A PILOT who died after his helicopter collided with a crane in low cloud yesterday and plummeted more than 700ft to the street below was described as “one of the best” by former colleagues.
Pete Barnes, who has piloted helicopters for a number of Hollywood films, was alone in the aircraft amid thick, low cloud when it clipped the crane near the top of one of Europe’s largest skyscrapers.
Mr Barnes died, along with a second, unidentified person on the street, when the helicopter crashed and exploded in a ball of flames in the middle of London’s rush hour. At least 12 other people were injured. An investigation into the crash is under way.
Kevin Hodgson, who worked alongside Mr Barnes on life-saving missions with the Great North Air Ambulance, said: “Pete was as good a guy as you can imagine, and one of the best pilots I’ve ever had the pleasure of flying with.”
In the aftermath of the crash, questions were raised over the safety of aircraft flying over London, especially as the number of high-rise blocks being built increases.
Commander Neil Basu, of the Metropolitan Police, said: “It was something of a miracle that this was not many, many times worse.”
In one case of good fortune, it was reported that the crane driver avoided near-certain death because he was late for his shift and had not reached his cabin by the time of the incident.
Mr Barnes, 50, had been flying from Redhill in Surrey to Elstree in Hertfordshire, but had asked to be diverted to the London helipad in Battersea because of bad weather.
Aldersgate Investments, which owns the heliport, said he never made contact.
At about 8am yesterday, his Agusta Westland 109 Power – a lightweight, twin-engine helicopter – collided with the crane on top of The Tower skyscraper in Vauxhall, near the Thames.
Witnesses said the collision sounded like a bomb going off.
Mark Sidney, who was heading for Vauxhall Tube station, said: “I heard a loud bang, I looked up and saw bits of propeller and parts of the aircraft falling off it and then plummeting down. Then a plume of smoke went up.
“I called the emergency services. It happened in a matter of a seconds before it was on the ground. I could see the top of the crane was shaking on the top of the building. It was very foggy so the helicopter probably couldn’t see it.” Steve Carslake, who got out of a van in Mill Street to see the crash, said: “We heard a mighty bang, looked up and saw the helicopter just catch the edge of the crane.
“It didn’t hit the tower block itself, it hit the crane and then just came down in a fireball.”
Emergency vehicles rushed to the scene, where one man had to be rescued from a burning car.
Several people were injured after being hit by falling debris, and two buildings caught fire. Six engines, 88 firefighters, four rescue units and other specialist vehicles were dispatched to the scene by the London Fire Brigade.
The accident was close to the headquarters of MI6. Conservative MP Nicky Morgan, who was walking close by at the time, said: “Within a minute there were sirens, so you felt that the emergency services were immediately reacting, which was comforting. It is a terrible, unexpected tragedy. I wondered if it was a bomb explosion.”
Julian Firth, of the Air Accidents Investigation Branch, said the wreckage would be taken to its site at Farnborough in Hampshire, but added that it would be “several months” before a full report was produced.
Investigations are also likely to focus on whether there were adequate warning lights on the crane.
A spokeswoman for Berkeley Group, which owns St George, the development company for the building, said the crane had two lights, which were checked daily and were working on Tuesday when last inspected.
The Civil Aviation Authority said helicopter regulations for flying over London included “requirements for lighting on tall structures”.
It added: “In addition, where appropriate, very tall structures are also notified to pilots for flight planning purposes, as was the case with the crane that was involved in this morning’s accident.”
The eight-seater aircraft is owned by Cornwall-based Castle Air but was leased to another company, Rotor-Motion, which is based at Red-hill Aerodrome.
Captain Philip Amadeus, managing director of Rotor-Motion, an executive helicopter charter business, confirmed the aircraft was on a commercial flight to Elstree.
He said: “Our main priority now is for the family of the pilot and we extend our greatest sympathy to the friends and relatives of those who have died and been injured.”
Mr Barnes had around 9,000 hours of flying time, including 3,500 hours on the type of aircraft involved in the incident.
The Labour MP for Vauxhall, Kate Hoey, said questions must be asked about whether helicopters should continue to
be allowed to fly over central London.
“We will need a real inquiry into increasing numbers of helicopters flying around London, coupled with the fact there are so many new tall buildings,” she said.
Speaking during Prime Ministers Questions yesterday, David Cameron agreed.
“I think the point she [Ms Hoey] makes about the rules for helicopter flights and indeed other flights over our capital city,” he said.
“I’m sure they will be looked at as part of the investigations that will take place.”