A close friend of the pilot fighting for his life after Saturday’s horrific crash at the Shoreham Air Show has described his shock at hearing of the disaster.
Chris Heames, 62, from Stamford, was originally picked to fly the 1950s Hawker Hunter before swapping with Andy Hill several months ago due to a family holiday in Cambodia.
Mr Heames was still listed in the air show programme and returned home from his holiday on Monday to messages from worried friends thinking he was flying the plane that crashed into four cars on the A27. Eleven people are thought to have died in the crash and pilot Mr Hill is in a medically-induced coma and fighting for his life at Royal Sussex County Hospital.
Speaking to the BBC, retired RAF Squadron Leader Mr Heames said: “I didn’t realise the full impact of it until I got back, when I heard the death toll. At that stage they were speculating that it could rise to 20.
“I didn’t quite understand how that could happen because the air show rules that we fly to are very stringent and they are specifically designed to protect the public.”
Mr Heames has known Mr Hill for about 15 years, and worked closely with him for the last seven. They take it in turns to fly the Hawker Hunter plane at air shows around the country.
“The aircraft is maintained to a rigorous schedule,” he said. “I never, ever had any doubts about getting into it.
“It was always maintained to the very highest standards.”
The plane crashed after seemingly failing to pull out of a loop manoeuvre. It burst into flames as it landed on the A27.
So far only five of those thought to have died in the crash have been formally identified. They are Mark Reeves, 53, who had driven to the air show to photograph planes; wedding car driver Maurice Abrahams, 76; Worthing United players Matthew Grimstone and Jacob Schilt, both 23; and personal trainer Matt Jones, 24.
Specialists, including forensic archaeologists, anthropologists, odontologists and pathologists have been brought in to help establish the identities of anyone else killed in the crash.
The Air Accidents Investigation Branch is expected to release an interim report in the next few days. The Civil Aviation Authority has put restrictions on air shows and on the flying of vintage jets “until further notice”.
Mr Heames joined the RAF after leaving school in 1970 and has about 13,500 total flying hours to his name. He was an instructor at RAF Cottesmore
He said it would be “totally wrong” to guess the cause of the accident, adding: “The Air Accident Investigation Branch are the experts in dissecting an accident and sorting out the ways of avoiding future accidents, we have to wait until they produce a report.”
Mr Hill’s family said they were “devastated and deeply saddened for the loss of life,” and they were sending their “prayers and heartfelt condolences to the families of all those affected at this difficult time”.