8th Dec, 2016

Air crash couple death report published

Solihull Editorial 11th Mar, 2016 Updated: 21st Oct, 2016

AN ENGINE fault and weather conditions contributed to a light aircraft crash which killed a couple and left their young son fighting for his life.

Former Knowle man Lewis Tonkinson, 50, who was piloting the plane, and wife Sally, 44, both died when it crashed in Hampshire in January last year. Their six year-old son George was left critically ill.

Company director Mr Tonkinson, who had just over 200 hours flying experience, was piloting his 2011 built Alpi Pioneer 400 from Bembridge on the Isle of Wight when it crashed in Blackwood Forest just after 3.40pm on a Saturday afternoon. The family had been heading to Bidford Airfield. Mr Tonkinson had owned the plane for less than two months.

The couple, who lived in the village of Cookhill, were pronounced dead at the scene but their son was found unconscious in the wreckage of the plane. He was flown by air ambulance to Southampton General Hospital’s specialist neurological unit.

The Air Accident Investigation Branch report says during the flight occasional low cloud and poor visibility may have meant Mr Tonkinson was at times unable to see the ground.

It says as the plane approached Popham Airfield it manoeuvred as if preparing to land but then stalled and hit trees before crashing into the ground.

It was later discovered that in addition to problems caused by the weather there was also a problem with the engine’s turbocharger control which could have resulted in the engine seizing up in flight.

In its conclusions the report states: “When the pilot reached the mainland coast it was likely that he saw a deterioration in the weather that eroded the safety margins for VFR (visual flight rules) flight.

“At this early stage, it would have been prudent to divert to a suitable nearby airfield or to have turned back to Bembridge.

“Whilst a very specific defect occurred on this aircraft, the engine was still capable of being operated safely with an increased level of pilot monitoring and awareness.

“The engine most likely only stopped as a result of the throttle being moved by the pilot to a setting where a damaging level of manifold pressure was reached.”

It added the poor weather conditions at Popham meant Mr Tonkinson, who had “limited flying experience”, had to fly below the normal circuit height.

The report continued: “This would have increased his workload and reduced the time available in which to make critical decisions. When combined with the additional workload created by the engine fault, this may have led to the circumstances surrounding the failure of the engine and would then have limited the options available when confronted with the need to perform a forced landing.”

The couple had been married just over a year and Mr Tonkinson had celebrated his 50th birthday just three days before the tragedy.