Crashed helicopter had ‘massive jolt’ after it took off, hit trees and shook violently

A helicopter carrying horse racing owner and racecourse founder Dai Walters had a “massive jolt” before flying out of control and crashing, a report has shown. Walters, one of Wales’ most well-known businessmen and horse racing fanatic, was among six people on board the helicopter when it crashed near Ruthin in Denbighshire in 2022.

Walters, a former coal mine labourer who built the Ffos Las racecourse and has poured millions into racing, sustained serious injuries and was taken to intensive care. Four passengers including trainer Sam Thomas also sustained minor injuries in the accident.

A report by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch has revealed how that on the day of the crash the pilot had been tasked with transporting five passengers to and from a field landing site in north Wales for a day’s game shooting.

READ MORE: The extraordinary story of racehorse owner and construction titan Dai Walters

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The pilot refuelled the helicopter before flying to the owner’s private landing site in Lisvane, Cardiff, at 8.30am that morning and embarked the passengers and their luggage. They arrived at the shooting lodge in Llanelidan at around 9.20am. Walters and the other passengers got off and the pilot flew to a nearby airfield where he refuelled the aircraft again.

The return flight to Cardiff was supposed to take off at around 4.30pm – before sunset – but did not depart until after passengers had returned from the shooting lodge and taken their seats at around 5.15pm, by which time it was almost dark. The pilot said he remembered seeing the passengers “rearranging their seatbelts” after sitting down but did not visually confirm they had securely fastened them prior to the cabin door being closed.

The landing site was unlit but the pilot felt able to conduct a vertical departure and could see what he described as a “vague horizon” ahead, the report said, adding that he judged that lights from the shooting lodge’s windows to his right would be an adequate marker for the departure climb.

The helicopter’s initial climb proceeded as the pilot expected but passing approximately 30 to 40 feet, he felt what he described as a “massive jolt” before the helicopter began shaking violently and fell to the ground, ending up on its right side at Nantclwyd Lodge, near Llanelidan. It was found the helicopter’s main rotor blades had struck nearby trees and “sustained catastrophic damage”.

The crash scene(Image: © Andrew Price / View Finder Pictures)

After the helicopter stopped moving, the pilot unstrapped himself and stood up to open the left cockpit door, which was by now above him. He reported hearing the rotor head spinning at high speed but was unable to stop it despite applying the rotor brake.

He climbed out of the helicopter and opened the cabin door where four of the passengers were able to get out with some assistance, while Walters was lying unconscious at the bottom of the cabin in “significant medical distress”. He was eventually removed with help from the pilot, the other passengers and onlookers at the scene, carried to the lodge and given CPR by the pilot under the guidance of the emergency services operator.

Walters sustained serious injuries in the accident and was subsequently hospitalised for several months. The report said he had been sitting in the right rear cabin seat. The other passengers had been thrown from their seats during the accident and some, if not all, had ended up on top of him, according to the report.

Welsh Business man and race horse owner, Dai Walters

Walters, who was 76 at the time of the accident, has poured millions of pounds into horse racing over the years and his fortune is entirely self-made having started out as an apprentice labourer at an opencast site in south Wales in the 1970s. The Walters Group website describes how after work as a labourer, greengrocer and tree planter, at 20 years old he took a job as an apprentice fitter at the Wimpey operated Maesgwyn opencast coal mine.

He rose up the ranks at various opencast sites around Wales before establishing Walters Group, which has been involved in some major construction projects in Wales, including being awarded the earthworks contract for the construction of the 6km long M4 Prince of Wales Bridge approach road in 1993.

The business has expanded as far as Australia and in 2001 the first World Rally Championship event was held at the “Walters Arena”, constructed on part of the restored Maesygwyn opencast site. In 2017 it saw its turnover pass £120m for the first time and as of 2020 Walters and his son Richard who runs Caerphilly-based Celtic Energy coalmining company were reported to be worth a combined £264m.

The businessman suffered a broken neck and back, eight smashed ribs, a battered sternum and heel in the accident and told the Telegraph in April 2023 he also contracted Covid, pneumonia and sepsis during his recovery. He told the paper: “They didn’t think I’d pull through, they said not many would have survived pneumonia, Covid and sepsis.

“I’m getting my strength back but I can’t stick it for too long and I’ll watch the race on television from home. It’s nice to win any big race and it is one of the biggest.”

Walters has poured millions into horse racing and even opened a racecourse in Wales on the site of a former opencast mine(Image: Mirrorpix)

The report also said at least four of the five passengers onboard the helicopter had not been wearing seatbelts. It said it was “likely that, had all passengers been secured by their seat harnesses, the level of injuries sustained could have been less severe”.

No technical issues or failures were found with the helicopter that led to it crashing, but the report identified a number of issues which it said might have prevented the accident. These included “contradictory and potentially confusing” information relating to take-off and landing protocols for the journeys at night, and an “airgap of information” where data such as sunset time and acceptable sector fuel loads were available in the helictoper operator’s planning tool but not presented to the pilot.

It also found the visual cues for take-off were “inadequate” as it was dark with overcast cloud and little cultural lighting other than that from the lodge’s windows. It also said the helicopter was overweight on the day, with its all-up weight at the time of the accident an estimated 3,237 kg, slightly above the limit of 3,175 kg. It said this may have been attributed to the pilot “not completing auditable weight and balance(WB) calculations” before taking his first journey that morning.

Following the accident, the helicopter’s operator took actions including updating its operations manual and log pages, issuing additional instructions to pilots regarding updating company landing site directory entries, reminding pilots about safety briefings, procuring deployable lighting sets for use on flights where there was a risk of an unscheduled night takeoff due to delays, and instructing its onshore pilots to undertake an annual night flying training programme.

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