Pilot 'dead before he hit the ground' inquest finds

Flight Lieutenant Mike Blee

Flight Lieutenant Mike Blee

First published in Fareham

An RAF reservist killed alongside a teenage cadet was "dead before the aircraft hit the ground" following a mid-air crash with a glider, an inquest jury has found.

Flight Lieutenant Mike Blee, 62, and Nicholas Rice, 15, died after the RAF training plane they were in collided with a glider flown by Albert Freeborn, from Hampshire, over Abingdon, Oxfordshire, in 2009.

Their craft took 24 seconds to plummet to the ground after the collision on June 14, Oxford Coroner's Court heard.

A jury of four men and six women took just over 11 hours to return a narrative verdict.

The panel said its verdict was one of accidental death with a number of contributory factors, including Flt Lt Blee's serious spinal condition, which meant his ability to look out was compromised and left his back vulnerable to breaks.

The inquest had heard evidence that Flt Lt Blee - who was piloting the plane - might have been killed on impact with the glider flown by Mr Freeborn, from Portchester, such was the severity of his back problem.

The jury foreman told the court: "The majority of the jury, nine to one, agree that the pilot was dead before the aircraft hit the ground."

She told the coroner that both deaths were contributed to by the pilot's medical condition and subsequent incapacitation after the crash, adding that a lack of abandonment training contributed to Nicholas's death.

The week-long inquest heard that the two-seater Tutor plane nosedived after the crash at 4,150ft.

Flt Lt Blee suffered from ankylosing spondylitis, an inflammatory spinal disorder which causes fusion of the bones in the spine and the neck.

Pathologist Dr Kenneth Shorrock, who carried out post-mortem examinations on both victims, told the inquest the condition can reduce the ability to turn or raise the head and make the spine more prone to become broken.

Asked by Alison Thompson, deputy Oxfordshire coroner, whether the condition would have compromised his ability to look out from the aircraft, he said: "On the basis of my objective findings - what I saw - most certainly, and from what I have seen from his medical records, that would tend to confirm that."

The doctor said the post-mortem examination showed that Flt Lt Blee had a "rigid" spine which was fractured in three areas and a broken neck.

Dr Andrei Calin, a consultant rheumatologist, told the inquest jury he believed the impact with the glider would have had sufficient effect to cause Flt Lt Blee's spine to fracture and it was possible he was dead before the aircraft hit the ground.

The doctor, who never examined the pilot, said that based on information he had seen, he considered his spinal condition to be "at the far end of the spectrum" of seriousness.

He said: "A minimal jarring event would put the spine at risk of fracture, just snapping."

The inquest heard there was heavy glider traffic in the area on the day of the collision because of good weather conditions.

In a statement read by their solicitor after the verdicts, Flt Lt Blee's family said: "Mike was a loving husband, father, son and brother and continues to be sorely missed.

"He lived a full and active life and positively contributed to the lives of many. He was highly respected by his colleagues and fondly remembered by all who knew him.

"Our condolences remain with the Langley Rice family, whose loss was so tragically entwined with our own."

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