In memory of STEVE HARISS & NICK HARPER update September 28th 2014
On the morning of September 7th 1983 4 very happy people departed from Birmingham(EGBB) in a Cessna 182 for Killkenny (EIKL) in Southern Ireland, two hours later they would be all be dead on Ireland’s fourth highest mountain.
Routing overhead Strumble and then directly to Kilkenny, once they crossed the Irish coast they had just one obstacle to clear, Mount Leinster which is 2409 feet high but sadly the mountain claimed another aircraft that day.
At 9.15 on that fateful morning they made their last ever radio call to Shannon,
” Descending from 6000 feet to 3000 feet”
12 hours later the wreckage was found just 30 feet from the summit of the mountain with the bodies alongside.
30 years later on September 7th (I wrote this on September 7th 2013) as I write this I still feel that horrible emotion of wretched sadness and the same grief when the mortuary attendant pulled back the sheets and I said, ” Yes that’s Nick” and “yes that’s Steve”. In that 28 years I have watched my own son grow up and I am now able to fully realise the pain that those two families must have felt over the loss of both of their boys.
On the evening of September 7th Nick’s father phoned me in tears saying ” Why have I just read the paper to find out my son has been killed in an aircraft accident”? Unfortunately the flying school at Wellesbourne, from where the aircraft had been hired, had released the names of the pilots before the families were informed.
Nick & Steve were buried together in the nearby church at Elmdon, the village that Birmingham airport originally took its name from in 1939, on their graves it simply says, They Lived and Died Flying.
Nick & Steve most certainly lived for flying, Nick was my receptionist and right hand man at The Warwickshire Aero Club were I worked part time as CFI. I had just finished Steve’s instructor rating course and both of them were looking forward to joining me at my new flying school at Wellesbourne which we opened a few months later and I could not have wished for two finer people to work with.
For Steve’s 21st Birthday his mother had bought him a flight with me through the air charter and executive jet company I was the chief pilot of at the time on an Aztec from Birmingham to Le Touquet. I had done a lot of training with Steve, both his IMC rating and his instructor course and he was pretty sharp, in fact they both were and both were destined to become very competent professional pilots. Both pilots certainly shone out as stars at the flying school (which was fatally troubled by a bitter feud between the two directors).
On the day we went to Le Touquet I was impressed when Steve immediately challenged me on why I hadn’t set the regional QNH when I left Birmingham CTZ, he didn’t miss a trick, its funny but that’s the only thing I can now remember about that day out that saw us having lunch together in the French town.
This accident happened to the last pair of pilots I would have ever expected it to have happened to, they were careful, competent and well trained.
I have never really been able to fully understand the accident, although the full facts are probably only known by a few people as this was not an ordinary ‘club flight’. I, in fact had no knowledge of the flight at all until I was told of the accident as the boys had booked the aircraft through a flying school at Wellesbourne. I do need to mention these facts though because there is a valuable lesson to be drawn from this awful tragedy.
The rear seat passengers, who were unknown to Steve and Nick, approached the company I flew for via a travel agent enquiring about chartering an aircraft to Kilkenny on September 7th, after being given a price they never accepted the flight. The assistant in that travel agent was learning to fly at the Warwickshire Aero Club and was instantly dismissed on the day of the accident, I will leave you to draw your own conclusions.
Both of the boys had been flying together and building up hours, Nick to do his instructor rating and Steve to build up hours towards a CPL. They had been to a variety of destinations and I can remember having a complaint from the receptionist at Cardiff airport about their manner at the desk one day which I thought was very funny because as far as I was concerned they could do no wrong and promptly told her so and put the phone down! Having known this receptionist I am very sure in fact it was her that was very rude and Nick didn’t take shit from anyone!
