Sheriff rules pilot’s death was caused by lifting a boat

A helicopter pilot died after a line attached to a boat he was lifting struck his aircraft, a sheriff has formally determined.
Peter Clunas was the victim of a helicopter crash caused by lifting a boat. Picture: Police ScotlandPeter Clunas was the victim of a helicopter crash caused by lifting a boat. Picture: Police Scotland
Peter Clunas was the victim of a helicopter crash caused by lifting a boat. Picture: Police Scotland

Highly experienced flyer Peter Clunas, 59, was carrying out work on a fish farm in North Uist when tragedy struck as he transported a boat suspended from a lifting chain in June 2018.

The boat became unstable and flew upwards causing the lifting line to strike the helicopter’s tail rotor making the aircraft becoming ‘uncontrollable’ and it plunged into Loch Scadavy.

Despite a massive rescue operation, Mr Clunas, of Newburgh, Aberdeenshire, was pronounced dead at the scene. The wreckage of the AS350B2 Ecureuil helicopter was later salvaged to be studied by crash investigators.

Following a Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI) held at Lochmaddy Sheriff Court it has been determined nothing could have been done to prevent the tragedy and no reasonable precautions could have stopped it.

In his written determination, Sheriff Gary Aitken states: “So far as the cause of the accident which resulted in Mr Clunas’ death is concerned, it is clear that the accident was caused by the underslung boat being carried by the helicopter flying up, the lifting chain connecting the boat to the helicopter striking and damaging the tail rotor of the helicopter and the lifting chain becoming wrapped round the tail rotor boom of the helicopter.

“This impact caused significant damage to the helicopter and rendered it uncontrollable in the circumstances.

“It is clear that in the matter of seconds which passed between the impact with the tail rotor and the impact with the water Mr Clunas did react and take remedial action.

“He released the external hook on the underside of the helicopter. He clearly made control inputs to the helicopter. However, there simply was insufficient height and time for him to bring the helicopter under control.”

He continues: “The more complex question is what caused the boat to fly up in the first place, allowing the lifting chain to come in contact with the tail rotor and tail rotor boom. That question cannot be answered with certainty.

“Despite a full and thorough investigation a conclusive view cannot be taken as to which, if any, of these factors caused the boat to swing up. As already noted, it is not open to me to engage in speculation.

“The reality of life is that sometimes tragic events happen, and we are unable to determine why.”

Mr Clunas – who had earlier transported another boat without incident – was survived by his partner and two sons from a previous marriage.

The sheriff’s findings match those published following a probe by experts from the Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB)

Their report said: “The characteristics of boat two and the method in which it was carried created a load which became unstable so suddenly that any precautions taken by the crew were insufficient to prevent the accident. Although the pilot appeared to have jettisoned the boat from the helicopter, eyewitness accounts of it lifting quickly suggest there was insufficient time for this action to have had an effect.”

The report concluded that the pilot, the only person on board, was wearing a helmet but his chin strap buckle was not fastened.

The AAIB said that since the incident, the helicopter operator had taken steps to improve safety.

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