Imposing the fines at Galway Circuit Criminal Court yesterday, Judge Thomas O’Donnell said it was “an absolute miracle” that the pilot was not killed or an appalling catastrophe had not occurred if the helicopter had crashed while flying low over an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 people attending the fair that day.
Businessman and quarry owner Michael Mannion, aged 40, of Castlesampson, Bealnamulla, Athlone, Co Westmeath, pleaded guilty to five breaches of the Irish Aviation Authority (Rules of the Air) Act 2004.
Mannion was fined €10,000 for operating a helicopter in a public place at a height less than 450m above the ground or water over a congested area of Ballinasloe town on October 2, 2011.
He was fined an additional €10,000 for flying the helicopter within 150m of the radio mast at Ballinasloe Garda Station.
Three other charges were all taken into account.
Sergeant Tom Horkan told the sentence hearing that numerous calls were made to gardaí that evening between 7.30pm and 8pm to complain about the low-flying helicopter.
“People genuinely believed the helicopter was going to crash,” said Sgt Horkan.
The court was told that Mannion had consumed a beer shandy with a meal in Athlone earlier that evening. He then decided to fly to Ballinasloe and landed in a car park, 30m from the Moycairn Lodge and Hotel, where he consumed almost two pints of beer.
He then got back into the helicopter at 7.20pm and took off in the direction of Ballinasloe. Witnesses there later told gardaí the aircraft was being flown in an erratic and dangerous manner and some felt it was going to crash. It was a misty evening with intermittent drizzle, cloud and poor visibility.
The helicopter then flew away from the town and crashed in a field at 7.36pm, 10km from the town and 2km from Mannion’s home.
Mannion told the court his licence had been suspended by the Irish Aviation Authority and he had no intention of applying for a new one. He had been a pilot since 2009, with 260 hours of experience. He said he knew he was lucky to be alive and he apologised for his behaviour.
He said the weather suddenly closed in seconds after he took off from the hotel and he began to panic as he went into cloud and could not see the ground.