This flight was different however, they had entered the world of professional flying through the back door, this time they had to get to destination, turning back or diverting was not the first option that would have been on their minds. Immediately we can see an error chain developing here, the pressure of loosing safe options coupled with inexperience. The next part of the chain could have been in the planning. My good friend Cliff Bradley, now a captain on the 787 with Norwegian Air, tells me that Steve approached him on the evening of the 6th, the day before the accident, at his flying school, Executive Air, to buy a chart for Ireland as understandably he had not got one. I feel this may have contributed to the error chain in some way as this cannot have given them the ideal adequate time for planning and familiarizing themselves with the route and the topography of Southern Ireland which per square mile has many more hills and mountains than England. The next part of the chain would have undoubtedly have been the aircraft, as far as I am aware Nick had only once flown the Cessna 182 before and Steve not at all, this type of flight would not be the best introduction to this aircraft especially in IMC to a strange destination.
The weather could have been the next stumbling block and I suspect if Steve and Nick had been flying on their own they may have had second thoughts after looking at the forecast for Southern Ireland.
The final part of the error chain may have been the final descent in IMC. The aircraft was seen in and out of cloud by locals before it hit the mountain. No one will ever know what exactly happened in the cockpit that morning but these two pilots would have not flown in an area of high ground at that altitude if they had all the facts they had needed. There could of course had been an engine malfunction or even carburetor icing, we will never know for certain. They could also have had a mis set altimeter. The original full Irish air accident investigation file has gone missing so if anyone has an original I would love to see it again! It should always be remembered that if you are flying IMC over high ground or unsuitable ground to land a light aircraft upon you should consider driftdown if you have an engine failure. Just like being over a city, you should be able to GLIDE CLEAR in the event of an engine failure in IMC!
They could have also made a navigational error. Perhaps they thought they were further west as after the mountain its a clear run to Kilkenny, although their statement that they were descending to 3000 feet seems to point to them being full aware of the mountain ahead. To be completely safe though they should have only descended to 3500 feet. (note 2000 feet minimum clearance is recommended with high ground over 3000 feet)
Maybe they had relied on the Strumble VOR for tracking and not appreciated the errors that exist at increased range, whatever the reason its clear they were trying to break cloud and to continue VMC to destination. Let it be a lesson to us all in that you definitely need to know exactly were you are before you make the transition from IFR to VFR flight at or below safety altitude and that you should always consider driftdown in the event of an engine malfunction.
My recommendations are:
Never get involved in a flight that pushes you past, or to the limit, of your experience.
When flying to an area or country you are not familiar with you need to be extremely careful with topography, spend time building up a visual picture of the high ground, especially around the airfield.
Take advice from others with more experience of the area or type of flight you are about to embark upon
Always know the 25nm 10nm & 5 nm safe altitudes for every airfield you fly into, by know I mean have it written down. Information you cannot access is useless!
When calculating safety altitudes above hills and mountains you always need to add another 300 feet for uncharted obstacles as they are not shown unless above 300 feet agl.
Never descend below safety altitude unless you can use two independent means of verifying your position.
Always consider DRIFTDOWN in the event of an engine failure or power loss, you must be able to glide clear of the high ground.
Beware of the limitations of all navigational aids especially range & accuracy considerations
Never try to fly into an airfield using a procedure that is outside your experience level.
You cannot park up in an aircraft and re plan things but you can HOLD anywhere and buy some thinking time, so make sure you know how to enter an en route and destination hold if you fly in IMC.
Always consider a diversion option and make that diversion if you feel uncomfortable about continuing the flight to destination.
The accident site (Info from Google)
Forest Edge (819 474) to Blackstairs Mountain (811 448)
From the forest edge, climb on to the spur at 811 468 and continue uphill over rocky ground to reach Blackstairs Mountain, marked by a small cairn hidden among peat hags. A short distance to the east there is a small iron cross marking the site of a plane crash in 1983 in which 4 people died. It was this accident that prompted the setting up of the South Eastern Mountain Rescue Association. (The coordinates given are OSI)