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VIDEO: ‘Safety raised’ before fatal helicopter crash

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Conservative peer Lord Ballyedmond who was killed in a helicopter crash on Thursday night had recently raised safety concerns with the aircraft’s manufacturers.

Lord Ballyedmond, one of the richest men in Northern Ireland, was chairman of Norbrook, the largest privately owned pharmaceutical company in the world.

His AgustaWestland AW139 helicopter came down in thick fog in a field in Gillingham, near Beccles, Norfolk, at 7.30pm on Thursday killing him and three others.

It has now emerged that his company Haughey Air Ltd had lodged a writ against AgustaWestland over concerns about a helicopter supplied by them.

The case was lodged in September last year and is understood to have included concerns about in-flight mapping systems.

A spokesman for AgustaWestland said it could not comment on possible defects with Lord Ballyedmond’s AW139 VIP helicopter but said it was investigating.

Speaking from the company’s office in Italy, he said: “We cannot comment now because we need to make internal checks to establish exactly what the situation is.

“We cannot yet comment on this accident because there is an investigation pending and there could be many causes, be them technical or due to human error.

“Obviously we are very much regretful of what happened and will support the ongoing investigation in any possible way.”

In February 2012 an inquest heard in-flight technology systems on board AgustaWestland helicopters should be improved after a crash which killed a friend of the Prince of Wales.

The mapping databases display the height of terrain like mountains and whether certain areas are available to fly through but the four-day inquest in Belfast highlighted flaws.

The aircraft flew into the side of a cloud-shrouded mountain in the Mourne range, Co Down, in October 2010 as it carried a shooting party back to England.

The probe into the death of three people, including the Prince’s friend Charles Stisted, heard how land above a certain height was not displayed and a prohibition on flying through South Armagh still showed although it was lifted several years earlier.

Construction company businessman and fellow polo player Ian Wooldridge, 52, and experienced pilot Anthony Smith, 63, formerly of the RAF and Army with service in Northern Ireland, also died.

Known as Edward Haughey until he was made a life peer in 2004, Lord Ballyedmond owned Gillingham Hall, a stately home near the crash site, according to the Register of Lords’ Interests.

Police said only a limited investigation of the crash site had been possible in the dark and foggy conditions last night and a more detailed forensic examination will take place today.

Ulster Unionist peer Lord Reg Empey, who has known the Haughey family for 25 years, said: “Lord Ballyedmond was one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Northern Ireland and indeed these islands. He brought high-quality employment opportunities to this country during its darkest days.

“This tragic accident has cut short the life of a man who had still much to give. The family circle will be numbed by the tragedy.”

All four people on board the helicopter were pronounced dead at the scene after it crashed in a field containing a wooded area, Norfolk Police said.

The victims have not yet been formally identified while officers contact their next of kin.

It was reported that the helicopter was flying to Northern Ireland, though police refused to comment on where it had taken off from or what its destination was.

Lord Ballyedmond served in the upper houses of Britain and Ireland, in the Seanad in Dublin.

Ulster Unionist Stormont assembly member Danny Kennedy said he was stunned.

He added: “Lord Ballyedmond was a determined businessman who brought much-needed employment to my own constituency of Newry and Armagh. He built a world class business from scratch and at the same time managed to base it locally.

“He will be sadly missed throughout the business community in Northern Ireland and wider afield. I offer my deepest sympathies to Lady Mary and the children.”

South Down SDLP MP Margaret Ritchie said he was unique.

“He was a major employer in the Co Down area and invested a lot of money.

“He got up and at it and he possessed those attributes required to make you a successful businessman but he also was a major employer and a lot of families had connections with him through that.”

Emergency services were called by members of the public who heard a loud crash, though Inspector Louis Provart would not say whether there was an explosion and refused to speculate on the cause of the crash.

The Air Accidents Investigation Branch has been informed and a team will be sent to investigate the crash, a spokesman said.

Roland Bronk, owner of The Swan House inn and restaurant in Beccles, said it was “very foggy” in the area. Mr Bronk said he heard customers talk about “a lot of police activity and ambulances”.

Taxi driver Mark Murray, 22, from Beccles, said: “There is a large stately home nearby and you often see helicopters coming and going from there.

“When they have a game shoot the guests often all arrive in separate helicopters. We don’t know if that is linked, but that’s the only helicopter activity we see in this area.”

Met Office forecaster Helen Roberts confirmed that large parts of East Anglia had been hit by mist last night.

She said: “There has certainly been some fog around south Norfolk, and the Norwich area has been in fog.

“There has been widespread mist around East Anglia and low visibility quite widely across East Anglia. Mist means low visibility, and it has been misty quite widely throughout the evening.”

Norfolk Police said the crash site will remain cordoned off today and roads in the area have been closed.

The scene is 45 miles from the spot where four crew members died when a US military helicopter crashed on a training mission in a nature reserve in Cley-next-the-Sea, Norfolk.

In January, a Pave Hawk from RAF Lakenheath was taking part in a low-flying training exercise when it came down.

Residents described hearing a “’heavy and very unusual’’ noise from the helicopter seconds before the crash, in which all four US crew members were killed.

Stormont enterprise minister Arlene Foster said: “Without doubt, Lord Ballyedmond was one of Northern Ireland’s most successful entrepreneurs, and he was known for his leadership, integrity and global vision.

“One-of-a-kind and a self-made businessman, he was both highly regarded and widely respected by all those who knew him.

“Norbrook Laboratories currently exports to more than 120 countries worldwide and Lord Ballyedmond worked tirelessly to promote Northern Ireland as an investment location.

“Not only has he made a huge contribution to the local economy but Lord Ballyedmond also devoted much of his time to charitable works and this is to be highly commended.”

Fellow peer and Conservative party co-chairman Lord Feldman said: “I was incredibly sad to hear the news of the death of Lord Ballyedmond.

“His career in business was a remarkable success story. He was a great friend to our party and a loyal and supportive colleague in Parliament.

“Our sincere condolences go out to his family and friends at this difficult time.”

 
 
 

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