Family's tribute to pilot and paramedic lost in crash

Key points

• Air ambulance crashes eight miles off Kintyre Peninsula

• Two men, paramedic and pilot, missing presumed dead

• Investigation continues into events leading up to crash

Key quote

"You do rely on these people to come and take you to the hospital, it just happened to be my little boy last night." - AUDREY MCKILLOP, MOTHER OF PATIENT

Story in full THE family of a young boy who was waiting to be picked up by an air ambulance that plunged into the sea off the west coast of Scotland last night paid tribute to the pilot and paramedic who lost their lives.

Rescuers discovered the fuselage of the Loganair Islander aircraft in deep water off the Kintyre peninsula several hours after it disappeared as it came in to land at Machrihanish airport at 12:15am yesterday.

Hopes quickly faded for the two men on board, paramedic John Keith McCreanor, 35, a father of three - including a ten-week-old daughter, Skye - and pilot Guy Henderson, 40, the father of a 14-month-old boy, Calum. Despite rescue efforts continuing throughout the day, by nightfall their bodies remained missing.

The air ambulance had been dispatched to collect 11-year-old Craig McKillop, who was suffering from severe abdominal pains, and fly him to hospital in Glasgow.

He was eventually taken to the Royal Hospital for Sick Children at Yorkhill by road and underwent surgery for a burst appendix.

Last night his mother, Audrey McKillop, 40, from Drumlemble, near Campbeltown, sent her condolences to the families of the crew.

"I’m shaking," she said. "Obviously I feel sad for the pilot and paramedic, and how close it could have been. It could have been on the way back instead of on the way here. I’m shaking and my stomach has been churning all day.

"All I can say is that I do send my condolences. You do rely on these people to come and take you to the hospital, it just happened to be my little boy last night."

Despite the accident, air ambulance flights continued throughout the day and later a helicopter air ambulance landed at Campbeltown to lift a 54-year-old man to the Southern General Hospital.

The reason for the crash was not immediately clear. A spokesman for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency said the aircraft disappeared from radar following its final approach into Campbeltown.

Brett Cunningham, coastguard area operations manager, said the weather was "reasonable" in the area at the time of the accident and he could not speculate on what had happened.

Michael Mulford, from the RAF Rescue Centre at Kinloss, said there was no chance of finding the crew alive. "We are long past the point where anyone could have survived in the water," he said. "Maybe you could survive in a dinghy or in a survival suit. But they are missing and our hearts go out to our colleagues in the air ambulance.

"They flew over Campbeltown, which is the correct way to do it, and then out to sea, and they would have made a left turn to line themselves up with the south-east facing runway and something, at that point, went wrong for sure and they disappeared off the radar screen.

"It’s just so poignant that you go out on a life-saving mission and you don’t come back, and that is pretty awful."

Jim Cameron, chief executive of Loganair, said the company was working closely with the police, coastguard and the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) to establish the cause of the crash. "The AAIB will be looking at finding out the cause of the accident and working with our people to check records and timing," he said. "We have to discover what happened, but our immediate priority is the families."

Mr Cameron said Mr Henderson was an experienced pilot and had flown commercial aircraft as well as the air ambulance. He said there were no signs that there was a problem on board as the flight was preparing to land at Campbeltown after its 45-minute journey from Glasgow.

"At about 15 to 20 minutes after midnight on approach to Campbeltown, the pilot was in touch with air traffic control and received a routine update on the weather," said Mr Cameron. "But there was no indication of a problem then."

He described the Islander aircraft as "robust" and ideal for operating in Scottish weather. It is a twin-engined aircraft that can take a stretcher, a paramedic and at least one relative in the back. There was no black box recorder on board because of the aeroplane’s size.

The Islander was one of three such aircraft operated for the Scottish Ambulance Service by Loganair, based in Glasgow, Lerwick and Kirkwall. The company operates 2,000 air ambulance flights every year.

Mr Cameron said 80 per cent of Loganair’s air ambulance flights were routine, while 20 per cent were for emergencies. He added: "This tragic accident is very difficult for all of our staff and we do have deep concern for the families involved. Our great sympathies go out to the family of the paramedic on board.

"Staff are very concerned and Loganair is quite a small family, with around 230 staff - of those about 90 are pilots. The pilot involved is close friends with a lot of people, and we are thinking about them and his family at this time."

