A pilot who died when his home-built James Bond-style plane crashed in a Co Waterford field had previously been refused a permit to fly the aircraft in the UK over safety concerns, an official accident report has found.
The Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU) said the Irish authorities granted Howard Cox permission to fly the tiny Bede BD5 plane after the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) had banned such aircraft from British skies.
The low-wing monoplane was immortalised in the opening sequences of the James Bond film Octopussy.
Mr Cox, a 67-year-old pilot from Devon with in excess of 3,200 hours of flying experience, was on his way to an air show in the west of Ireland in July last year when his engine failed and he crashed attempting an emergency landing on farmland in Garranbaun, Co Waterford.
The aircraft exploded into flames on impact.
Similar emergency landing
The AAIU report found that in 1994 the same plane, which was built from a kit, sustained significant damage after making a similar emergency landing in Devon when it suffered engine failure, with a different engine.
Inspectors said that five years later, when Mr Cox applied for a new flight permit for the Bede in the UK, the CAA rejected the application.
In refusing permission, the authority cited the aircraft type’s “very poor safety record”, noting US statistics that showed of the few hundred fully constructed BD5s capable of flying between 1972 and 1998 there had been more than 80 accidents - 37 involving death or serious injury.
The CAA said under-reporting meant the actual number of incidents was likely to be higher.
Mr Cox appealed against the refusal but the CAA’s original decision was upheld in 2000.
The report said that the following year, Mr Cox made an initial registration inquiry with the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA).
He was advised he would require a recommendation from the Society of Amateur Aircraft Constructors (SAAC) to obtain permission to fly in Ireland.
In 2007, on the back of an inspection by the SAAC, Mr Cox was granted official permission to fly his aircraft in Irish skies.
The inspectors noted that in making the decision the IAA had undertaken to investigate the safety record of the home-build aircraft type, including contacting air authorities in Austria, where two BD5s had been granted permission to fly.
But it questioned why there was no mention of the CAA’s stance in the documentation the IAA provided to inspectors.
“Whilst noting that the CAA Permit-to-Fly refusal was appealed by the pilot (and others) and that during that appeal the appellants disputed the CAA’s interpretation of the accident statistics, the investigation notes that no reference to the CAA’s position, or consideration of the concerns which led the CAA to refuse to issue permits to fly for BD-5 aircraft, were included in the IAA records provided to the investigation,” stated the report.
“The investigation believes that it would have been prudent to have sought and documented the CAA’s rationale for its Permit-to-Fly refusal.”
The AAIU said the IAA documents also reported fewer total accidents involving the plane than 80-plus noted by the CAA eight years earlier.
It also questioned its interpretation of the information provided by Austrian officials. An IAA memo said the Austrian National Aviation Authority had indicated there were “no particular problems” with the type of aircraft.
The AAIU said when it made contact with the same Austrian official who had been in contact with the IAA, the individual said there had actually been “several engine issues”.
The IAA said its permission to fly was granted on more conservative grounds than those issued in Austria, as it imposed an operational limitation that only the pilot or registered owner could fly the aircraft.
The IAA has told the AAIU it will not accept any further applications to register BD5s in the future.
The inspection report was inconclusive about the cause of the fire that forced Mr Cox to attempt the crash landing. Inspectors said damage to the aircraft was too severe.
‘Significant’ post-impact damage
“The aircraft wreckage suffered significant post-impact fire damage and it was not possible to distinguish in-flight fire damage from post-impact fire damage; nor was it possible to determine the precise seat or cause of the in-flight fire,” said the report.
Mr Cox, a father of one who spent 30 years perfecting his homemade plane’s performance, was only eight minutes into his flight from Waterford to Shannon when it suffered engine trouble.
In the crash landing the plane’s left wing clipped a tree on the boundary of a field before the entire wing broke off and the plane then hit a hedgerow and the ground. It burst into flames on impact.
Mr Cox had been in Ireland for several days before his death preparing to display his unusual plane, which was based at Waterford, at an air show over the Shannon Estuary.