September 7th 1983 – STEVE HARISS & NICK HARPER RIP-They lived and died flying!


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.

Don’t find out your local safety altitude the hard way!

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)

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10 thoughts on “September 7th 1983 – STEVE HARISS & NICK HARPER RIP-They lived and died flying!

  1. Very interested in your post. I helped in the recovery of the casualties in 1983. It is good to find some information about the unfortunate victims after all the years. The local walking club replaced the original memorial cross, which had rusted, a few years ago. It had been erected by a local man shortly after the crash. Walkers usually give a thought to the tragedy as they pass by.

    On a relatively trivial note, South Eastern Mountain Rescue Association had been set up some years before following a light aircraft crash in another mountain range.

  2. Pingback: 30 years ago today my friends Steve & Nick died in IMC | ask captain jon's FLYING TRAINING PAGES

  3. I have read your article with much interest. I was involved in the recovery operation after the accident. I returned to the crash site today ( August 4th 2014) for the first time since.It’s nice to know the victims have been remembered .

  4. Thank you kindly for your post, friend. Nick and I were best friends as little boys. We lost touch as different high schools were attended and we went our separate ways. I remember well when Nicky(as he was always known to my family and I) suddenly took a huge interest in flying, it was as though a light had been switched on and he was absolutely set on his path. We were less than 6 or 7 years old but he was not to be swayed. I’ve spent three decades wondering if I could have found some way to change his mind or divert his interest elsewhere, but I didn’t and remembering how determined he was, I doubt I could have. Still would feel better if I had at least tried.
    However, I met Nicky again when we were about 18 or so. He was full of pride and passion about his imminent career in the air. He was swift to tell me of his love and wholesale pride and passion for his parents, as they had made such sacrifices for his flying opportunities and training. This too fitted with my memories of his parents, they were such nice people and it didn’t surprise me in the slightest that he appreciated them so much. He had grown so much in their image. Although we had lost touch, it was so nice to see him and see the very focussed, capable young man he had become. It was the last time I would see my friend and it breaks my heart that I didn’t make more of the occasion. But for some reason I felt a great pride in my old friend and was over the moon he was on the way to being the proffessional pilot he has set himself the massive task to become all those years before whilst playing as little boys. Why I was proud is a mystery to me….I had done nothing in comparison and had no involvement with his efforts to become the great talent he became. Still mystifies me, but it was late and I distinctly remember meandering my way home with a big smile and warm sense of joy to see my old friend again in such a great mood.
    Unfortunately, I had been away training as a young apprentice and returned home, excited to see my family and girlfriend, when my tearful girlfriend told me of Nicky’s accident. I was utterly devastated. My old friend gone, his budding career and talents gone. My friend’s poor parents. It took a long time to come to terms with it.
    Some years later, whilst working, I bumped into Nicky’s parents. It was a tumultuous mixture of sensations. I was so pleased to see they were well and they seemed equally pleased to see me. But I couldn’t help but feel guilty for being alive and having my life and successful career with all it’s trappings. They were still totally devastated and I think they would have been far better for not meeting me. Not that they would even consider saying anything of the like, they were their old wonderful selves. But the guilt for their sad faces and renewed tears still haunts me.
    My life collapsed into disrepair soon after and I made some poor life choices. However, one of the things that always sat at the back of my mind was the promise I made to my friend all those years ago when I discovered we had lost him. I swore to live a little of the best times of my life for him.
    I stood by my promise and pulled myself together. But in the meantime I had lost touch with almost everything in my life, had no threads to my friend and had seen enough pain in his parents at the sight of me.
    Last year, by pure chance and after many a year of stumbling around, I found your post. It was a revelation. A little late and I was forced to rush and had no time to make the preparation I would have like to. But 30 years to the day and time, 09.30, 7thSeptember 2013 I gambled I had picked the right church in Elmdon area and searched for my friend’s grave. My 2 little boy sons by my side.
    We searched and searched the gravestones and my heart was sinking until we found my friend’s grave. 30 years to the time and day, I had found my friend. I stood hand in hand with my beautiful boys. Sober, career family married man with my promise honoured, I hoped my friend was proud of me and the life I had always set a part of to be lived for him.
    This year, I’ve had time to prepare and I can see my friend properly, we have a plant, cards and will have plenty of time to visit his and his friend’s grave.
    This all has come about because of seeing your post, friend. My apologies for the meandering story, but I hope it gives you an idea of the difference your words have made to me. You enabled me to find my friend whom I thought I had lost again. However tenuous our link, I owe you a lot, Jon.
    Thank you kindly

