The inquiry into the cause of last year's Chinook helicopter crash on the Mull of Kintyre has exposed sharp differences of opinion within the Royal Air Force, according to the unpublished full report into the incident.
An investigating officer who concluded that the pilots should not be criticised for human failings was overruled by two more senior officers, who accused them of "gross negligence".
The Government yesterday announced it had been regrettably concluded that the helicopter's two pilots had been negligent. The crash, last June, killed 29 officers, removing at a stroke almost the entire top echelon of intelligence personnel in Northern Ireland. In announcing the result of the RAF's investigation into the accident yesterday Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Defence, tried to mollify relatives of the victims by saying that they may get more than the pounds 100,000 in compensation they had previously said was the limit laid down by legislation.
But the published conclusion of negligence masks a clash of opinion within the RAF which is clear in the unpublished full report on the incident, a copy of which has been seen by the Independent.
The original board of inquiry, headed by Wing Commander A D Pulford, concluded that although it was likely the craft's pilot, Flight Lieutenant Jonathan Tapper, made an error of judgement in an attempt to climb over the Mull of Kintyre, "it would be incorrect to criticise him for human failings based on the available evidence."
The board reached the same conclusion concerning the co- pilot, Flt Lt Richard Cook, saying that he could not be criticised for failing to identify any errors. R E Wedge, the Group Captain in charge of RAF Odiham, did not dissent from this.
This interpretation was, however, contested by Air Vice-Marshal J R Day, who in commenting on the board's findings said: "Flt Lt Tapper did not exercise appropriate care and judgement. He allowed his aircraft to proceed at both high speed and low level directly towards the Mull, notwithstanding the obvious dangers of such an undertaking.
"I am forced to conclude that he was negligent to a gross degree." He also concluded that Flt Lt Cook should have recognised the dangers and was therefore negligent to a gross degree."
The Air Vice-Marshal's opinion was endorsed by the Air Officer Commanding- in-Chief, who wrote: "Lamentably, all the evidence points towards them having ignored one of the basic tenets of airmanship, which is never to attempt to fly visually below safety altitude unless the weather conditions are unambiguously suitable."
The board was hampered in its investigations by the fact that there were no survivors of the flight, and no black-box flight recorder on board. It concluded that the most probable cause of the accident was the pilot not climbing steeply enough to take the craft over the hills of the Mull of Kintyre.
It judged that several factors could have contributed to the accident, either singly or in combination, but it could not list them in order of priority. They included weather, distraction, spatial disorientation and visual illusion.
The 29 officers included some of the most senior security experts in MI5, the Royal Ulster Constabulary Special Branch and military intelligence. Their loss was particularly poignant in that it came less than three months before the IRA declared its cessation of violence. Perhaps because of the deaths, the move took the authorities by surprise; they had assumed there would be a three-month truce, rather than a full ceasefire.
In the Commons yesterday, Mr Rifkind said international discussions on raising the pounds 100,000 compensation limit would "inform but not necessarily determine" government decisions on compensation. The news brought a qualified welcome from Aidan Canavan, the Belfast solicitor acting for many of the families involved.
Reports of the limit had earlier brought strenuous protests from the widows of some victims, who accused the Government of dishonesty and of "dishonouring our men".
Dr Susan Phoenix, whose husband died, said yesterday: "I think it's very sad that blame has to be apportioned anywhere, and I know we will be supporting all the widows from that flight, no matter who they are."
Anne Magee, also widowed, said: "I've spoken to both the pilots' wives recently, and they understand we realise that everyone is human and mistakes can be made.
"It is such a long and detailed and factual report, I think it will help us to come to terms with the loss."