The Clutha inquiry closed on Monday, having heard no evidence for 32 days from a single eyewitness to the bizarre helicopter crash that killed 10 people and injured 31 others nearly six years ago. Sheriff Principal Craig Turnbull has heard evidence, mainly from engineers, pilots and expert witnesses, since the opening of the inquiry at Hampden stadium in April.
The sheriff has now started his own deliberations on the cause of the crash and any lessons to be learned. He gave the Crown Office four weeks to lodge an explanation for the lengthy delay to the start of the inquiry, which was promised several times since the tragic events of 29 November 2013. His intervention followed protests by representatives of the bereaved. It was that wintry Friday night when the Airbus EC135, registration G-SPAO, had crashed into the roof of the Clutha bar, where patrons were enjoying a regular live music event. At 10.22pm, the pub was busy. When part of the roof collapsed, trapping several, it sparked a rush of emergency services workers and passers-by to help clear debris and pull out victims and survivors.
In 2015, an Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) inquiry reported less than two years later that the Police Scotland helicopter had experienced several yellow caution and red warning lights during the latter stages of a routine flight. The helicopter had no voice-recorder or 'black box' that would have told investigators exactly what had happened at each stage of that ill-fated flight. Instead, they had to piece together partial evidence from those components which contained some form of installed memory. They matched that data with information from radar signals received from the helicopter at various stages as it travelled between Glasgow, the Lothians and North Lanarkshire.
Each warning light had been acknowledged by the pilot Captain David Traill. Rather than landing immediately, as the inquiry was told he should have done, or at least heading back to base, he and his police observer colleagues, PC Kirsty Nelis and PC Tony Collins, had decided to continue with three additional routine surveillance tasks in North Lanarkshire.
The inquiry heard that PC Collins' handwritten notes from those three jobs – over Bothwell, Uddingston and Bargeddie – had been recovered intact from the crash sites, the most recent of them completed at 10.15pm, just seven minutes before the fatal crash. PC Collins, one of the force's most experienced observers, had calmly completed a standard report on each observation. The warning lights would have been accompanied by a loud warning 'gong'. Yet neither Captain Traill nor the police observers raised any alarm.
During the inquiry, several counsel suggested that various known faults in the EC135 aircraft operated by Bond – now Babcock Mission Critical Services – may have led pilots to dismiss warnings. These included faulty fuel level probes and problems with water contamination. As the aircraft finally headed west over Glasgow towards its base next to the SEC Centre on Clydeside, its two engines failed, or 'flamed out', within 32 seconds of each other. Investigators found that Captain Traill attempted to 'autorotate' the EC135, which would have brought it down to a height where it might be landed with minimal damage. But it crashed directly into the single-storey roof of the Clutha, having passed over the higher Briggait building next door.
When the AAIB began its probe, it discovered that the main fuel tank contained 76kg of fuel – probably enough to have returned to base and made a safe landing. But the switching off of the transfer pumps – which moved fuel from that tank to the two adjacent tanks that fed the engines – meant that nothing was getting through. The AAIB concluded that pilot error resulted in the crash, rather than any technical explanation.
That conclusion was challenged in part by Bond's former chief pilot during evidence last month. Captain Andrew Rooney said that Captain Traill may have used his discretion to ignore the low fuel warnings. 'There are circumstances where the indications you are getting may not be correct – bulbs, wiring problems, for example. There are certain circumstances where you need pilot discretion,' Captain Rooney added. 'My experience is that in real life the majority of the (warning) captions I have had have been failures of the warning system rather than genuine emergencies... Prior to the accident, there was potential to question whether a warning might be a spurious caption and continue. It is up to the pilot to decide the correct course of action. When it (a warning light) flickers on and off, you might think it was spurious.'
Captain Rooney, now working for a private operator in Dubai, flew the Police Scotland aircraft for several years prior to the accident and was at the controls when it was delivered to Glasgow for the first time in 2006. He amassed more than 2,000 hours piloting Eurocopter EC135 aircraft during his period with Bond.
This week, Roddy Dunlop QC, representing Airbus, urged Sheriff Turnbull to back the AAIB conclusion on pilot error. 'The evidence points nowhere else but pilot error and no party has suggested otherwise,' said Mr Dunlop. 'It is hard to understand why the transfer pumps were switched off in the first place. We know the red warning lights came on and were acknowledged (by the pilot) which renders the failure to land as inexplicable,' he added.
Gordon Jackson QC, acting for the family of the late Gary Arthur, said that he disagreed with the portrayal by Airbus counsel of Captain Rooney as a 'remarkable outlier'. Captain Rooney had worked closely with Captain Trail for a considerable period of time and according to Mr Jackson was arguably more likely to act as an independent witness because he no longer worked for the helicopter operator. Mr Jackson suggested that the Crown Office apologise for the time it had taken to get the FAI underway. 'This has caused families additional distress and upset. I would ask the Crown why it has taken so much time. Of course it is complex, but it is not as complex as first thought,' he added.
Donald Findlay QC, acting for Mary Kavanagh, whose partner Robert Jenkins died inside the Clutha, echoed the criticism: 'I am very concerned by the delay and I see the impact on the people I represent. There is a sense that those who died have not featured enough in this inquiry'.
Sheriff Turnbull paid tribute to the 'admirable dignity' of grieving relatives who had attended the inquiry. He ordered a Crown explanation of its timing to be presented within four weeks and repeated an earlier promise to reach his own conclusions as soon as possible.
Captain Traill, 51, and police observers Tony Collins, 43, and Kirsty Nelis, 36, died in the cockpit. The Clutha customers who died were Gary Arthur, 48; Joe Cusker, 59; Colin Gibson, 33; Robert Jenkins, 61; John McGarrigle, 57; Samuel McGhee, 56; and Mark O'Prey, 44.