The Ministry of Defence’s current low-flying policy has been criticised by the jury in the inquest into the death of Heather Bell, who died after her horse was spooked by a low-flying military helicopter.

The inquest heard that Mrs Bell, a 38-year-old “relative novice” rider, was riding along a bridleway near Market Rasen with two friends on Tuesday 10 June last year, when an RAF Chinook Helicopter flew directly over them, causing all three horses to bolt.

One of the riders accompanying Mrs Bell was Jess Fussey, a qualified riding instructor, who told the inquest that her friend was “very competent at walk and trot, although she had never cantered”. Mrs Bell had been learning to ride for 10 weeks so she could help exercise her daughter’s horse, Midget &mdash a seven-year-old 15.2hh.

Mrs Bell lost her balance and fell when her horse bolted and she suffered severe head injuries, despite wearing a new riding hat. She was taken to Lincolnshire County Hospital, where she died the next day.

The jury found that the MoD’s current low-flying policy was insufficient and that the organisation had failed to take appropriate action to protect members of the public, including horse riders, from its low-flying aircraft.

Areas of the MoD’s current policy that were criticised by the jury include:

  • Rotary winged aircraft being allowed to fly as low as 50ft
  • No prior warning to members of the public that low flying is taking place
  • Insufficient use of simulators in the low-flying training of pilots

The coroner, Stuart Fisher, said he would write to the MoD with recommendations based on the jury’s verdict, including:

  • Low-flying only to be allowed in dedicated areas of the country
  • The introduction of devices for riders that would alert aircraft to their presence
  • Increased use of simulators to reduce the amount of low-flying taking place
  • Read more about the findings of the inquest into the death of Heather Bell in tomorrow’s Horse & Hound (4 November 04)