The tragedy of London’s helicopter crash is a stark reminder of similar horror faced by the people of Glasgow’s suburbs in 1990.
The anniversary of the Eastwood Toll helicopter tragedy will be commemorated on January 24, marking 23 years since a police helicopter crashed in a violent blizzard.
The helicopter, loaned to Strathclyde Police from Radio Clyde, hit a snowstorm after being scrambled to the scene of a robbery. Sudden engine failure between Newton Mearns and Barrhead in East Renfrewshire caused the pilot to lose control of the aircraft.
The helicopter’s rotor blades clipped a block of pensioner flats, sending the aircraft tumbling 70ft to the ground.
Father-of-four Sergeant Malcolm Herd, 32, lost his life in the crash and pilot Graham Pryke, 47, was left fighting for survival at Glasgow’s Southern General.
The remaining two passengers, Inspector John Muir, 44 and Sergeant William Shields, 32 suffered minor injuries, but were able to walk free from the wreckage after surviving the helicopter’s terrifying fall from the sky.
McLaren Court – a residence for the elderly known locally as The Thumb – was evacuated following the event after kerosene bled from the remains of the aircraft.
Although many of the residents reported at the time that they were startled by the event, none were injured and the sandstone building bore limited damage.
Emergency services were quick to arrive on the scene, tending to the victims as snow fell around the crash site.
In a sad twist of fate, before being diverted to the robbery the helicopter was initially sent up to report on the day’s bad weather, which later contributed to the tragedy.
Bobby Whitelaw, a sound recordist for Scottish Television at the time, was sent out in the helicopter to get shots of the weather and recalls how it very nearly could have been him in the crash.
Bobby, 63, said: “We were sent out, myself and cameraman Gordon Cool, by the news editor to get weather shots.
“We went to Clyde Helicopters and Captain George took us out to Fenwick Moor because there was a big traffic jam.
“We filmed the area and Captain George said to Gordon: ‘Do you want to land and get some shots from the ground?’”
Gordon’s response was to be one that could well have saved the three men. He declined as filming was needed at Love Street, the home of St Mirren, because there was to be a game held there that night.
“We went to Love Street and flew back to the Clyde helipad, said our goodbyes and came back to STV, which was out at Cowcaddens at the time,” Bobby explained.
“As we arrived back, Fiona Ross – the political editor at the time – jumped in our car to go out on another job.
“She said to us: ‘I see there’s a Clyde Helicopter just come down.’
“Gordon and I were so surprised and said that we’d just come out of one, it couldn’t be the one we were in.”
Bobby estimates that it was no more than half an hour from when he stepped out of the helicopter and when it went down at Eastwood Toll.
He said: “Subsequently, we discovered that as we’d just left there had been a robbery in Barrhead and, at the time, police were experimenting using helicopters before they had their own one.
“Apparently they heard about this robbery, got in the helicopter with another pilot, Graham Pryke, and headed to chase the car.
“The next thing it came down at Eastwood Toll.
“And there by the grace of God as far as we were concerned because, had we landed that day and took off again, the possibility is that we could have been in the crash.
“It was quite a thing when you thought about it afterwards. We were very lucky.”
Reports submitted to a fatal accident inquiry from Air Accident Investigation, a branch of the Department of Transport, stated that the single-engined Bell JetRanger had been caught up in a severe blizzard between Barrhead and Newton Mearns.
The report also stated that the helicopter crew had mistaken Newton Mearns shopping centre for a similar Barrhead store while looking for the site of the robbery.
According to the report the pilot, Graham Pryke, who suffered serious injury during the accident, was: “unable to recall any details of the flight and so his lack of awareness of the approaching snow storm remains unexplained.”
Despite a lack of testimony from Pryke at the time of publication, the report suggested that: “common misconception that the helicopter was clear to operate in falling snow for one and a half hours may have contributed to the apparent lack of urgency in [Graham Pryke’s] look out for the snow storm which had been forecast.”
Bobby added: “I see there was a helicopter crash in London this morning and that the crane driver was apparently late for his work, makes you think about these things.
“Was it fate that Gordon said to go back and not land?"