The death of a British tourist killed by a helicopter rotor blade could lead to an overhaul of safety measures for what has become an increasingly popular form of travel around the Greek islands.
As investigations into the incident intensified, Greece’s chief air accident investigator told the Guardian his main concern was why the aircraft’s engines were still engaged when Jack Fenton and his friends disembarked from it on Monday.
“That was the question I asked the pilot and the ground engineers: why were the engines still running?” said Ioannis Kondylis, who heads the country’s Air Accident Investigation and Aviation Safety Board. “And they responded they have two procedures, both approved by civil aviation.”
The first, he said, allowed passengers to disembark when the aircraft’s propellers were still in motion if doors were opened from the outside and ground staff escorted them to the terminus. The second required engines being switched off.
“I think as a precaution, for obvious safety reasons, we will be recommending the procedure is changed and the engines are turned off,” he added, saying the state-run organization would be sending the results of its own investigation not only to the Greek government but also to the UK Civil Aviation Authority.
Fenton, 22, was killed instantly when he was struck by the tail rotor of a Bell 407 helicopter that, at the end of a birthday celebration holiday, had brought him and a group of friends from Mykonos. The privately chartered aircraft, part of a fleet operated by the Megara-based company Superior Air, had only minutes earlier landed at the Lolos helipad close to Athens international airport.
Spinning at up to 500 rotations a second, the propeller would have been virtually invisible, experts say.
Greek police initially suggested the incident had occurred when the Oxford Brookes student, defying regulations, had attempted to take a selfie after safely disembarking. Local media reported Fenton had been running back towards the aircraft’s tail with his mobile phone in hand as horrified onlookers shouted at him to stop.
But a schoolfriend traveling with Fenton has reportedly denied that version of events, claiming they had neither been escorted to the helipad’s terminus nor given any instructions as they exited the aircraft.
“All they did was open the doors for us,” Jack Stanton-Gleaves was quoted as telling Mail Online. “We disembarked on our own and no one stopped Jack from going to the rear of the helicopter.”
The aircraft’s pilot and two ground engineers were briefly arrested but were released pending the results of an emergency inquiry ordered by a Greek public prosecutor. All could face charges of involuntary manslaughter if alleged to have been negligent.
Kondylis conceded ongoing investigations would ultimately hinge on witness testimony and any other factual information because, unlike plans, helicopters did not have flight data and cockpit voice recorders.
“We cannot just accept what they say,” he said, referring to Superior Air. “They have to show proof. We are waiting for evidence of their written procedures and their airways’ manual. I have learned that there were five other passengers waiting in the [airstrip] terms [to board helicopters] and they will have seen what happened. Their evidence will be very important. Perhaps one of them took a video, factual information that cannot be denied.”