Witnesses have told an inquest that they watched in horror as a helicopter somersaulted and plunged to the ground in North Yorkshire before they battled through the wreckage to try and save the pilot and his wife.
Wealthy businessman Paul Spencer, 43, who was flying the aircraft, and his wife Linda, 59, who was the only passenger, were killed when they crashed in Rudding Park luxury resort in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, in January 2008.
Serious flaws later emerged in Mr Spencer’s training, which was not sufficient to grant him a licence, the inquest in Harrogate heard today.
Mr Spencer had picked up his new Gazelle aircraft from Essex on the day he died and had flown back to the park, where the couple who lived in Bailiff Bridge owned a lodge, North Yorkshire Coroner Rob Turnbull said.
The entrepreneur, who had held his helicopter licence for just six weeks, took Mrs Spencer on a flight over nearby Knaresborough but lost control as they returned to the resort.
Witnesses told the inquest at the Cedar Court Hotel in Harrogate that they watched the low-flying chopper pitch and tilt on to its end before plunging below the treeline.
Bernard Reed, a former neighbour of the Spencers at Rudding Park, spotted the helicopter floundering and falling.
He said: “He went down, we heard a thud... just a big thud and that was it.
“He was too low and maybe a gust of wind took him into the top of the trees.”
Mr Reed said he drove across the park to the scene, a wooded area near the golf course, where another man was already trying to clear branches and debris so he could reach the wreckage.
“The helicopter was lying on its side,” he said. “The engine was about two metres away from where I was standing. It was still smoking.
“All I could smell was aviation fuel.
“I managed to get the door undone but I couldn’t see anybody inside because it was so nose-down the seats had come forward.
“I checked Linda Spencer first and I couldn’t find a pulse.
“Paul Spencer’s lips were moving, but only for a split second, and that was it. There was nothing I could do.”
The emergency services arrived soon after, he added.
A post-mortem revealed that Mrs Spencer died immediately of multiple injuries. Mr Spencer may have survived for “a few breaths” after the crash but his multiple injuries were also so serious he could not have survived, a pathologist concluded.
Mr Reed said there were “really high gusts of wind” on the afternoon of the crash.
Witness Scott Woodford, who lived in Knaresborough and was taking his daughter and step daughter to a horse riding school nearby, said he thought Mr Spencer was performing some sort of stunt before realising he was actually about to crash.
“I saw the cockpit drop, the tail go up into the air and it turned over,” he recalled. “It was quite unusual. At that point I knew there was something wrong.
“At first I thought they were trying to do some sort of landing manoeuvre or stunt and then realised they were in trouble and it was going to crash.
“It went below the treeline and out of site,” said Mr Woodford, adding that he then called 999.
Air accident investigators later highlighted “several areas of concern”, Mr Turnbull told the jury at the four-day inquest.
“They reviewed Mr Spencer’s logbook... and that highlighted some concerns,” the coroner said.
The fact Mr Spencer got his licence after just ten days of training was “not impossible” but “highly unusual”, according to investigators.
Mr Turnbull added: “The conclusion of the experts in this case is that the cause of the crash is adverse weather conditions and the fact that the pilot had not received sufficient training to qualify for his licence.”
The Civil Aviation Authority found that “the majority of flights” recorded as proof of training “did not occur”, the jury heard.