    Keith Murphy

    • Thank you for this kind words, I lost touch with Nicks father a couple of years ago so if you could leave a note on the grave with my email address that would be much appreciated-I thank you.JP

      mibcentral AT gmail.com

  5. This was so difficult for me to read, even though it is 31 years ago today it still feels so raw at times. I was Nick’s girlfriend at the time and it took me a long time to learn to live with the loss of such a wonderful, unique man. Even in the short time I knew him I knew we were destined to be together – we just clicked from day one. It took several years to get my life back on track and losing the love of my life made me question everything. I do have my own spiritual beliefs and believe he is in a much better place and that one day I will be with him again. Some 15 years or more later after the accident, my Mum went to see a medium, not on a one-to-one basis, but at a theatre with lots of other people all looking for answers and lost loved ones too. She wasn’t expecting a reading, but to her astonishment he asked if anyone knew of anyone who had been killed in a plane accident. She didn’t respond straight away as she thought he must be talking about an airliner, but when no-one else responded and he said it was a light aircraft with 4 people, she put up her hand. He told her that he had a young man with a mop of dark hair with him and said “my, you’re a tall lad aren’t you?” and told everyone the lad had replied “yes, and handsome!” Well, to me that definitely proved it was my Nick. He told her that he knew I was with someone else now and said that the new man was OK (I’m still with this man today). He also said he got a feeling of poetry (if you remember I wrote a poem for the funeral) and Nick also wanted to thank me for the pink rose I put on his coffin. He also wanted to pass a message to Steve’s family from Steve but as Mum didn’t know them he had to decline to pass any more details on. What stuck in my mind though was that this medium said at the beginning of the reading that Nick was piloting the plane and he felt that there was a loss of power before it crashed, that it suddenly dropped. I know they found nothing wrong with the plane but it always left me wondering could something else have caused it to drop – a down draught or something? Anyway, I know I’ll never forget my Nick or Steve but I’m sure they’re both up there somewhere far beyond the blue skies watching over us all and waiting for that day when we can be reunited once more.

  6. Ive copied over this beautiful response Ive had from Rachel who was Nick’s girl friend at the time of the accident. Thank you Rachel, it’s so nice to know that you had so much feeling for Nick and I am not surpised as he was such a special person. JP

    Rachel Watterson
    https://www.facebook.com/rachel.watterson

    Submitted on 2014/09/07 at 11:34
    This was so difficult for me to read, even though it is 31 years ago today it still feels so raw at times. I was Nick’s girlfriend at the time and it took me a long time to learn to live with the loss of such a wonderful, unique man. Even in the short time I knew him I knew we were destined to be together – we just clicked from day one. It took several years to get my life back on track and losing the love of my life made me question everything. I do have my own spiritual beliefs and believe he is in a much better place and that one day I will be with him again. Some 15 years or more later after the accident, my Mum went to see a medium, not on a one-to-one basis, but at a theatre with lots of other people all looking for answers and lost loved ones too. She wasn’t expecting a reading, but to her astonishment he asked if anyone knew of anyone who had been killed in a plane accident. She didn’t respond straight away as she thought he must be talking about an airliner, but when no-one else responded and he said it was a light aircraft with 4 people, she put up her hand. He told her that he had a young man with a mop of dark hair with him and said “my, you’re a tall lad aren’t you?” and told everyone the lad had replied “yes, and handsome!” Well, to me that definitely proved it was my Nick. He told her that he knew I was with someone else now and said that the new man was OK (I’m still with this man today). He also said he got a feeling of poetry (if you remember I wrote a poem for the funeral) and Nick also wanted to thank me for the pink rose I put on his coffin. He also wanted to pass a message to Steve’s family from Steve but as Mum didn’t know them he had to decline to pass any more details on. What stuck in my mind though was that this medium said at the beginning of the reading that Nick was piloting the plane and he felt that there was a loss of power before it crashed, that it suddenly dropped. I know they found nothing wrong with the plane but it always left me wondering could something else have caused it to drop – a down draught or something? Anyway, I know I’ll never forget my Nick or Steve but I’m sure they’re both up there somewhere far beyond the blue skies watching over us all and waiting for that day when we can be reunited once more.

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