Grand Canyon helicopter crash: deaths of five Sussex holidaymakers were 'preventable'

A lawyer representing families of those killed in the Grand Canyon helicopter crash has called for a change to the law which may have saved their lives.

Tuesday, 4th December 2018, 4:41 pm
Updated Wednesday, 9th January 2019, 8:27 am
James Healy-Pratt, the lawyer representing the families of Becky Dobson, Stuart and Jason Hill and Ellie Milward, outside the West Sussex Coroner's Court in Crawley

Brothers Stuart and Jason Hill and Stuart's girlfriend Becky Dobson, all from Worthing, died on Saturday, February 10, while on holiday in Las Vegas to celebrate Stuart's 30th birthday.

They were on a helicopter trip over the Grand Canyon with friends Jonathan and Ellie Udall from Brighton, who were also on their honeymoon, when the aircraft crashed.

Stuart, 30, Jason, 31, and Becky, 26, all died at the scene. Jonathan, 31, died at University Medical Centre in Clark, Las Vegas, on February 22, and Ellie, 29, died on February 25.

James Healy-Pratt, the lawyer representing the families of Becky Dobson, Stuart and Jason Hill and Ellie Milward, outside the West Sussex Coroner's Court in Crawley

Speaking at a pre-inquest review into their deaths at Crawley Coroner's Court today, lawyer James Healy-Pratt said the accident was 'preventable' and his clients wanted to see crash-resistant fuel systems fitted to all helicopters to protect 'further and future innocent lives' in 'this jurisdiction and beyond'.

He said: "This terrible tragedy earlier this year was just another example of innocent passengers losing their lives in an accident that is survivable, and more needs to be done.

"More is being done to be fair, both in the US and Europe, but at the moment there is no rule that forces operators of these helicopters to retrofit safer fuel tanks, and that is something the families have a serious concern with."

Mr Healy-Pratt is representing the families of Becky, Stuart, Jason and Ellie, while Jonathan's family is being represented by Gudrun Young. Mr Udall’s parents, Philip and Marlene Udall, from Southampton, filed a lawsuit against tour operator Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters and manufacturer Airbus Helicopters earlier this year.

During the pre-inquest review, Mr Healy-Pratt drew the court's attention to an article in the Wall Street Journal, published on August 7 last year, which highlighted the issue of helicopter fuel systems, adding that the same make of helicopter that crashed in the Grand Canyon was also being used in Redhill, Surrey.

He said: "They shone a light on a problem that has been known within the helicopter industry for over 20 years; that helicopters can crash, but the fuel system isn't robust enough so people will burn to death, and that is what has happened over the past 20 years.

"There has been insufficient regulatory action by the authorities in Europe and the US, and manufacturers haven't done enough, and operators and owners of helicopters haven't done enough to warn people that travel in these civilian aircraft."

Speaking after the review, he said it would cost £75,000 to retrofit a crash-resistant fuel system onto a helicopter which is worth around £2m. He said: “What price do you put on human lives?”

The sole survivors of the crash were Jason's partner Jennifer Dorricott and the pilot Scott Booth. The court heard that she was recovering from her injuries and that the pilot had undergone a double leg amputation.

Representatives of Papillion who were at the pre-inquest review could not confirm if Mr Booth was still being employed by them.

The next pre-inquest review was scheduled for Wednesday, March 6, with coroner Penelope Schofield telling the families the inquest was unlikely to take place until the autumn.

At the request of Mr Healy-Pratt, the coroner invited Airbus and the Civil Aviation Authority to be involved in the inquest.

The coroner's office had previously secured statements from three Australian airmen who helped at the scene, and a witness who was at a wedding taking place nearby.

Witnesses at the inquest will be confirmed after an update from the National Transportation Safety Board in the US about their investigation, which is due to be announced on the one-year anniversary of the crash.

The deaths rocked the community, with hundreds of people attending a prayer service – so many that two had to be held that evening. Becky Dobson’s father also paid tribute to her following the tragedy.