Widow rejects report into Norfolk MEP’s plane crash

A plane crash which killed a prominent Norfolk politician in 2008 was caused by 'basic and fundamental deficiencies', including the aircraft running out of fuel, an inquest heard yesterday.

Former Euro MP Paul Howell was one of six people who died when both engines of the Piper Seneca failed during a flight to Beira, in Mozambique.

Norfolk coroner William Armstrong also revealed a report into the tragedy had found the pilot was not licensed for the type of plane and the aircraft had not been properly maintained by its operators.

But last night Mr Howell's widow Ayesha dismissed the inquest as a 'formality' and described it as 'another punch in the stomach'.

She said she did not accept the findings of the crash investigation and feared she would never find out exactly what happened to her husband.

So far authorities in the African country have only managed to produce a preliminary report into the accident, with further inquiries to be carried out 'in due course'.

Mrs Howell said: 'I feel like I have not had a chance to grieve. It has just gone on and on. Every time you feel like 'ok, I can deal with it now', you get another punch in the stomach saying 'it's not over yet'.'

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Yesterday, Mr Armstrong recorded a verdict of accidental death after reviewing the preliminary report into the crash which happened on September 20 2008.

Mr Howell, who was 57 and lived at Wendling, near Dereham, had been on holiday with his wife in Durban, South Africa, and was flying to Beira on a business trip.

The charter plane took off at 10.15am and the pilot maintained contact with air traffic control until 2.52pm when he declared a 'state of emergency'.

Both engines had failed after running out of fuel and the aircraft was falling. It crashed on to the coastline at Beira, killing all five passengers and the pilot Johan Wessels.

Reading from the accident report, Mr Armstrong said it had come to a number of conclusions. Although an experienced pilot with more than 518 flight hours recorded, Mr Wessels was not licensed for that particular type of plane and had not recognised it was short of fuel.

Mr Armstrong added: 'According to the report, he lacked the appropriate skills to handle an emergency.'

The report also found the aircraft had not been properly maintained by its operator and the information written and accepted in the flight plan had been incorrect.

Recording his verdict, Mr Armstrong said: 'There were some very basic and fundamental deficiencies in this whole operation.'

Speaking after the inquest at the Assembly House, in Norwich, Mrs Howell said she did not accept the findings of the crash investigation.

She said: 'I am not going to be happy with it until the South African government at least put forward some kind of final report. To lay the blame squarely on the pilot – it doesn't sit well with me knowing that he was an experienced pilot.'

Mr and Mrs Howell had known Mr Wessels for four years before the crash and had flown with him all over Africa. The former MEP's wife said: 'You always felt safe. You never felt like you had to worry.'

She believes the plane they were travelling in could be at fault and more weight should be given to the fact it had not been maintained properly by the charter company.

The day before the flight, Mr Howell told her there was a problem with the plane they intended to use and the pilot was trying to get another one.

'I don't know if it was a different plane or it was the same aircraft,' said Mrs Howell, who had celebrated the couple's first wedding anniversary just five days before the crash.

But she said it had already proven so difficult to get information out of the authorities in Mozambique and South Africa, she did not know if there would ever be a final report released.

This latest stage in the investigation is yet another reminder for Mr Howell's two older children William, 22, and Oliver, 20, of the tragedy that killed their father. The sons, both from the MEP's first marriage to Johanna Turnball, are now at university.

Mr and Mrs Howell's son, Zack, was just nine months old at the time of the accident but, now three, his mother said he had some understanding of what had happened to his father.

Mrs Howell, who 'He knows people have mummies and daddies and when you ask him 'where's your daddy?' he says 'he died in an aeroplane'.

'I will keep Paul alive in him as much as I can. He's so much like Paul in so many ways.'

Mr Howell, the son of former north Norfolk MP and farmer Sir Ralph Howell, was one of Norfolk's most colourful politicians.

He served as an Conservative MEP for 15 years before being defeated in 1994 and was often at the heart of the political action. He was in Gaza when Israel's prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, in Berlin when the Wall came down and at the Kremlin the night the Soviet Union effectively collapsed.

Yesterday, Jeanne Whittome, whose late husband Paul had been Mr Howell's best man at his wedding, said he was a 'great character' who was still sorely missed. The owner of Burnham Market's Hoste Arms, who is godmother to Zack, added: 'He made an impression when he came into the room. We always felt he had this incredible warmth and presence.'

Mr Armstrong added: 'I am very mindful that Paul was a very popular, charismatic person who achieved much in his life and would have no doubt achieved much more had his life not been cut short by this tragedy.'

Mr Amstrong decided to conclude the inquest with just the results of the preliminary investigation following consultation with Mr Howell's family.

The Mozambique crash was the second serious flying accident for Mr Howell. In 1981, a two-seater plane he was flying crashed into a field at Swanton Morley. Mr Howell needed 13 operations and suffered damaged vocal chords. His co-pilot, Chris Gurney, was left wheelchair-bound.