Witnesses recall last moments of Kilkeel plane crash

A light aircraft spluttered and stalled seconds before it nosedived to the ground, killing three people in the North, an inquest heard today.

The plane slowed so much while approaching an airstrip in limited visibility that it fell from the air and burst into flames in a field in Kilkeel, Co Down, an expert investigator said.

Pilot Hugh McKnight, 54, a former policeman, and passengers Stephen Annett and Andrew Burden, both 24, died instantly in June last year on their way back from the Isle of Man TT motorcycle races. Their charred bodies were unrecognisable.

Geraint Herbert, a senior inspector at the Air Accident Investigation Branch of the Department for Transport, said: "The reduction in power would have led to reduction in airflow over the wings. This combined with a reduced air speed caused the aircraft to stall."

The victims had to be identified by their dental records because their bodies were unrecognisably burned by the fireball, pathology reports said. They suffered multiple injuries and died instantly before the blaze started.

Mr McKnight had switched to the Kilkeel airfield en route from the Isle of Man because of poor conditions at another airstrip. However, by the time he reached Kilkeel low hanging cloud and drizzle had rolled in off the Irish Sea.

Mr Herbert told the Newry inquest that the stall was caused by the air over the wings becoming "rough" as the plane slowed and turned to approach the runway. That meant there was not enough lift generated to keep the craft in the air and it plummeted to the ground.

The inspector added that as he tried to land at the airfield the pilot was flying in higher than normal and reduced power.

"It is possible that the pilot did this to lower the aircraft's approach path," he added.

The engine was still running and the inspector said Mr McKnight would have given it full power to try to take it into the air again.

The inquest heard from the airstrip owner, Gary Nicholson, that Mr McKnight had owned his aircraft for over five years.

Peter Trainor was in his kitchen 100 yards from the accident near Belmont Road.

"I heard an engine splutter," he confirmed.

"I saw the plane dive towards the ground at approximately 45 degrees angle. It impacted the ground with a loud bang and burst into flames, the flames went up a good height."

Another neighbour said she heard a bang from the engine like a car backfiring.

A statement from Margaret Bird said: "It appeared to be going too fast. It lost height very quickly."

Mr McKnight, from Kilkeel Road, Annalong, had flown the two passengers to the Isle of Man early that morning on June 13. He returned to Co Down that evening with another man, Gareth McKnight, and the flight had been uneventful.

It was after he returned for stoneyard worker Mr Annett, from Ballyveaghbeg Road, Kilkeel, and steel fabricator Mr Burden, from Back Road, Annalong, that the accident happened.

Another air accident investigator from the Department for Transport, Peter Coombs, said most of the plane was made of wood and had been destroyed by the fire. The engine was the only readily identifiable part to have survived.

Mr Coombs said the aircraft was structurally complete prior to the accident and it had a certificate of air-worthiness with no indications of significant defects in the weeks before the accident.

Coroner John Leckey expressed his sympathies to family members of the victims, who packed the courtroom.

He ruled that the pilot made a tight right turn as he approached the airfield. The engine was heard to stutter and the aircraft nosedived and crashed headfirst into the field. He added the victims died from multiple injuries sustained during the accident.

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