Man's anger after arrest for allegedly shining torch at helicopter

Adam GrettonIt was an �8.45 torch light normally used for counting great crested newts in Torben Merriott's garden pond.Adam Gretton

It was an �8.45 torch normally used for counting great crested newts in Torben Merriott's garden pond.

But the battery-powered device, with the advertised power of two million candles, landed the north Suffolk grandfather in a police cell after he allegedly shone it at an Apache helicopter hovering over his home.

The 63-year-old businessman spoke of his anger yesterday after he was arrested on suspicion of endangering an aircraft which was low-level flying near his farm in Stradbroke in the early hours of the morning.

Mr Merriott, who ironically runs a theatre lighting company, said he was expecting an apology from the Ministry of Defence after the Apache from Wattisham Airfield woke him up during a training exercise at 1am on September 18.

Instead, Mr Merriott received a visit from the police three weeks later, who arrested him for 'reckless-ly and negligently endangering an aircraft' after being accused of shining his torch at the helicopter.

The grandfather, who is currently on police bail pending further inquiries, yesterday said he was shocked by the 'heavy handed' and 'disproportionate' reaction.

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Mr Merriott, who has complained about Apache helicopters training in the Hoxne and Stradbroke area in the past, said he was woken by what he thought was an 'earthquake' and 'enormous commotion' outside his bedroom window. When he investigated, he realised it was a helicopter.

'It was a clear night, but pitch black and I could feel the vibrations beating against my chest. It was very frightening.

'I couldn't see any navigation lights from the direction of the noise so I shone my torch to get the aircraft's number, or at least identify the type. I felt that such reckless flying, without lights should result in disqualification for the pilot if I could back up a complaint with evidence,' he said.

Mr Merriott also called the MoD's complaints line and emailed them. But at 8.50am on October 8, he was arrested and taken to Bury St Edmunds police station where he was questioned and kept in a cell for nine hours. His torch, which was bought from an online electrical store, was also seized by officers.

He added: 'I am flabbergasted that a military exercise is allowed at that height and at such a late hour within even a mile of human habitation.

'We all know that they need to train, but there were plenty of hours of darkness before then,' he said.

A spokesman for the MoD said night training operations were essential for aircraft crews and they tried to minimise the disturbance to the public.

'There is a legitimate means of reporting concerns about low-flying aircraft through well-established channels. It is entirely right that this matter is investigated, as shining a light at an aircraft is a civil offence that could endanger the safety of the aircraft, crew and the public,' she said.

A spokesman for Suffolk Police added: 'A 63-year-old man from the Eye area has been arrested on suspicion of acting recklessly or negligently in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft, following an incident in the Eye area early on the morning of Friday, September 18. He has been released on police bail, to return to Bury St Edmunds police station on October 20.'