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Pilot cleared in helicopter crash that killed Leicester owner

Serena Taylor / Newcastle United / Getty

A "catastrophic" mechanical failure, not pilot error, was the cause of a horrific helicopter crash that killed Leicester City's Thai owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and four others in 2018, investigators said Wednesday.

As the aircraft turned out of control, a shout of "Hey, hey, hey!" came from the rear cabin, where the football club boss and two of his employees were seated, according to the official report into the crash.

"I've got no idea what's going on," pilot Eric Swaffer, 53, shouted back before the Leonardo AW169 helicopter plummeted to the ground from a height of around 130 metres (430 feet) and burst into flames.

Vichai, two members of his staff -- actress and former beauty queen Nursara Suknamai, and Kaveporn Punpare -- Swaffer and his partner Izabela Roza Lechowicz, who was also a professional pilot, were all killed in the accident, which happened shortly after the helicopter took off from the Leicester City pitch on October 27, 2018.

Swaffer, a highly experienced pilot "performed the most appropriate actions" but was unable to regain control of the aircraft, the report by the UK's Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) said.

This included raising a lever to reduce the helicopter's pitch angle and "cushion the impact".

Four of the five occupants survived the initial impact but died in the subsequent fire.

"The impact... damaged the lower fuselage and the helicopter’s fuel tanks which resulted in a significant fuel leak... and an intense post-impact fire rapidly engulfed the fuselage," according to the report.

The crash occurred around an hour after a Premier League match between Leicester City and West Ham United at the club's King Power stadium.

The inquiry found that the pilot's pedals became disconnected from the helicopter's tail rotor.

As a result the aircraft made a sharp right turn which was "impossible" to control.

This "catastrophic failure" caused the helicopter to spin quickly five times.

The probe found that the control system failed because a bearing in the tail rotor broke up due to its ceramic balls sliding rather than rolling, due to a build-up of pressure.

Inspection of the bearing was only required once it has been used for 400 hours, but the helicopter had only been flown for 331 hours at the time of the fatal crash.

Vichai, 60, had been Thailand's fifth-richest man when he died.

He made billions from his King Power duty-free monopoly in Thailand.

He bought Leicester City in 2010, pouring millions into the team and becoming a beloved figure in the club and the city.

Under his ownership Leicester pulled off their against-all-odds Premier League victory in 2016, having started the season as 5,000-1 outsiders for the title.

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