RAF attacked by Chinook crash families

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The Independent Online

Scotland Correspondent

Relatives of the anti-terrorist officers who died in the Chinook crash on the Mull of Kintyre yesterday bitterly criticised the RAF for using the helicopter flight to Inverness as a low-flying training exercise.

On the final day of the public inquiry into the RAF's worst-helicopter disaster, Paisley Sheriff Court heard that the crew flew passengers low over unfamiliar terrain to "boost experience" of low-level flying.

Through their solicitor the bereaved families condemned the practice - common in the RAF - and called on the inquiry chairman, Sheriff Sir Stephen Young, to recommend a ban.

Sheriff Young will publish his findings and recommendations later this year. During the inquiry he heard accounts of how the Chinook, carrying 25 anti-terrorist officers and four Special Forces crew from Ulster to Inverness, ploughed into the 1,400ft southern tip of the Kintyre peninsula in thick fog on the evening of 2 June 1994.

Despite two extensive inquiries, the accident remains a mystery. An internal Ministry of Defence investigation last year accused the two pilots, Flt Lt Jonathan Tapper and Flt Lt Richard Cook, of "gross negligence". RAF investigators decided that they misjudged the rate of climb needed to clear the coastline. But after the month-long inquiry during which many new details about the crash emerged, the picture appears far less clear and the dead pilots' families insist mechanical, not human, error was to blame.

During the hearings, witnesses cast doubt on the actions of Flt Lt Tapper and Flt Lt Cook. By agreeing to fly the 10 members of the RUC Special Branch, nine army intelligence officers and six MI5 officers to a top secret security conference in Inverness, they exceeded the RAF's daily flight time limits. Technicians argued that the two men may have entered incorrect coordinates in the aircraft's computer navigation system or have been "seduced" by the speed of the helicopter, which had just been upgraded.

However, other witnesses raised questions over the safety of the aircraft. Serving pilots and mechanics disclosed that the aircraft suffered a number of faults in the six weeks before the crash. The problems were so severe, the inquiry heard, that some RAF test pilots refused to fly the Chinook Mark II.

Junior RAF officers told the inquiry that the MoD's findings - based on "speculation and conjecture" - had angered servicemen. They and the relatives of the dead accuse the military of "covering-up" the real cause of the accident - that the Chinook, which had been rushed into service, was unfit to fly. They hope Sheriff Young will reject the findings of negligence.

The sheriff's task is made more difficult because the helicopter - like many military aircraft - did not have a "black- box" data recorder or cockpit voice tape. He may be unable to pinpoint the cause of the crash but he is almost certain to question the decision to transport so many key security personnel in one helicopter and make binding recommendations on the future use of Chinooks.

Relatives of the dead are likely to receive compensation payments of around pounds 6m.