Cavalier pilot, 52, jailed for three and a half years

Cavalier pilot, 52, whose light aircraft ‘fell out of the sky’ after he overloaded it with three birdwatchers to make an £800 profit is jailed for three and a half years

  • Robert Murgatroyd left three passengers injured in the Piper Cherokee aircraft
  • The 52-year-old had been hired to fly three birdwatchers on an 800 mile trip
  • The plane was 50 per cent above its maximum capacity of 55 stone
  • It was overloaded by 29 stone due to the size of passengers, luggage and fuel 
  • Murgatroyd had a history of severe aviation misconduct spanning two decades

Robert Murgatroyd (pictured above) has been jailed for three-and-a-half years after being convicted of endangering the safety of a person and an aircraft, flying without the relevant licence, failing to comply with insurance regulations plus three other charges under the Air Navigation Order 2016

A cavalier pilot with a 22-year history of flouting aviation laws was jailed today for overloading his plane with customers in pursuit of an £800 profit, causing it to ‘fall out of the sky’.

Robert Murgatroyd received a three-and-a-half year sentence after being found culpable for the 2017 crash, in which three people were injured.    

The 52-year-old had previously been convicted for flying an unsafe plane which crashed killing two men, as well as for illegally operating public transport flights. 

He had also run a commercial airline which went bust owing £1 million and was criticised over another double fatal light aircraft crash.

But despite his background, Murgatroyd was free to fly three birdwatchers on an 800-mile round trip to the Scottish island of Barra on the Outer Hebrides on September 17 2017.

The 1972 Piper Cherokee four-seater aircraft was overloaded by 29 stone and 20% above its maximum capacity due to the size of the men plus luggage and excess fuel. 

It subsequently ‘fell out of the sky’ as it tried in vain to clear a row of 300-foot pylons shortly after take-off in bad weather from City Airport formerly known as Barton Aerodrome near Eccles, Greater Manchester.

The aircraft twice flew over the neighbouring M62 motorway as it made a mid-air U turn in an attempt to fly back to the airport. But it clipped a tree and crash landed in a potato field 160 yards from the motorway causing its left wing and undercarriage to be ripped away and its fuel tanks to rupture.

The Piper Cherokee (pictured above) after the crash which injured three passengers in September 2017

Robert Murgatroyd (pictured above) had tried to claim he was a ‘hero’ and should be featured in a Hollywood movie

One passenger suffered a serious cut to his forehead whilst another was left with fractured ribs. In the moments before the impact, Murgatroyd was overheard saying: ‘There’s not enough power – we’re not going to make it.’

Police arrested and quizzed Murgatroyd about the 9.30am accident near the Manchester Ship Canal but he claimed he was a ‘hero’ for avoiding any deaths. 

He also joked Warner Brothers film studios had contacted him about a ‘remake’ of the Tom Hanks movie Sully about the 2009 landing of a US Airways passenger jet on the Hudson River in New York – and rename it ‘Miracle on the Ship Canal.’

Murgatroyd, from Garstang, Lancs who usually operated from an air strip at Blackpool told police: ‘Without blowing my own trumpet, if it hadn’t been for me on that fight that day you’d have been collecting four dead people out of that field.’

The light aircraft (pictured above) was 50 per cent above its maximum capacity of 55 stone

The wreckage of the plane (pictured above) which was over capacity by 29 stone, and crashed shortly after take-off dangerously close to the M62 motorway 

But inquiries revealed Murgatroyd had been prosecuted in 2014 after an unairworthy Piper PA plane he owned crashed in the Swiss Alps killing the pilot and a passenger. 

The plane’s equivalent of a car’s MoT certificate had expired 44 days before the crash on the Jura mountainside in October 2011, and during the days before the tragedy it had been on 28 separate flights.

A Swiss inquiry blamed a pilot error for the crash but condemned the lack of an airworthiness certificate and Murgatroyd was later fined £333. 

The businessman, who once owned 20 aircraft and two helicopters was also fined £1,500 in 1997 for false representation.

Murgatroyd had a history of severe aviation misconduct spanning two decades and had run a commercial airline which went bust owing £1.15 million

His business Comed Aviation collapsed in 2001 owing £1.15 million, but it is thought he set up another aviation firm. 

In 2008 he was once again accused of wrongdoing after another plane he owned crashed off the coast of Blackpool killing the inexperienced pilot and 81-year old co-pilot.

At an inquest it was claimed Murgatroyd had said the elderly co-pilot was a qualified instructor when in fact the pensioner did not hold an instructors licence due to him being ‘medically unfit’.


