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Cley Helicopter Crash

The report into the USAF helicopter which crashed on Cley marshes on the evening of 7 January has just been published – the first I knew of it was when the Press Association phoned me to ask for my comments. As I was in Edinburgh at the time my comments were rather limited. The report, now that I have had a chance to read it, concludes, after an exhaustive investigation, that the aircraft crashed as a result of multiple bird strikes as it flew into a flock of geese. This finding echoes the gut reaction of most people in Cley that a bird-strike was indeed the most probable cause, though I for one derive no satisfaction from being proved right.

The actual events of that fateful night are detailed in the report. The two helicopters had taken off from Lakenheath at 17.33 and flown direct to Cley where they were to do an orbit over the Glaven Valley for simulated ‘threat assessment’ before flying to the south of the village to a presumed pick-up point on Salthouse marshes to rescue a supposedly downed F-16 pilot. All flying in the training area is supposed to be below 500 feet. In the event the brisk southwesterly wind pushed them slightly further to the north where, to avoid infringing noise abatement regulations over the built-up area and to avoid the Blakeney Point no-fly zone, they executed their orbits over the Freshes before heading off eastwards to Salthouse on a path that now ran along the northern edge of the Cley Reserve. The two aircraft flew about a third of a mile apart and at an altitude of 110 feet. The noise of the lead aircraft startled a flock of geese which took off and flew up into the path of the second craft where three or four of them collided with the helicopter, severely injuring three of the crew and damaging part of the control system. The helicopter rolled over on to its left side causing it to lose lift and three seconds later it hit the ground at 110 knots and disintegrated with wreckage strewn along a line 180 feet long. The time was 18.05, barely half an hour after takeoff. The crew would have died instantly, as would the geese.

There could be no doubt about the verdict given that there was a trail of goose feathers, and presumably other goose-parts, in amongst the wreckage and on the crew’s clothing. Clearly being able to survive collision with a bird weighing up to 5kg at a speed of around 140mph is well beyond the design parameters of a military search and rescue helicopter. The flight planning was in accordance with the UK Military Low Flying Handbook which includes a Bird Avoidance Geographical Information Service, updated monthly, to provide guidance. The January 2014 UK bird activity maps issued by the MoD indicated low bird activity over Cley marshes, amazingly enough, and, though they had counted 400 geese on the 6 January, the NWT bird count for the 7 January apparently recorded 0 geese. Clearly these fateful figures were wrong but that is not the issue.

The question that needs seriously to be addressed is just why the Blakeney Point reserve has a ban on over-flying (less than 500 feet) and Cley does not, despite the Cley marshes being arguably as important a location for migratory birds. Perhaps the NWT has less clout than the NT? Clearly the MoD system of assessing and reporting risk is woefully inadequate, like much else the MoD does, and needs a radical rethink. Meanwhile, the ‘no-fly’ zone should be extended to include the NWT reserve as a matter of urgency. This matter cannot be allowed to rest here: anyone wishing to take up cudgels on their own should note that this area is designated NRR5 (Night Rotary Region 5) in the UK Military Low Flying Handbook. Cley Parish Council has long said that low flying aircraft and bird reserves do not, and should not, mix so we will definitely be making representations to this end.

The report was at pains to show that the USAF went by the book when conducting this exercise; the only lesson that can be drawn from that is that the book itself is wrong. The Americans have estimated that the crash cost their government $40,302,061. The cost to the dead aircrew and their families is incalculable. It must not happen again.

Richard Kelham

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