Tragic helicopter crash kills five including honeymoon couple over Grand Canyon
Five people died – including a honeymoon couple – when their helicopter crashed into the Grand Canyon in “a violent gust of wind".
Brothers Stuart Hill, 30, and Jason Hill, 32, and Stuart’s girlfriend Becky Dobson, 27, died in the horror crash in February 2018 together with Eleanor, 29 and Jonathan Udall, 32, who had been on honeymoon in Las Vegas.
Crawley Coroner’s Court in West Sussex heard Stuart, Jason and Becky were all pronounced dead at the scene, while Eleanor and Jonathan were pulled out alive but later succumbed to their injuries.
After hitting the ground the helicopter became a fireball and caused serious burns to the victims, who had all been on a tour of the National Park. The coroner ruled the burns caused their deaths.
The helicopter did not have a 'crash resistant fuel system' but a coroner said she could not determine whether this would have saved the group – as the terrain was "rugged" with boulders that could have penetrated the fuel tank.
The court heard all five were alive immediately after the crash but while Stuart, Jason and Becky were pronounced dead at the scene, Eleanor and Jonathan were able to escape the wreckage.
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Becky, Stuart, Eleanor and Jonathan were all from Worthing, West Sussex, while Jason was living in Milton Keynes at the time.
During a rescue mission that took hours because of the difficult terrain, Eleanor was taken away from her husband as rescuers feared he may be dying.
She heard his screams and asked an Australian airman helping rescue her to tell Jon she loved him.
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It took six hours for the survivors to be airlifted out of the Canyon by Blackhawk helicopters, the inquest heard.
This was because the location was so remote and rescuers had difficulties using satellite phones as the batteries had gone dead.
The couple, who both worked for Yorkshire Building Society, succumbed to their injuries and died in hospital around two weeks later.
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The group were all friends and car salesman Stuart, solicitor Jason and veterinary nurse Becky had been on holiday to celebrate Stuart’s 30th birthday.
Jason's girlfriend Jennifer Dorricott survived the crash but suffered life-changing injuries.
Pilot Scott Booth also survived but had both his legs amputated.
Several members of the Australian Airforce and a nurse attended the scene as they had been on other tours when the crash happened.
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Their statements describing the horrifying crash were handed to the coroner and “taken as read” and not read out in court, which was filled with friends and family of the victims.
In a statement, Leading Aircraftman Joel Trembath said about ten minutes after they landed from their tour he saw “black smoke” and ran over with some of his colleagues to help.
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He said Jonathan and Eleanor were taken to a ravine and were both sitting on a rock “in shock”, but were asking what had happened.
Eleanor had “singed hair and facial burns” and Jon had “significant burns all over his body”, he told the inquest, and it took emergency services around two hours to arrive.
As the temperature began to drop, Eleanor was taken back towards the crash site on a stretcher as it was too dangerous to airlift them from the ravine – but Jon was too large and would need to stay.
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Mr Trembath said: “He was slipping in and out of consciousness and his breathing was erratic.
“After some time, I was ushered away from Jon and sent back up to the rest of the group at the crash site, because it was not looking like Jon would last.”
Sergeant Daniel Johnson said in a statement Eleanor heard Jon screaming and asked him to tell him she loved him.
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Mr Johnson said: “He acknowledged the message but was unable to communicate one back to her.”
Another airman, Wei-Lun Kao, said in a statement that by the evening, the rescuers were all “half naked” and sharing clothing as they had given their own clothing to the victims.
He said a trunk of medical supplies at a nearby picnic area had to be smashed open with a fire extinguisher as staff from operator Papillon did not know the combination for the lock.
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The helpers had to be airlifted out before the rescue mission was completed due to fears they would contract hypothermia.
Mark Ferris, from the Air Accidents Investigations Branch, said the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in the US investigated the crash.
Their report found there were wind speeds of around 19 knots, just over 21mph, on the day of the crash.
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The NTSB concluded tailwinds, potential downdrafts and turbulence were the probable cause of the loss of control of the aircraft.
The coroner concluded all five victims died as a result of an accident and the helicopter crashed after the pilot lost control as a result of "a loss of tail rotor effectiveness" caused by "gusty tail wind conditions".
Senior coroner Penelope Schofield said: "The pilot encountered what he described as a violent gust of wind.
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"This aircraft crashed in rugged terrain where there were at least four boulders, two of which were capable of penetrating the fuel system."
Paying tribute to her daughter, Becky's mum Jane said: "Our beautiful Becky, we miss you so much, you were such an amazing daughter.
"Your radiant smile would light up every room. Your lovely funny ways would always make us laugh.
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"Our lives will never be the same, but Becky you will always stay with us in your hearts forever."
Stuart and Jason's mother Sandra said: "We represent every parent’s nightmare because suddenly we cease to be mum and dad. Because there is nobody left for us to care for.
"Jason went to university to study law and then committed himself to a career he was so passionate about. He qualified and became an associate solicitor and at the time of this tragedy had just received the news he was to become the youngest ever partner at that firm. He never got to realise that.
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"Stuart was more practical and chose to broaden his horizons by travelling to New Zealand for 14 months. Our boys made us proud and as they settled in adulthood we still did many things together. I cannot go into a card shop and pass any cards with the word son on it without coming out in a panic, and I haven't been able to put up a Christmas tree.
"We have been left living in another world where we will never be truly happy again. Our sons should have lived long lives."
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Their father Reverend David Hill quoted a line from the Fast and Furious movie series to explain the brother's relationship, telling the court: "No matter where you are, whether it's a quarter-mile away or halfway across the world, you'll always be with me and you'll always be my brother."
He added: "They were inseparable and they are today."
Ellie's parents Maggie and Terry Milward said: "Ellie was a wonderful, loyal and hardworking colleague, a caring friend and godmother, charity worker and supporter, devoted wife, sister and daughter.
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"The loss to our family cannot be put into words. We take comfort from the bravery and selflessness of those who went to aid in the canyon and all the hospital staff who did all they could to save our darling girl and support us through those desperate days."
Jonathan's parents Philip and Marlene Udall said: "Jonathan was a compassionate, kind and caring person, a young man with his whole life ahead of him.
"We hold on tightly to the precious memories we have of watching Jonathan develop into this amazing young man. To now face every day without him in our lives is unbearable knowing we will never again see Jon's smiling face, to hug him, to never again hear his wonderful laugh.
"Losing Jonathan has left a huge void. 31 years of Jonathan was simply not enough."
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Ms Schofield said she would pen a Preventing Future Deaths Report to the Civil Aviation Authority recommending crash resistant fuel systems be made mandatory and retro-fitted to all helicopters flying in UK airspace.
She said to the families: "I appreciate your childrens' death happened outside of the UK's jurisdiction but I'm aware there are aircraft flying in the UK airspace which similarly do not have crash resistant fuel systems in place.
"I do have real concern about the risk to the passengers and also to the risk to people on the ground."
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