Five British tourists who died when their helicopter burst into a fireball seconds after crashing in the Grand Canyon would have survived if it had used a ‘crash resistant fuel system’, a coroner has ruled.
Jonathan Udall, 31, and his 29-year-old wife Ellie died along with Rebecca Dobson, 26, her boyfriend Stuart Hill, 29, and his brother Jason Hill, 31, when their Airbus EC130 B4 crashed near the Colorado River in Arizona on February 10, 2018.
None of the five victims suffered any trauma following the initial impact, but they died of thermal injuries and smoke inhalation after the helicopter caught fire ‘within a matter of seconds’.
If there had not been a fire, ‘it was more probably than not that they would have survived’, a coroner said.
The aircraft was not required to be fitted with a Crash Resistant Fuel System (CFRS) – a fuel that delays or decreases the likelihood of a post-crash fire.
A sixth friend, 39-year-old Jennifer Dorricott, a solicitor, survived but suffered life-changing injuries in the crash.
Pilot Scott Booth, of the tour operator Papillon, also lived but had to undergo a double leg amputation after suffering catastrophic injuries.
West Sussex Senior Coroner Penelope Schofield penned a prevention of future deaths report on Monday.
She said the deaths could have been prevented while citing concerns there are ‘still aircraft in UK airspace without CRFS’ that pose a danger to the public.
Ellie Milward and her husband Jonathan Udall (pictured left on their wedding day) died in hospital after a helicopter crash that killed their friends Becky Dobson and Stuart Hill (right) in the Grand Canyon in 2018
Mr Udall and wife Ellie (both pictured) died of their injuries a fortnight later at the University Medical Centre Hospital in Las Vegas
Ms Dobson her boyfriend Mr Hill (both pictured above) who lost their lives after a strong tailwind knocked the Airbus EC130 B4 out of control, causing it to crash
Victim Jason Hill, 32, was a solicitor at Shoosmiths Solicitors and was about to become a partner
An inquest, which concluded on November 17, heard the helicopter was taking the group on a tour of the Grand Canyon before a strong tailwind caused it to crash at around 5.19pm.
An investigation carried out by the National Transportation Safety Board found the probable cause was ‘a loss of tail rotor effectiveness, the pilot’s subsequent loss of helicopter control, and collision with terrain during an approach to land in gusting tail wind conditions in an area of potential downdrafts and turbulence’.
Rebecca, Stuart and Jason died in the subsequent blaze while, Jonathan and his new wife Ellie died of their injuries a fortnight later at the University Medical Centre in Las Vegas.
None of the victims had suffered any trauma in the crash and medical evidence suggested ‘had there not been a fire it was more probably than not that they would have survived’, the report said.
The helicopters in Papillon’s fleet were not required to have the crash resistant fuel fitted, but the company has since retrofitted the aircraft with tanks that expand and seal upon impact instead of rupturing.
Crash-resistant fuel systems cost around $75,000 (£55,557) to fit.
Experts in the industry have known about the safety concern for 20 years but have not acted, the inquest heard.
Ms Schofield added that it cannot be said for sure if the type of terrain played a part in the penetration of the helicopter’s fuel tank, nor whether this terrain would have had a similar impact on a CRFS if it had been installed.
In her report, she highlighted eight areas of concern that need addressing in order to prevent similar deaths occurring in the future.
The coroner said current regulations in the UK for small and large helicopters ‘do not appear to be fit for purpose as they do not require retrofit to all previously certified rotorcraft’.
A survivor (lower right) walks away from the scene of a deadly tour helicopter crash along the jagged rocks of the Grand Canyon in Arizona
Pilot Scott Booth fractured his lower left leg, and passenger Jennifer Barham had a spinal fracture. They also suffered severe burns but survived
Becky Dobson’s mother, Jane, said: ‘Our Becky, we miss you so much. You were such an amazing daughter, sister and an incredible auntie’ (Becky pictured)
Sandra Hill, mother of the two sons (pictured above) who died, said: ‘We represent every parent’s nightmare, to cease to be a mum and dad and to have no-one to care for. We were so blessed with Jason and Stuart’
There is also ‘no mandatory requirement for the CRFS to be fitted on aircraft’.
Flying in helicopters without CRFS ‘adds significant risk in the event of a crash’ if the fuel system is penetrated, the coroner said.
Ms Schofield added the risk of a post-crash fire ‘remains very high with the likelihood of loss of life’.
Despite the associated risks, though, there ‘does not appear to be any way of knowing whether a particular aircraft has been fitted with CRFS’ for the public, who ‘cannot make an informed decision on whether to fly on that aircraft’.
The eight matters of concern highlighted by a coroner following the death of five British tourists in a Grand Canyon helicopter crash
Senior Coroner Penelope Schofield has highlighted eight areas of concern that need addressing in order to prevent similar deaths occurring in the future.
