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Wednesday 26 July 2017

A drunken escapade leads to a chopper crash in the Foyle

A leaving party for Seán Hartnett's colleague, Gerry, was in full swing at 3am on a Friday in mid-July when he arrived back at his base at Ballykelly near Derry. What was to follow would go down in North Det folklore...

A leaving party for Seán Hartnett's colleague, Gerry, was in full swing at 3am on a Friday in mid-July when he arrived back at his base at Ballykelly near Derry. What was to follow would go down in North Det folklore...

As I passed the bar, I could hear bottles smashing and the sound of lads playing '9mm darts'. (This involved using pistols instead of darts and aiming at a replica dartboard painted on one of the walls in the bar.) North Det's parties were always extreme affairs.

I had only just got into bed when the familiar sound of the Gazelle helicopter engine whining into life drifted across the compound to my room. That's odd, I thought. We went to check the board to see who was the duty pilot that evening. Tonight the pilot was - Phil. Shit! We knew that could well mean trouble. I was told in the bar that Phil and Fred had "gone for a spin" with the helicopter.

I grabbed the 'honesty book' in the bar recording who had ordered drinks. Phil and Fred had signed to pay for five bottles of red wine between them. Where had they gone?

After fruitless efforts to contact the Gazelle by radio, I scanned the skies on the cameras for the next two hours, but there was there was no sign of the helicopter

By 6am, we were coming around to the belief that the situation was lost, when the intercom at the rear entrance to the compound buzzed.

There on the screen was Phil, huddled over in a dishevelled state. Besides some broken ribs and bruises he wasn't in too bad shape, and with great difficulty he gave us a rough indication of where Fred was.

We raced from the compound in two operator vehicles to the beaches of the Foyle estuary. Suddenly, about 200 metres in front of us, we spotted Fred on the beach.

He looked lifeless, and I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that we were too late. Fred had a broken leg, but more worryingly, there was spinal damage. I brought the car down the beach and we put Fred on a spinal board and positioned him carefully on the back seat.

We looked towards the dark waters of the Foyle. There, semi-submerged and upside down, was the Gazelle helicopter.

Later we heard from Phil how the Gazelle ended up in the Foyle.

Apparently, Fred had mentioned trying for the army air corps pilots' course, Phil offered to take Fred up for a lesson. Despite the intoxication, the flight had gone okay and they were almost back at base when, amazingly, Phil decided to hand the stick over to Fred and let him get a feel for what it's like to control an aircraft.

Drunk, flying in the dark and unfamiliar with the controls, Fred became disorientated and the helicopter plunged. As it hit the water it overturned, trapping the men in their seats below the waterline.

The icy-cold water of the Foyle flooded in. Phil managed to free himself and reach the surface. He went back underwater and freed the unconscious Fred from his seat before dragging him to the beach.

It was time for North Det to close ranks and cover up what had happened. We began by destroying evidence: the honesty book from the bar was shredded and then burned. The bar was cleaned until it was sparkling, and all recorded evidence of what happened was done away with.

Eventually, an investigation into the incident fizzled out and at a hearing it was found that the pilot was 'probably under the influence of alcohol'.

Phil had admitted to drinking between one and two glasses of wine at a social event five hours before the accident. And while the army said that Phil had been court-martialled and banned from flying, he was in fact still flying.

The official report said he was 'disorientated due to a lack of attention to flight instruments'. There was no mention of Fred being at the controls when the aircraft went down.

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