Seaham pilot and teenage passenger died when checking on friend's crash in French Alps
A pilot and his teenage passenger died when their plane crashed in the French Alps as they tried to check on another downed aircraft, an inquest has heard.
Andrew Buck, 37, and passenger Lewis Stubbs, 18, both tragically died when their two-seater light aircraft crashed during a trip from Northumberland to Malta in July 2019.
An inquest into their deaths, held at Sunderland Coroner’s Court, heard how they were travelling through the French Alps when the group – which consisted of four aircrafts – took a ‘wrong turn’ into a higher and narrower valley, the Maddalena Pass.
Three single-seater planes – piloted by Alexander Szymanski, Richard Pike and Samuel Woodgate – and a two-seater aircraft piloted by Mr Buck, of Seaham, had left England on July 21, 2019, following months of planning.
A report from the French Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety confirmed the group were met with perfect conditions, on July 24, as they took off from Barcelonnette-Saint-Pons Airfield, in France, to fly into Italy.
Mr Buck, with passenger Mr Stubbs, led the group to Larche where they circled to gain altitude in order to follow the Larche Pass but the group then flew up the wrong valley toward the Maddalena Pass – a ‘dead end’.
It was considered by French investigators that while circling Mr Buck may have became disorientated – although the journey until this point had passed without navigational errors and at the time his fellow pilots hadn’t immediately questioned the decision, the inquest heard.
Within seconds it became clear the group were heading the wrong way and three of the planes, including the one carrying Mr Buck and Mr Stubbs, were able to complete a 180 turn.
However, Mr Szymanski, who was at the lowest altitude, realised he had no other option but to carry out a forced emergency landing as he didn’t have the speed or height to complete the turn successfully.
The inquest heard he crashed onto the rocks below. His plane flipped onto its back but he was ‘miraculously’ uninjured and able to radio the rest of the group before fleeing the wreckage – although they never received this message.
On hearing of the crash, Mr Buck, who had logged approximately 70 flight hours, turned back into the pass.
Richard Pike, who witnessed the fatal crash that followed, told the coroner the plane attempted a tight left turn and began spiralling. He said: "The aircraft went straight into some trees, there was no fire or smoke, it just disappeared you couldn’t see it at all – it was very strange. It was very surreal and a very horrible thing to see.”
Samuel Woodgate, who said Mr Buck was a ‘very good pilot’, said: “I believe he performed a really abrupt turn in the panic of the situation to return back to where Alex’s crash site was and see what has happened. He has made that manoeuvre too slow and too aggressively which has led to the spinning.”
He said that Mr Buck would have ‘understood the dangers’ of the tight turn, adding: “But under the extreme stress – we all like to think how we are going to respond and what we are going to do on that particular day – he made a mistake.”
Both Mr Buck and Mr Stubbs, of Gateshead, suffered multiple bone fractures, head injuries and fatal internal organ damage in the crash.
The French investigators said in their report that Mr Buck’s ‘small amount of experience’ in mountain terrain and the stress of the first crash could have contributed to the 37-year-old pilot carrying out the turn and losing control of the plane, the inquest heard.
Referring to the incident as a ‘tragedy’, Sunderland assistant coroner Andrew Tweddle concluded both deaths were accidental.
He said he was satisfied there was ‘proper planning’ for the trip and there was ‘nothing to suggest anything untoward with the aircraft’.
"In my view it was an accident, it was ‘just one of those things’ with combination of all these factors going in the melting pot together and the outcome is the tragedy that we’re looking into today with the loss of two lives,” he added.