Not long ago, Lord Sugar was blithely sending Apprentice winners on ‘VIP’ chopper rides and allowing BBC crews to show him turning up at business meetings in a helicopter.
Times have changed. For after learning of the crash that killed basketball star Kobe Bryant, the nation’s most famous plutocrat has announced his intention to ditch the Bond-villain-style mode of transport.
Lord Sugar now appears to believe helicopters are unsafe, basing his opinion on both his understanding of ‘physics’ and the 2018 accident which killed Leicester City’s chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha.
‘Terrible news,’ he said of Bryant’s death. ‘What with the Leicester owner last year, it just enforces my hatred of helicopters. I have had to use them a few times, but no more. They defy physics and I am a qualified pilot.’
Scene of the hillside where the helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant crashed in Calabasas, CA
Plenty of armchair pundits seem to agree. Indeed, calls for the aviation authorities to boost helicopter safety were trending on social media yesterday.
Some observers were even suggesting that all passengers ought now to be provided with parachutes. The reaction appears to have been fuelled by a number of high-profile helicopter disasters.
In the 1990s, Chelsea owner Matthew Harding perished when his chopper went down in Cheshire in poor weather. A decade later, Scottish rally driver Colin McRae died along with his five-year-old son and two friends in a crash near his home in Lanark. An inquiry found that he carried out low-level flying ‘when it was unnecessary and unsafe to do so’.
Both incidents attracted widespread coverage due to the celebrity of the victims. As did a ‘near-miss’ involving Sir Paul McCartney in 2012. His pilot became disorientated while approaching his Sussex estate in poor weather and ended up narrowly missing trees following an aborted landing.
Kobe Bryant is pictured with his daughter Gianna at the WNBA All Star Game at Mandalay Bay Events Center in July last year. She was also killed in the crash on Sunday
Like basketball star Bryant, he was travelling in a Sikorsky S-76 – a model invented in the 1970s for use in the oil industry. Public fears over helicopter safety also seem to have been heightened by recent tragedies involving sightseeing flights by tourists. A run of three such fatal crashes, in New York, the Grand Canyon and on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, occurred within a few months in 2018.
Then there’s the creeping suspicion that the way in which helicopters fly somehow makes them intrinsically dangerous.
So what’s the truth? The straight answer is that it’s a matter of opinion. A more nuanced one is that it depends on both your attitude to risk and how you interpret various statistics about accident rates.
The 2018 accident which killed Leicester City’s chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha outside of the club’s King Power Stadium
Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha looks on following the Premier League match between Leicester City and West Ham United at The King Power, not long before his ill-fated journey
Perhaps the most widely-quoted numbers are those collected by America’s Federal Aviation Administration, which will co-ordinate the investigation into Bryant’s death. They show that helicopters experience 3.45 accidents per 100,000 flight hours and 0.93 fatal ones in the last year for which figures are available. In the aviation industry as a whole, the comparable rate is 0.84 fatal accidents.
In years gone by, the figure was far worse – between 2000 and 2005 there were 2.36 fatalities per 100,000 hours flown by helicopters.
However, those numbers do not necessarily compare like with like.
David Gleave, an aviation safety investigator, says: ‘Helicopters have a higher accident rate than conventional fixed-wing aircraft per hour of flying.
‘But if you consider it on a per-mile basis, the accident rate is much, much higher, because they don’t travel anything like as fast.’
In 1996, Chelsea owner Matthew Harding perished when his chopper went down in Cheshire in poor weather. The crash site is shown in a police picture from the time
Matthew Harding died while flying back from a Chelsea match at Bolton Wanderers, along with the pilot and three passengers, including journalist John Bauldie
Gleave regards helicopters as ‘relatively risky, but that doesn’t mean unacceptably risky’. He attributes much of the increased risk to the technical complexity and their rotating parts.
But some of it also reflects the fact that they are often used to undertake hazardous journeys unsuitable for fixed-wing aircraft. Helicopters are often used in search-and-rescue missions, which frequently happen in poor weather conditions. One of the most common uses in the UK is to ferry staff to and from oil rigs. A North Sea helicopter crash in 2009 killed 16 people 150 miles north east of Peterhead. Another 13 died in 2016 in an accident off the coast of Norway. Recent years have been relatively incident free.
The five-year fatality rate in Scotland for offshore helicopters is zero, meaning no one has died since 2015. The most high-profile tragedy in recent years occurred inland when a police helicopter crashed into the Clutha bar in Glasgow, killing seven pubgoers and three people on board. In London, the busiest UK city for choppers, there were 18,662 helicopter journeys last year without any accidents. The last fatal crash occurred in 2013 – more than 100,000 journeys ago.
An air accident investigator next to the debris of the helicopter that crashed in Cheshire
Gung-ho pilots can occasionally get things wrong. The other most common cause of accidents is a mechanical failure, as occurred with the Leicester City crash, where a pin controlling the helicopter’s tail rotor snapped.
Unlike planes, which can be safely landed if one or even two engines pack in, a helicopter becomes impossible to pilot if the tail rotor – which holds it straight – stops working. However, it’s perfectly possible to avoid disaster if the main rotor packs in.
Julian Bray, an aviation expert, says: ‘You can land a helicopter if the main engines go. The rotor will slow down, but it doesn’t fall out of the sky. The tail rotor is the dangerous one because then the helicopter becomes a sort of corkscrew.’
Terrifying as that sounds, the chance of such an event occurring is relatively tiny. And a helicopter can take you to places other forms of transport cannot reach at speeds they find impossible to match.
In other words, the question of whether you want to step into one involves an old-fashioned trade-off between risk and reward.