1) The current requirements for small rotorcraft and large rotorcraft do not appear to be fit for purpose as they do not require retrofit to all previously certified rotorcraft.
2) There is no mandatory requirement for the CRFS to be fitted on aircraft.
3) Flying in both small and large rotorcraft that have not been fitted with CRFS, either at initial build or as a retrofit, adds significant risk to the occupants in the event of a crash which disrupts the fuel system.
4) There is nothing in place to mandate the fitting of CRFS as a retrofit and so the risk of post-crash fire in non-CRFS fitted helicopters remains very high with the likelihood of loss of life.
5) For the public there does not appear to be any way of knowing whether a particular aircraft has been fitted with the CRFS as there is no central register which records this. The public cannot therefore make an informed decision as to whether to fly on that aircraft.
6) There are still aircraft flying in UK airspace without CRFS which poses a high risk to occupants of the aircraft.
7) These aircraft also pose a risk to the general public who could find themselves in close proximity to an aircraft that has crashed where a fire occurs.
8) Serious consideration needs to given to the issuing of an airworthiness directive to prevent further tragedies, similar to this case happening again.
There also remains aircraft flying in British airspace without crash resistant systems, posing a ‘high risk’ to both passengers and ‘the general public who could find themselves in close proximity’.
She said ‘serious consideration needs to be given’ on whether ‘an airworthiness directive’ should be issued ‘to prevent further tragedies’.
After the crash, Papillon placed new satellite phones with better coverage, trauma kits and a collapsible metal stretcher in unlocked metal containers in the canyon for emergencies.
It also added a wind sock near the accident site. The helicopter manufacturer, Airbus, updated its safety information for pilots.
The inquest heard the families read out statements paying tribute to the crash victims.
Becky Dobson’s mother, Jane, said: ‘Our Becky, we miss you so much. You were such an amazing daughter, sister and an incredible auntie. You had so many friends who loved everything about you.
‘Your raging smile could light up any room. Your lovely funny ways would always make us laugh. Our lives will never be the same but Becky you will always stay in our hearts forever.’
Sandra Hill, mother of the two sons who died, said: ‘We represent every parent’s nightmare, to cease to be a mum and dad and to have no-one to care for. We were so blessed with Jason and Stuart. They were very active from the start and never stopped a moment they were awake.
‘What’s it like now they’re gone? Well, after nearly four years, we still expect them to turn up. I still can’t go into a card shop, as if I see a card with the word “son” written on it I break down.
‘I haven’t been able to put up a Christmas tree since their deaths.’
Reverend David Hill, father of the two brothers, quoted a line from the Fast and Furious movie series in his tribute, explaining the two brothers’ relationship.
He said: ‘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.’
Speaking on behalf of Ellie’s parents, Terry and Maggie Milward, Sarah Stuart read their statement to the coroner, saying: ‘The loss to our family cannot be put into words.’
Reverend David Hill (pictured above), father of the two brothers, quoted a line from the Fast and Furious movie series in his tribute, explaining the two brother’s relationship
Philip and Marlene Udall’s statement said: ‘John was only 31 when tragedy struck on that fateful day in 2018.
‘We had recently celebrated the wedding, a truly momentous occasion when in 2018 our world came crashing down around us and we were left devastated at the loss of our son.
‘Jonathan was a kind and caring person. A young man we are so proud of the man he became. We held on to the memories we have of watching him grow into that young man. We will never again get to see his face, hug him, or to see him laugh. Thirty-one years of Johnathan was simply not enough.’
‘Our only comfort is they died together’: Tearful vicar pays tribute to his ‘incredibly close’ sons killed in Grand Canyon crash saying ‘a light has truly gone out’
Brothers Stuart and Jason Hill died in a helicopter crash in the Grand Canyon
The vicar father of two brothers killed in a helicopter crash in the Grand Canyon has paid tribute to his ‘wonderful boys’.
Stuart, 30, and Jason, 32, were ‘inseparable’, their father said
Reverent David Hill described his two sons, Stuart, 30, Jason, 32, as ‘inseparable’.
The pair had been saving for the trip with a group of friends for over a year, to celebrate Stuart’s 30th birthday on Friday.
Mr Hill, a chaplain, from Worthing, West Sussex, said: ‘The boys had been saving for over a year for this trip and they were really looking forward to it.
‘They and a group of friends had all flown out to celebrate Stuart’s birthday and it was part of the trip for them to all go on a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon.
‘We found out yesterday about the crash and me and their mother, Sandra, are truly devastated.
‘The boys were so close, they were born 22 months apart and were like twins. They were just inseparable.
‘Jason worked as a solicitor and Stuart worked as a car salesman, they both lived very successful lives, we were so proud of them.
‘We are so lucky to have had our boys for 30 years. We are so heartbroken.’