A pilot from RAF Benson was killed when his helicopter "fell from the sky" on his first mission in Iraq, an inquest heard yesterday.

Flt Lt Kristian Gover, 30, of 33 Squadron, had only been based in Basra for a few days before dying of smoke inhalation after his Puma helicopter caught fire after crashing on July 19, 2004.

His sister Antoinette Thornalley, who lives in Bampton, and parents Tony and Deirdre Gover, who now live in France, were at the inquest at Oxford Coroner's Court yesterday to hear how he died.

The inquest was told that it was co-pilot Flt Lt Gover and pilot Flt Lt Daniel Brook's first mission in Iraq.

The helicopter, which had one other passenger, Flt Sgt Pedrick, had been about to land at the RAF base at Basra airport after returning from dropping off forces personnel in the desert.

Flt Lt Brook said: "We started moving down and very, very suddenly, very shortly after that, it went through the roof and the ground rush was enormous and it was very clear that we were going to hit the ground."

A strong wind warning was issued five minutes after the helicopter had taken off and after the pilots were briefed.

He said: "I think I misinterpreted the wind. I'm not sure yet if we had the wrong Met information but I believed it was a light northerly wind."

The inquest also heard that the Puma had "vices", including a delay in power reaching the rotor blades.

Flying Officer Wes Healey, who was in the air traffic control tower, said: "The helicopter just seemed to fall out of the sky. It seemed to be like someone had a helicopter and just dropped it."

The inquest heard that the helicopter hit the ground once before rising again and briefly stabilising, then it nose-dived to the ground and burst into flames.

Fg Off Healey said he had told the helicopter the wind speed was 22 knots, but deputy assistant coroner Andrew Walker said there was "no indication that was ever heard" by the crew.

Sqn Ldr Martin Cowie, who was in charge of the Pumas and their crews, said the helicopter was operating close to its maximum load.

The air temperature was also above the Puma's original published maximum, 43C, although that had been extended to 50C to cover operations in Iraq.

He said: "It certainly exacerbated the problems in this case but the aircraft was being operated close to its maximum limit most of the time in the theatre."

Mr Walker said: "I can't understand how these two extremely competent pilots ended up in the situation that they were in. It doesn't make sense."

"It rather reflects badly on the training. These are two experienced pilots who don't seem to have appreciated this aircraft shouldn't have been loaded to the level that it was."

The inquest continues.