Cley US Air Force Helicopter Crash Report ‘Raises Concerns About Low Flying Over Nature Reserves’

HH-60G Pave Hawk Tragedy ‘Caused By Multiple Birdstrike’


Aviation lawyers acting for the loved ones of a member of the crew who died in a helicopter crash involving a US Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawk in Norfolk in January  have said that a new report into the incident has put a spotlight on the safety guidance regarding low level flights over nature reserves.

The United States Air Force Aircraft Accident Investigation Board Report states there is clear evidence that a birdstrike involving several geese was the cause of the tragedy during a training mission in the Cley area, when four service personnel were killed.

It was found that as the helicopter, which was part of a formation of two helicopters, flew around 110 feet above the ground at 110 knots, a flock of geese took flight from nearby Cley Marshes with at least three of the birds penetrating the windscreen of the helicopter, rendering the two pilots unconscious. 

In addition, another goose hit the nose of the helicopter, disabling the Trim and Flight Path Stabilization Systems, meaning that the helicopter’s cyclic stick, which controls pitch and roll, became free to move randomly.  With the pilots unconscious and the cyclic free to move, the helicopter banked left to a point where it had no vertical lift and impacted the ground.

Expert lawyers at MPH Solicitors, part of national law firm Irwin Mitchell, represent the family of a member of the crew killed in the incident and said the crash put a clear spotlight on the issue of bird activity around wildlife reserves  and the assessment of risk in relation to low-level military flights. 

The accident report states that the Blakeney Point Nature Reserve  - west of the planned route - is designated by the UK MOD as an area to avoid due to high bird activity, but the area of Cley Marshes wildlife trust was indicated by the January 2014 UK bird activity map as an area of low bird activity.  In the report it is made clear that Blakeney Point restriction was appropriately marked on the map and the crew did not enter that nature reserve. However, the helicopter’s flight over the Cley Marsh wildlife reserve likely startled a flock of geese, causing them to take off and impact the aircraft.

As well as acting in relation to this incident, Irwin Mitchell also notably acts for victims and the families of those killed in offshore helicopter crashes in October 2012 and in August last year, as well as the crash of an Augusta Westland helicopter in Vauxhall, London in January 2013. They also work with Irwin Mitchell Scotland on behalf of victims of the Clutha Vaults helicopter disaster in Glasgow last year.

Jim Morris, a partner in Irwin Mitchell’s Aviation Law team and a former RAF pilot, has himself experienced birdstrike while conducting low level military training flights.

Expert Opinion
Hitting a bird during low level flight is a risk – even a relatively small bird such as a pigeon can cause significant damage. Three geese hitting the windscreen at 110 knots is catastrophic, so it is not surprising that such an impact incapacitated the crew, with tragic consequences.

"Although military low-level flying at day and night carries with it far higher risks - including birdstrike - than normal civilian flights, practicing this type of flying is essential for military aircrew to ensure that they gain the necessary skills and experience for actual combat and rescue missions.

"The USAF report found that the crew had complied with all regulations applicable to low-level night-time rotary wing training and flight and had followed al available guidance on bird hazards in the UK.

"However, in light of the fact that the January 2014 UK bird activity map indicated low bird activity over the Cley Marshes, when in fact a flock of geese was there at the time of the accident, indicates that there may be measures that could help prevent a similar accidents in the future. One such measure may be for the MOD to consider imposing more restrictions in relation to low-level flights over nature reserves.

"Following the release of this report, we are continuing to work on behalf of our clients to ensure that they are able to get the further answers they need and, ultimately, gain reassurance that adequate steps are being taken to prevent anyone else from facing the ordeals they have experienced."
Jim Morris, Partner