been an issue with low fuel warning lights and this took two days to rectify. During that rectification a number of electronic parts had to be replaced', he added.
Several witnesses have confirmed that the manufacturers Airbus were aware of problems with fuel sensors used within the EC135 fleet and that Bond had been one of the operators to be reporting faults and sending sensors back for testing.
Victims of the crash included bar customers Gary Arthur, 48; Joe Cusker, 59; Colin Gibson, 33; Robert Jenkins, 61; John McGarrigle, 57; Samuel McGhee, 56; and Mark O'Prey, 44. The helicopter crew included pilot David Traill, 51, and police officers PC Tony Collins, 43, and PC Kirsty Nelis, 36.
The inquiry continues.
Maurice Smith will be attending and reporting on the Clutha FAI in SR