In a tribute to Mr Henderson, Mr Cameron added: "Guy was a valuable member of the Loganair family for seven years, was a very experienced pilot. He was a very popular person and a first class pilot, who will be sadly missed by all of his colleagues in the air and on the ground."

Mr Henderson was a former flying instructor in Edinburgh and Perth, and lived in the Burnside area of Broxburn with his fiance, Lorne Blyth, and their son Calum.

His family released a statement through Strathclyde Police in which they said they were "devastated at the loss of Guy, but ... consoled by the fact that he was working in his life-long ambition to fly above the Highlands and Islands of Scotland".

The family of Mr McCreanor, who was from Paisley, also released a statement, it read: "John was a wonderful young man in the prime of his life, a loving partner to Caren [Pickett], a doting father to Skye, David and Cheryl, and an adored son to John and Mary, a loving brother to Julie, and a wonderful uncle to Rebecca.

"His family are immensely proud of the hard work he put into qualifying as a paramedic and of the care and concern he demonstrated to those in need. He himself was proud of his ‘wings’ as an experienced member of the air ambulance service, covering the Highlands and Islands. John was loved by his colleagues and friends, adored by his family and respected by his patients. He will be greatly missed by all."

The search for the wreckage of the aircraft involved three lifeboats, two helicopters, a warship and two rescue teams. It ended when a remotely operated vehicle from HMS Penzance, a Royal Navy minesweeper, descended to the seabed and found pieces of the undercarriage and a 15-metre object.

A spokesman from the RAF Rescue Centre at Kinloss said the recovery of the main body of the aircraft would be a "big job". "It looks as though the fuselage has been found," he said. "If there are bodies inside, it will be a very hazardous process to recover them. The problem is that it is in very deep water."

John Stewart, volunteer coxswain of Campbeltown lifeboat, paid tribute to the plane’s crew. "These are people who are on call to fly in all sorts of weather to take people to hospital," he said.

"For this to happen is very upsetting for everybody. It’s bad enough when an aircraft goes down, but when it’s a crew trying to help people it’s really sad. Seeing wreckage, you’re hoping to find somebody. We were asked to retire early and return to shore with the wreckage which had been collected."

The wreckage was taken to RAF Machrihanish for investigation to determine the cause of the crash. The operation to retrieve the crashed aircraft was co-ordinated by the AAIB and Strathclyde Police, focusing on an area eight miles offshore where the aircraft’s fuselage was located.

Adrian Lucas, chief executive of the Scottish Ambulance Service, said the incident was a sad day for the service. Mr Lucas said that the flight was "relatively routine" and that Islanders had been extensively used by the service for years.

He added: "We’re not speculating about anything to do with the aircraft."

The crash is the second air tragedy to have struck the Scottish Ambulance Service within ten years. In May 1995, a crash on Shetland claimed the life of the pilot and injured a doctor and nurse.

Andy Kerr, the health minister, said: "Our thoughts are obviously with the families of the pilot and paramedic.

"It is a stark reminder to us all of the dedication of the healthcare workers and aircrew who provide this lifeline service every day of the year."

Earlier this year, the Scottish Ambulance Service confirmed that Loganair had lost the contract to operate the air ambulance service to an English company, Gama Aviation.

The plan involves the replacement of four fixed-wing aircraft with two higher-specification planes and two helicopters.

It prompted protests from some island communities concerned about what they perceived as a threat to services. But the ambulance service defended the decision, insisting that it was essential that the existing fleet be upgraded to maintain the standards of service.

SAFE RECORD

THE Loganair fleet has only suffered one other fatal crash in more than 30 years of operating the air ambulance service.

Aviation experts said the Britten Norman Islander, which is powered by twin propellers, had a good safety record and had proved versatile in operating from the shortest and roughest Highland runways.

There were five Islanders in the Loganair fleet; three of them were used for air ambulance duties.

In the previous accident, the pilot operating the Shetland air ambulance was killed as he came in to land at the island’s Tingwall airport in 1996.

A sheriff at the fatal accident inquiry suggested Captain Alan Young had made errors of judgment, stating that he had flown far too low in "very marginal" visibility.

The inquiry’s only recommendation was for improved runway lighting.

Jim Ferguson, an Aberdeen-based aviation writer, said: "The Islander is a well-liked aeroplane - there is nothing wrong with it." He said the plane that crashed yesterday was built in 1989 and had been bought by Loganair from Germany three years ago.

But he expressed concern that when the air ambulance service is taken over next year by Gama Aviation, replacements would not be as versatile.

ALASTAIR DALTON