Pilot Andrew Buck and Lewis Stubbs killed when checking crashed plane

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Andrew BuckImage source, Family photo
Image caption,
Andrew Buck was inexperienced at flying in mountainous areas, a coroner heard

A pilot and his teenage passenger were killed when they crashed while checking on a downed plane, a coroner has heard.

Andrew Buck, 37, and Lewis Stubbs, 18, died when their light aircraft hit trees in the French Alps in July 2019.

Their inquest heard they were part of a group of four planes from Eshott in Northumberland which took a wrong turn up a valley on their journey to Malta.

Sunderland assistant coroner Andrew Tweddle said it was a "tragedy" and concluded both deaths were accidental.

Image source, Family handout
Image caption,
Lewis Stubbs was a passenger in the two-seater plane

The inquest heard the three single-seater planes and the two-seater piloted by Mr Buck left England on 21 July 2019, travelling in 80-minute legs.

On 24 July, they took off from Barcelonnette-Saint-Pons Airfield in France to fly into Italy in "perfect" weather conditions, a report from the French Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety said.

The route had been well planned with advice from French pilots on how to get around the mountains, the inquest heard, although Mr Buck lacked experience of flying over such terrain.

Mr Buck led the party to Larche, where they circled to gain enough altitude before planning to follow the Larche Pass, the inquest heard.

But they then flew up the wrong valley, the "dead end" Maddalena Pass, with Mr Buck's fellow pilots later speculating he may have become disorientated during the circling, the French investigators said.

Fellow pilot Samuel Woodgate said he had some "niggling doubts" when they headed up the valley but he only realised they had actually gone the wrong way when he saw "the terrain rising" beneath him.

He said from the circling area, the two valleys "were like parallel paths" and the one they ended up in "did look roughly in the direction I expected which added to the confusion".

Three of the planes managed to turn around but the fourth, piloted by Alexander Szymanski, had to make a forced landing as it had neither the speed or height to complete the manoeuvre.

Mr Szymanski told the inquest his plane flipped over on the ground but he was uninjured and able to radio the others before fleeing the wreckage.

Image source, Sapeurs-pompiers des Alpes de Haute-Provence
Image caption,
Andrew Buck's plane crashed into trees in the Alps

Mr Buck, who had logged about 70 hours of flying compared to the 150 to 400 hours of the other three pilots, turned back to check on Mr Szymanski after hearing of the crash.

A report from the French police said he made the turn "at too low a speed and too steep an angle" causing the plane to stall and spin into trees, with both Mr Buck from Seaham and Mr Stubbs from Gateshead suffering head injuries, bone fractures and fatal internal organ damage.

Mr Woodgate said: "I believe he performed a really abrupt turn in the panic of the situation to get back to see where Alex had crashed.

"Andrew will have understood the dangers of being in that situation but under the extreme stress he made a mistake."

He said although Mr Buck had the least flying hours of any of the four pilots, he was a "very good pilot" and "I held his flying in high regard".

The French investigators said Mr Buck lacked experience of flying in mountain areas which, coupled with the "stress of the accident", may have led to the loss of control.

Mr Tweddle said there was a "combination of all factors going in the melting point" to cause the "tragedy".

Ruling the deaths accidental, he said he was "satisfied" there had been "proper planning" of the flight and the "key thing" was "nobody would have done a wrong turn deliberately".

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