David Coulthard reflects on horror 2000 plane crash with pilots tragically killed

Thomas Maher
David Coulthard, pictured 2023.

David Coulthard has recounted the harrowing story behind the tragic plane crash he was fortunate to survive in 2000.

David Coulthard has reflected on the tragic plane crash he was fortunate to survive in 2000, in which both pilots lost their lives.

The Scottish driver survived a tragic incident just before the 2000 Spanish Grand Prix when, on the Tuesday immediately prior to the race, Coulthard’s chartered plane crashed while going through an emergency landing at Lyon–Saint Exupery Airport.

Coulthard, together with his then-girlfriend Heidi Wichlinski and personal trainer Andy Matthews all survived the accident, which Coulthard had chartered to fly from Farnborough to Nice – only for the plane to suffer an engine failure that diverted them to another airport.

David Coulthard: 2000 plane crash was ‘born out of being spoiled’

With the Learjet 35 crashing upon landing at the Lyon airport, David Saunders, the pilot, and Dan Worley, co-pilot, were both tragically killed in the accident. The three passengers in the back were able to clamber free of the wreckage, although Coulthard had suffered a broken rib.

With the 25th anniversary of the accident fast approaching on May 2nd, Coulthard reflected on his own hastiness in wanting to get to Nice as being indicative of a changed mindset after becoming an F1 driver.

Speaking to the UK’s Telegraph for an extensive interview about his career, Coulthard was asked about whether he had found himself becoming a prima donna after carving out a successful career with Williams and McLaren in the mid-1990s.

“Not my parents, no, but I had to have a word with myself, once,” he said when asked about whether parents or friends from Scotland had ever had to tell him he’d got too big for his boots.

“When I look back on the plane crash – that was born out of being spoiled, I think.”

Explaining what he meant by that, Coulthard said he had wanted to go back to Nice immediately rather than wait for a later flight that had already been booked.

“I’d wanted to go back to Monaco and although my normal aircraft had been booked for later, I decided I wanted to leave then.

“That’s not actually a normal way to be acting. One minute you’re growing up in a village in Scotland, the next you’re saying, ‘Get me on a plane now.’

“So you get on the plane, you meet the pilots and an hour later they’re both dead.”

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While recognising how the circumstances came about as a result of his demands, Coulthard spoke about how guilt isn’t the overriding emotion he feels about the crash ‘because that mechanical failure would have happened whatever’ but asked himself ‘there was no need to rush – why the need to rush?’

As quoted in F1 Racing at the time of the accident, Coulthard had explained how the crash had occurred from his perspective.

“We had time to prepare ourselves,” he said. “On impact, the plane wing tanks ruptured and there was a fire on the right-hand side of the aircraft. When the plane came to rest, the front of the cockpit had broken free from the main fuselage.”

Just a few days later, Coulthard raced to second place at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya as McLaren claimed a 1-2 finish. Having spent the week deliberating over whether to take part, particularly as he was nursing a broken rib, Coulthard explained his eagerness to participate.

He said: “Had it been the other way around, I would have wanted them [the pilots] to fly again, if that’s what they wanted. It was not just their job, it was what they loved and what they lived for. Flying an aircraft is a bit like driving a racing car, it goes beyond a normal job – it is also a passion.”

Two years after the crash, Coulthard also admitted that he felt the crash had had a lasting impact on his approach to the sport and his life in general.

“It’s not something you can forget easily,” he said. “I would say, actually, that it has affected every aspect of my life and, in fact, it has had a lasting impact on the way I live my life.

“There’s not a week goes by when I’m not on an aircraft and there be day-to-day things you forget like birthdays or anniversaries you really should have though about, but you don’t forget aircraft crashes, especially when there was loss of life involved, as there was that day.”

The accident report of Coulthard’s chartered flight is available to view online.

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