Yes, I know that in the midst of life, we are in death and that accidents happen. My advice remains: avoid riding in helicopters if you possibly can. 

Most ordinary people seldom travel by helicopter.  Along with private planes, they are often the transport of choice for the rich and powerful, who don’t think they have the time to get around like the rest of us. This probably explains why air crashes have so often brought illustrious careers to a premature end. 

The latest potentate to fall victim is 63-year-old Ebrahim Raisi, the President of Iran. All were killed, including flight crew and security detail, when the helicopter carrying him went down in bad weather above rough terrain close to the Azerbaijan border. Those also on board included the Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian; Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Al-e Hashem, the imam in the city of Tabriz; General Malek Rahmati, the governor of the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan and Sardar Seyed Mehdi Mousavi, the commander of the President’s protection unit.

Israel has denied any responsibility for what was almost certainly an accident. The closest to any blame that can be laid on “great Satans” opposing Iran’s Islamic Regime is that spare parts have been difficult to get hold of thanks to sanctions against Tehran. 

It is just as well that aspersions are not being cast. The plot line of the final series of the TV thriller Homeland hinged on the CIA tracking down the black box to prevent world war by proving that the President’s fatal helicopter crash was not deliberate. 

In real life, this is not the first helicopter misadventure in Iran of great political consequence. In 1980, Ronald Reagan might well not have been elected had Jimmy Carter’s Delta Force Operation Eagle Claw not ended so disastrously. Eight fully loaded helicopters were despatched to Iran to rescue 52 Americans being held hostage in the US embassy in Tehran. Thanks to a sandstorm and technical problems, only five arrived in the desert in working order. That number was deemed insufficient to continue. As the mission was aborted, one of the remaining helicopters crashed into a transport plane packed with troops and fuel. Eight servicemen died. 

In Britain, one of the RAF’s worst disasters occurred thirty years ago on 2 June 1994. A Chinook helicopter returning from Northern Ireland crashed into a hillside on the Mull of Kintyre. All 25 passengers, who were mostly working in intelligence, and the four crew died. This month, the bereaved have protested that there has been no commemoration or memorial to mark the anniversary.

Helicopters have also claimed the lives of numerous politicians and celebrities. They include Kenya’s military chief, General Francis Ogolla, this year and former Kenyan Vice President, George Saitoti, in 2012.  Dr John Garang de Mabior, president of South Sudan, was also killed in a helicopter crash in 2005.

Helicopter rides are one of the most dangerous aspects of show business – on set or off. In 2020, America was shaken when basket ball star Kobe Bryant, and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were among nine people killed in a crash in California. US military pilot, Gary Powers, became a cause celebre when his U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960. Powers survived. Yet, seventeen years later he died, aged 47, while working as a “Telecopter” reporter for KNBC, when the TV news “eye in the sky” helicopter he was piloting ran out of fuel and crashed near Encino.

Two premier league football owners were killed in separate incidents. In 2018, Vichal Srivaddhanaprabha, the owner of Leicester City, died with four others when his helicopter crashed on take-off. In 1996, Matthew Harding, the vice chairman of Chelsea FC, lost his life with four others when their private transport crashed on the way back from Bolton Wanderers.

It should be said that private plane flights are not much better. Whether by accident or design, numerous prominent politicians have been killed in private plane crashes. Juvenal Habyarimana, the president of Rwanda and Cyprien Ntaryamira, the president of Burundi, were killed in 1994 when their plane was shot down by a missile as it prepared to land in Kigali, triggering the Rwandan genocide, one of the bloodiest events of the late 20th century. Other political leaders killed in plane crashes include President Samora Machel of Mozambique, President Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan, Omar Torrijos of Panama, UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, and Lin Biao, vice chairman of the Chinese Communist party. 

And then, there’s the death – or indeed, suspected assassination – of the Wagner Group’s founder Yevgeny Prigozhin. All ten onboard his plane died when it went down between St Petersburg and Moscow, shortly after his failed rebellion against President Putin. 

The crash rate for helicopters is 9.84 per 100,000 hours in the air. According to the statistics, per hour travelled, scheduled airline flights are the safest mode of transport. A US online analyst, The Points Guy, puts the “death index” at 63 times more likely than scheduled passenger flight for helicopters and 271.7 for private and hobby flying. 

The index for road transport is worse at 453.6 – but there are billions of people travelling in motor vehicles every day, lowering an individual’s chances of a bad outcome especially in well-maintained modern vehicles, using fully regulated transport systems. 

Only the privileged few fly around in helicopters and private planes and they tend to do it repeatedly. This explains why there is so much high-profile carnage. Their time is valuable and they are always in a hurry. They may think that the usual rules of hazard do not apply to them but they do. 

I have been involved in three road accidents while travelling in the entourages of prime ministers – more than in the rest of my life. There is a price to pay for high speed motorcades.

Army transport planes are fine but helicopters do concentrate the mind. Chinooks are like being in the back of a lorry with two massive propellers attached above trying to tear it apart, noisily. American military Apaches “hedge hopping” in Afghanistan and Iraq were always a thrill for us freeloaders because the British armed forces did not have enough helicopters to accommodate the party. Best of all, the sleek black bubble copters in South Korea, piloted, it turned out by the same besuited executives who had just shown Mrs Thatcher around their steel works. 

Such aerial journeys are an occasional excitement for accompanying journalists. They become a way of life for leaders. Until their luck runs out. So God, or chance, willed it for the hardline Muslim cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who was next in line to be Supreme Leader of Iran – and all his late travelling companions. 

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