‘Accidental death’ verdicts in Cork plane crash inquest

Jury took less than an hour to reach decision on deaths of two crew and four passengers

A file image showing part of the Manx2 plane being removed from Cork Airport after a crash in 2011 where six people died and six others were injured. Photograph:  Niall Carson/PA Wire

A file image showing part of the Manx2 plane being removed from Cork Airport after a crash in 2011 where six people died and six others were injured. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

A jury has returned verdicts of accidental death at the inquest into the deaths of six people killed when their Manx2 flight crashed in thick fog as it was preparing to land at Cork Airport over three years ago.

The jury of six men and one woman took just over 40 minutes to return the verdicts of accidental death in the case of the two crew and four passengers killed when the Fairchild SA227-BC Metro crashed at Cork Airport on February 10th 2011.

Spanish pilot, Jordi Sola Lopez (31) from Manresa in Spain, and co-pilot Andrew Cantle (27) from Sunderland, both perished in the crash, as did four of their ten passengers aboard the early morning flight from George Best Airport in Belfast to Cork.

Among the passengers who died were businessman Richard Noble (48), from Belfast accountant Patrick Cullinan (45), originally from Tyrone but living in Belfast; businessman Brendan McAleese (39), from Antrim and harbour master, Michael Evans (51), from Belfast.

Today at the inquest into their deaths at the Washington Street Courthouse in Cork, the jury returned similar verdicts for all six, finding that they died as result of multiple injuries sustained in airplane crash while the plane was attempting to land at Cork Airport in heavy fog.

The jury had heard evidence from some 15 witnesses over two days including Leo Murray of the Air Accident Investigation Unit who led the AAIU investigation and gave a detailed outline of what investigators believed caused the fatal crash at 9.50am on runway 17.

Mr Murray said the accident was the result of a catastrophic loss of control of the aircraft at a low height from which recovery was not possible when the plane continued with its third approach despite not having the required visibility.

The loss of control resulted from the retardation of the power levers controlling the engines and propellers to below the flight idle setting which was prohibited while the aircraft was in flight as it could result in excessive airspeed deceleration, he said.

This in turn could lead to an uncontrollable roll rate due to asymmetric thrust and drag from the engines and in this case resulted in the aircraft first rolling 40 degrees to the left and then 90 degrees to the right before its wing tip hit the ground and it inverted, he said.

The inquest had earlier heard evidence from Mr Murray that co-pilot, Andrew Cantle had been manually flying the airplane from Belfast to Cork where he made two approaches to land but had to abort on each occasion at heights of 101 feet and 91 feet due to thick fog.

Mr Cantle was still at the flying controls on the third approach but it appeared from cockpit recordings that Capt Lopez took over the engine controls on this approach, said Mr Murray who declined to speculate why Capt Lopez moved the power levers to below flight idle.

Asked by Mr O’Connell if he believed that the crew had done everything it could in the circumstances to avoid an accident, Mr Murray said while no one went out that morning intending to cause an accident, he questioned some of the decisions made by Capt Lopez.

Mr Murray said Capt Lopez, who had only been appointed a commander just five days earlier, was facing into a situation in Cork that morning where he may not have had the necessary experience to make the right decision.

He had been advised by Air Traffic Control at Cork as to weather conditions at other airports including at Kerry Airport some 40 miles west where visibility was over 10kms rather than the 300 metres which then obtained at Cork, said Mr Murray.

“He was considering diverting to Kerry - it was unfortunate that visibility at Cork started to improve. I think that convinced him to make the third approach - if visibility had not improved while he was holding, he may have taken the prudent decision to divert to Kerry.”

Mr Murray said it was easy to look at events in hindsight but Capt Lopez would probably have been considering factors such as: what would happen to the passengers if he diverted to Kerry; how would they be transferred from Kerry to Cork and whether a bus would be available?

“These may have been some of the factors that influenced his decision to make a third approach,” said Mr Murray, adding Mr Cantle’s focus would have been on flying the plane and thus unlikely to engage in discussing such issues with Capt Lopez.

Mr Murray agreed when it was put to him by Mr O’Connell that the accident would not have happened if there had not been thick fog at Cork Airport that morning that reduced visibility below the required levels to make a safe approach and landing.

Mr Murray also addressed the issue of crew fatigue and said neither Capt Lopez nor Mr Cantle had sufficient rest on the day prior to the accident and he pointed out Mr Cantle had been physically flying the plane for an hour and 40 minutes from Belfast to Cork.

This included Mr Cantle physically flying the plane on its first two approaches in difficult conditions and flying the plane for 25 minutes in a holding pattern while Capt Lopez was briefed on weather conditions elsewhere and that was “extremely fatiguing,” he said.

Afterward the jury returned their verdicts, Mr Frank O’Connell extended his sympathies to the families of the deceased and said he hoped he would never again find himself having to perform the same duty of reading out six verdicts one after another in his role as coroner.

Mr O’Connell also extended his best wishes to six survivors of the crash and thanked them for coming to the inquest and reliving what was a very unfortunate and life-changing experience in order to establish what exactly had happened in Cork Airport that day.