The fatal 2009 air crash in which two members of the Irish Air Corps lost their lives in north Connemara was mostly likely caused by the pilots becoming disorientated in deteriorating weather conditions, a report from the Department of Transport’s air accident investigation unit has found.
Captain Derek Furniss (32 ) from Rathfarnham, Dublin, and Cadet David Jevens (22 ) from Glynn, Co Wexford, were killed when the aircraft nose dived into the side of a valley close to Lough Mask on October 12 2009.
The pair had earlier set off on a routine navigational training flight from Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel and were en route to Galway Airport when the crash occurred.
The cadet had been flying using visual flight rules, a system under which the pilot relies on what he can see rather than on instruments to steer the aircraft. Due to the deteriorating weather conditions and rising topography close to Lough Mask, it was decided to depart from the planned flight path for safety reasons.
However the aircraft then entered the steep-sided Crumlin Valley, and ascended into the clouds before rapidly descending into a northern slope of the valley. Cockpit recordings indicated that the instructor had taken control of the aircraft and was attempting to steer it out of the valley when the crash occurred.
The report found that poor weather conditions had been expected to change close to Maam due to a weather front in the area, but two other flights which arrived in Connemara after the crash took a different route to Galway to avoid this front.
Weather conditions in the area at the time were very foggy, and the significantly reduced visibility hampered the search for the stricken aircraft, which was located by witnesses on the ground.
The AAIU inspector found the crew had insufficient time to eject before the crash, and that due to spatial disorientation the instructor did not became aware of the plane’s true position until an accident was inevitable. The inspector said the crash was “not survivable”.
The report found that the rapidly variable weather conditions in the area at the time were a significant factor in the accident, along with the high speed of the aircraft and the spatial disorientation which occurs when a pilot has no visual reference to determine the position of the aircraft. The final manoeuvre of the aircraft indicated that, due to this disorientation, the pilot could have believed the plane was flying upside down, and mistakenly thought he was righting the aircraft.
The report made a number of recommendations aimed at preventing a similar tragedy in future, including a review of the information provided to flight crew on spatial disorientation.
Two other instructors who flew the same flight path on the day of the crash said they held Captain Furniss in high regard, and they considered Cadet Jevens to be “one of the better students” in his class. Captain Furniss was considered to be one of the most experienced pilots in the country on the model of plane involved in the crash.
In a statement, Defence Forces Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Sean McCann extended his sympathy to the Furniss and Jevens families on their loss.
“I fully appreciate that the passage of time will not have dulled their absolute sense of loss,” he said. “I fully accept the findings of the AAIU report and have ensured that all recommendations in the report have been implemented or are being implemented in order to manage the risks associated with training and operations in the Defence Forces.
“While I must ensure that members of the Defence Forces are trained to the highest possible standards in order to serve the Irish people, I am also acutely aware that we must continue to apply the highest international standards of risk management to ensure the safety and well being of all our personnel,” he added.