The families of those who died when a Chinook helicopter hit the Mull of Kintyre have welcomed Nick Clegg’s announcement that a new review of the crash will be independent of government.
That independence will be crucial.
For 15 years officials at the Ministry of Defence have successfully persuaded more than a dozen ministers, including prime ministers, that the two pilots of Chinook ZD576, Flight Lieutenants Jonathan Tapper and Rick Cook, caused the crash on 2 June 1994.
But, as the chair of the Defence Committee and former Conservative Defence minister James Arbuthnot told the House of Commons on 9 September 2010:
"Every inquiry that has been held which has been independent of the Ministry of Defence has found it impossible to attribute negligence to the pilots who died in the crash."
All 29 on board Chinook ZD576 - four crew and 25 senior police and intelligence officers - died in the crash.
MoD documents kept from investigators
A three-man RAF Board of Inquiry reached no firm conclusion on the cause of the crash. Two air marshals subsequently reviewed the Board’s findings and found Cook and Tapper grossly negligent.
Since that verdict in 1995 a series of leaked documents have shown that the MoD and RAF were aware of potentially dangerous problems with software installed on the type of Chinook that crashed on the Mull of Kintyre.
The MoD kept the documents from accident investigators and the RAF Board of Inquiry.
Stop flying the Chinook Mk2 - warning by MoD IT experts on day of crash
One of the concealed documents contained a warning by IT experts and airworthiness assessors at the MoD Boscombe Down that the Chinook Mk2 should not be in the air.
That document was written on the day of the crash on the Mull of Kintyre.
It urged the MoD and RAF "in the strongest possible terms" to end operational flights of the Chinook until corrective action was taken over the Mk2’s “Full Authority Digital Engine Control” system.
The letter said that the official explanation of "no fault found" after Fadec system problems had occurred would no longer suffice.
It said that recommendations over the Chinook's "Fadec" engine control software had been “ignored" and that air crews will be at risk if they continue to fly the helicopter.
The Fadec software - and hardware - was not substantially modified until after the crash on 2 June 1994.
In the House of Commons on 9 September 2010 Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, responded to a question from Arbuthnot. Clegg replied:
“I am acutely aware of my right hon. Friend's considerable expertise on defence matters and of his long-standing interest in this tragic disaster and the circumstances around it, and I am pleased to be able to confirm today that we will be holding an independent review of the evidence on the Mull of Kintyre disaster.“I hope that the review will be welcomed by the families of those who died in that tragic accident.“To ensure its complete independence, the review will be conducted by a respected lawyer who is independent of the Government and who has not previously expressed a view on the disaster."
Susan Phoenix, whose husband died in the Chinook accident, told the Belfast Newsletter that the government's announcement of a review was “just what we have been waiting for”.
Her husband Ian Phoenix was a senior RUC officer in counter-terrorist intelligence.
She said: "I never thought the crash was the fault of the pilots, who were special forces trained I felt they were just scapegoats.”
Why do the MoD and RAF blame the pilots?
To the MoD and the RAF hierarchy the cause of the crash was a simple matter: from the [Racal SuperTANS] equipment that survived in the wreckage was possible to say that the pilots were flying too low and too fast close to the land mass of the Mull in the moments before impact. The pilots were, therefore, negligent to a gross degree.
Subjective, circumscribed evidence
Some officials at the MoD and RAF went further: their officials briefed ministers that the type of Chinook that crashed, the Mk2, was so designed that if the software-controlled FADEC [Full Authority Digital Control] system failed, competent pilots would still have been in a position to land the helicopter safely; and there was no evidence of any failure that the pilots would have been unable to recover from.
On the basis of this subjective, circumscribed assessment of the crash, officials at the MoD have written countless Parliamentary answers on the accident, briefed friendly MPs and peers in advance of dozens of debates in the Commons and Lords, and drafted several sympathetic prime ministerial letters to families of the dead pilots, assuring them that no new evidence has come to light; that a new inquiry cannot be justified; and that the RAF had no alternative but to find that their sons were to blame.
Lack of evidence from the wreckage points to unknown cause of crash
Campaigners for the families of the pilots say that nothing can be known for certain about the cause of the crash; that the limited data derived from the surviving equipment is single-source, unaudited, unverified and not corroborated by a flight data or voice recorder which were not fitted to the aircraft.
Data derived only from manufacturers cannot be trusted to base any finding against the pilots, they say.
Moreover RAF rules at the time were that deceased aircrew could not be found negligent unless there were “absolutely no doubt whatsoever”.
Mike Tapper, the father of co-pilot Jonathan, told the BBC R4 “Today” programme on 9 September 2010 that he welcomes the review:
“The most important thing is that it will be an independent review," he said.
Tapper added that a report by QC Michael Powers encapsulates the important evidence that has emerged since the RAF Board of Inquiry into the crash in 1995
Report by Michael Powers on the Chinook crash - commissioned by campaigners for the families of the pilots of ZD576
Still Hitting Back - long-established pilot forum on the Chinook crash
Campaign for Justice - excellent website dedicated to the campaign to restore the reputations of the two pilots of ZD576