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Now, Murgatroyd has been convicted at Manchester Crown Court of endangering the safety of a person and an aircraft, flying without the relevant licence, failing to comply with insurance regulations plus three other charges under the Air Navigation Order 2016.

It is the first time a pilot has been prosecuted at a a crown court for such offences.

Sentencing Judge Michael Leeming told him: ‘You were prepared to put your own life at risk and the lives of your three passengers as they put their lives in your hands. There were risks to the motorists below if you had crash landed on the runway and as the aircraft was fully laden with fuel it would have ensured a scene of carnage.

‘The author of a pre-sentence report described you as a calculated risk taker with a limited responsibility even now for what occurred and a lack of understanding of the seriousness of what happens. 

The plane took off from City Airport in Greater Manchester (pictured above) 

‘They describe you as having no victim empathy and said you seemed to blame your victims for not pointing it to out to you that the aircraft was overweight. But that was your responsibility.

‘Somebody might easily have been killed. There was a high degree of recklessness. Even now you seek to portray yourself as the hero of the hour, you are arrogant and wholly unfit to hold any further license of an aircraft. 

‘You are a cavalier operator and an air accident waiting to happen. Pilots are trusted to abide by their licenses. Only an immediate custodial sentence can be justified.’

The accident occurred after Murgatroyd, who obtained his pilot’s licence in 1986 and who had 15,000 hours of flying experience, was asked to fly the bird watchers to Scotland so they could join 110 other ‘Twitchers’ to see the American Red Start which had been spotted on Barra – the first time it had seen in the UK since 1985.

 Murgatroyd claimed he had allowed the bird watchers on his aircraft under a ‘cost sharing’ scheme and described the overloading of the aircraft as an ‘oversight’

He quoted £500 per passenger for the Piper PA-28 aircraft which can carry a maximum weight of 55 stone including fuel, but the court heard the three bird watchers Alan Whitehead, Adam Archer and Ray Harrington had a combined weight of 45 stone and arrived with luggage including cameras and binoculars which they had to keep on their knees.

Murgatroyd, who himself weighed 14 stone, then filled the plane with 100 litres of highly flammable petrol-type fuel which was above the recommended level of a half-full tank for four passengers.

He initially attempted a ‘practice takeoff’ along the 641m grass runway which had puddles along it but despite the plane showing no signs of lifting off the ground during the acceleration test, he taxi-ed the aircraft into rough grass at the start of the runway and then went for actual take-off. 

Firefighters at the airport were so concerned they put on their protective clothing in anticipation of an emergency.

One of the passengers Alan Whitehead who was sat in the front passenger seat said: ‘The pilot pulled the throttle and off we went. He didn’t say what to do in an emergency or in a crash, no life jackets or procedures were given. Visibility was very poor, it was raining heavily and it was a small tiny windscreen.

The crashed Piper PA28 aircraft piloted by Robert Murgatroyd who has been jailed for three and a half years at at Manchester Crown Court after he crashed the plane with three birdwatchers on board

‘We were in the air and all of a sudden the plan banked to the left, it tilted, I looked below and I could see the motorway. I few more seconds went in and then I heard the comment: “not enough power”. It wasn’t very reassuring.

‘Then I heard it hit something which sounded like the top of a tree then we crashed in the field. I banged my head. At first I didn’t know where the blood was coming from and I was panicking. I was covered in blood and I could then smell petrol. It was all a bit of a blur.’

Adam Archer who was in the back said: ‘When the plane was in the air, it wasn’t too long before it sounded like when a car goes up a hill on a low gear and it’s making a lot of noise, there seemed to be a loss of power on the aircraft – but there was no discussion or talking about it.

The plane took off from City Airport in Manchester (pictured) before having to make a U turn on the M62

‘We just seemed to lose power and I remember seeing pylons in the distance and I thought if we didn’t get anymore power we’re not going to make this. The plane banked sharply and we hit the top of the trees going over the motorway then we landed with a sudden jolt. There was a really strong smell of fuel and a lot of blood from Alan’s injuries.

‘As we hit the deck Alan and the pilot hit their heads on the dashboard of the plane. Alan was in quite a bad way and he was shouting: “you have killed us! What have you done to us?!” When I smelt the fuel, I thought there was a chance it could burst into flames.’

Murgatroyd claimed he had allowed the bird watchers on his aircraft under a ‘cost sharing’ scheme despite rules saying the pilot cannot own the plane. He described the overloading of the aircraft as an ‘oversight.’

His lawyer Hugh O’Donohue said: ‘He is unlikely to be involved in flying again.’

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