The co-pilot of an RAF helicopter that crashed during a low-flying manoeuvre, killing three people, has been given a suspended sentence of 16 months.
Ex-Flight Lieutenant Robert Hamilton, 29, who was seriously injured in the incident in 2007, was on board the aircraft when it crashed in a field at Catterick Garrison, North Yorkshire.
It killed the pilot, Flight Lieutenant David Sale, 28, along with crewman Sergeant Phillip Burfoot, 27, and 17-year-old Army recruit Private Sean Tait.
Twelve servicemen were on the the aircraft, which was on a trooping exercise, including three from the RAF and nine soldiers.
A court heard extracts from a two-hour long cockpit voice recording, during which the Johnny Cash song Ring Of Fire could be heard over the Puma’s speaker system.
The crew could also be heard laughing and joking minutes before the crash.
A voice could be heard saying “****, ****, ****” and an onboard computer was heard to say “low height”.
Other voices could be heard saying “******* mental” and “let’s go boys, let’s ******* go”.
During one part of the flight, as the helicopter flew low over the ground scaring troops, people could be heard making machine-gun noises and a voice was heard saying “permission to say that was a bit low”.
The three servicemen killed in the incident
Hours earlier there had been a near miss when the £20m Puma almost hit the ground. All on board agreed to keep quiet and not report it, the court martial heard.
Dr Michael Powers QC, prosecuting, said the recording was indicative of the “totally unprofessional behaviour” from the helicopter’s crew.
Dr Powers quoted from an expert who had examined the audio transcripts of the flight.
“It can only be described as 40 seconds of complete and sudden madness,” he said. “They show no regard of their own mortality.”
Dr Powers said the helicopter had also been performing a dangerous manoeuvre known as a ‘bunt’ – a rapid descent at speed – that the Puma was not suited for.
“The Crown say it was a lot more than a jolly, unfortunately a fatal one,” Dr Powers said.
Hamilton broke his back in the crash and uses a wheelchair
“It is not known precisely what happened during the positioning of the aircraft to cause the fatal accident.
“It was not possible for the captain to recover the aircraft and the tail fin hit the ground and the aircraft disintegrated.”
However, he stressed that it was not the Crown’s case that Hamilton caused the accident but by his guilty plea he was accepting he was negligent.
At an earlier court martial, Hamilton pleaded guilty to neglect in flying likely to cause loss of life or bodily injury.
Vice Judge Advocate General Michael Hunter suspended his sentence for two years.
A further charge of wilful neglect was left on file.
Mr Hunter told Hamilton: “It will be no surprise to you that the officers on this board are shocked at the lack of professional standards displayed by those responsible for the aircraft.
“We take fully into account that you have pleaded guilty on the basis that you were not responsible for those very dangerous manoeuvres but you, with others, contributed to create a very dangerous situation on that aircraft.
“You personally had a duty of care to those passengers and you had a duty to ensure they were as safe as possible.”
The defendant, who is originally from Northern Ireland, broke his back in the incident and uses a wheelchair.
Ian Lawrie QC, defending, said the married father-of-one had been left with serious medical problems since the crash and had a titanium brace in his back, and must take a cocktail of daily medication.
“I can say to the court that the progress of time has done nothing to diminish the remorse he feels,” he said.
Hamilton, who was serving with the 33 Squadron based at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire, left the RAF after the accident and now works for a company involved in the aircraft industry.