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Cley tragedy: How a flock of geese brought down a military helicopter

The scene of the helicopter crash at Cley. Photo: ITV News Anglia

Today on the north Norfolk coast, there was the usual collection of bird watchers attracted by the delights of an area rich in wildlife.

Cley is a popular destination because of the large range of birds.

But as was tragically proved earlier this year, they are considerable threat to low flying aircraft.

Cley is a popular destination for bird watchers. Credit: ITV News Anglia

Captains Christopher Stover and Sean Ruane, technical sergeant Dale Mathews and staff sergeant Afton M Ponce all died when their American Air Force Pave Hawk aircraft crashed on the Norfolk wildlife trust reserve earlier this year.

Capt Christopher Stover was among the four servicemen killed in the crash. Credit: Stover family

Today, the Air Accident Investigation Board published its findings about the accident.

The report confirmed what many people suspected, that it was a bird strike that caused the tragedy.

How the tragedy unfolded

  • Two helicopters took off at 5.33pm from Lakenheath on a training mission, and at 6.04pm they were flying at a height of 110 feet over Cley marshes.
The helicopter was brought down by a flock of geese, the report said. Credit: ITV News Anglia
  • A flock of geese then took flight, and the report suggests they were probably startled by the noise.
  • At least three geese smashed through the windscreen leaving the pilot, the co-pilot and the aerial gunner unconscious.
  • Another goose hit the front of the helicopter and disabled the flight stabilisation systems.
  • The aircraft banked to the left and hit the ground within three seconds of being struck by the geese.

The area was cordoned off for weeks, with the other American helicopter unable to leave for several days for fear of disturbing vital evidence at the crash site.

The bodies of the US aircrew are removed from the crash site. Credit: Jason Bye

When it did take off, the potential threat from birds was clear.

Today the base commander at Lakenheath gave his reaction to the findings.

"Generally the birds are a little bit further west at Blakeney, but in this particular case because of the big storms we had in December, they (the geese) were somewhere we didn't expect them to be.

They came in there some time that night, away from where they would normally roost."

– Col Kyle Robinson, 48th Fighter Wing

Local people have long had concerns about low flying aircraft in the area.

Simon Whatling is the manager of Cley Mill and says lessons need to be learned after the tragedy.

In light of what happened in January, they hope military aircraft will look for a different route to and from bases in East Anglia.

Click below to watch a report from ITV News Anglia's Malcolm Robertson