Ageing Nimrod fleet is unsafe and should be grounded, says coroner

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The Independent Online

The RAF's entire Nimrod fleet is unsafe and should be grounded, a coroner has insisted as he delivered a devastatingly critical verdict on the deaths of 14 servicemen.

But the Ministry of Defence reacted immediately by saying it would not be following the recommendation. The MoD's statement was condemned as an "insult" by furious relatives of the servicemen. On the final day of the inquest into the military's single biggest loss of life since the Falklands War, a red rose was placed outside the court to represent each man who died, and a white rose for every child left fatherless.

Twelve RAF personnel, a soldier and a marine were killed when the Nimrod XV230 exploded after undergoing air-to-air refuelling near Kandahar in Afghanistan, in September 2006.

Andrew Walker, the Assistant Deputy Coroner for Oxfordshire, issued a particularly scathing narrative verdict. "I have no doubt that these fine men will never be forgotten and their loss will be keenly felt by their families, friends and our armed forces," he said. "The crew and passengers were not to know that this aircraft, like every other aircraft within the Nimrod fleet, was not airworthy. What is more, the aircraft was, in my judgment, never airworthy from the first release to service in 1969 to the point where the Nimrod XV230 was lost."

The inquest heard evidence of repeated fuel leaks in the ageing fleet and fundamental design flaws. Even the plane brought for inspection by the relatives before the inquest had to be replaced because it developed a fuel leak.

The Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Nick Harvey said: "This is an unprecedented call which will shake the MoD to its foundations. Unless it can show there will be grave operational consequences for our forces, the Government must make plans to ground the Nimrod fleet.

"The coroner's verdict exposes the Government's disgraceful attitude towards the armed services. There must now be an independent inquiry into who in the MoD knew that these aircraft were not airworthy, and if so, why they were allowed to continue to fly."

The Armed Forces minister Bob Ainsworth apologised to the families but added: "I would like to reassure all those concerned that the Chief of the Air Staff has reaffirmed to me that the Nimrod is airworthy, and that we are dealing with all the issues raised by this incident."

Adding that an independent review was ongoing, he said: "The Nimrod is saving lives in operational theatres every day. If it was not safe we would not be flying it; it is safe with the measures we have taken and that is why we will not be grounding the fleet."

Andy Knight, brother of Sergeant Ben Knight, one of the victims of the crash, said: "We have listened to weeks of evidence and numerous witnesses and I think for it effectively to be dismissed minutes after the verdict is disgraceful. It's an insult not only to us and the crew who died but to the guys who are flying it at the moment."

Jimmy Jones, a former Nimrod ground engineer who has been advising the families, said: "The fleet should be grounded and stay grounded."

The three-week inquest at Oxford Old Assizes heard that the disaster was caused by fuel leaking into a dry bay and igniting on contact with a hot air pipe. A cockpit recording of the crew's last words as they battled to save the 37-year-old surveillance aircraft, was heard in court. Flight Lieutenant Al Squires and his co-pilot were preparing for an emergency landing as the air electronics operator warned: "Further report from the bay. From the bay, there's more sm..." The recording stopped at 11.15am on 2 September 2006. Then the plane exploded.

Mr Walker said opportunities to spot inherent dangers on the plane were missed while a fatal design fault, which meant that the fuel couplings were in the same compartment as the hot air pipe, went unnoticed. "This cavalier approach to safety must come to an end," he said, adding: "It seems to me that this is a case where I would be failing in my duty if I didn't report action to the relevant authority that would prevent future fatalities ... the Nimrod fleet should not fly until ... standards are met."

The RAF's most senior engineer, Air Marshal Sir Barry Thornton, said: "We have stopped air-to-air refuelling and no longer use the very hot air systems in flight. This eradicates any dangers from the serious design failures noted by the coroner that have been present in this aircraft since the 1980s. These measures have been supplemented with enhanced aircraft maintenance and inspection procedures to ensure the aircraft, as it is today, is safe to fly."

'Cavalier approach to safety must end'

The verdict of Andrew Walker, Assistant Deputy Coroner for Oxfordshire

"The crew and passengers were not to know that this aircraft, like every other aircraft within the Nimrod fleet, was not airworthy. What is more, the aircraft was, in my judgement, never airworthy from the first release to service in 1969 to the point where the Nimrod XV230 was lost."

He was, he said, satisfied on the balance of probability, that the design modifications for the aircraft contained a serious design flaw that made it unsafe to fly.

"This cavalier approach to safety must come to an end. There were failures within the hazard log that should, if the information had been correctly recorded and acted upon, have led to the discovery of this design flaw within the Nimrod fleet."

He could not, he added, understand why it had not been noticed that a fire detection and suppression system, which was logged, had never in fact existed. "It seems to me that this is a case where I would be failing in my duty if I didn't report action to the relevant authority that would prevent future fatalities.

"I have given the matter considerable thought and I see no alternative but to report to the Secretary of State that the Nimrod fleet should not fly until the Alarp (as low as reasonably practicable) standards are met."

Workhorse of the RAF

*The Nimrod first entered service with the Royal Air Force in 1969. Originally based on a modified design of the De Havilland Comet, it was built by Hawker Siddeley, now BAE Systems. During the Cold War the Nimrod's main role was monitoring Soviet submarines and surface ships in the Baltic, North Atlantic and beyond. As well as the Falklands War, Nimrod crews have served in both the 1990 and 2003 Gulf wars and helped enforce Nato's maritime blockade of the Balkans in 2001. It has also been used in major search and rescue work after disasters such as the 1988 Piper Alpha oil rig fire. The four-engine Intelligence Surveillance Targeting Acquisition Reconnaissance (Istar) aircraft's greatest asset is that it can remain airborne without refuelling for nine hours, operating at a range of 3,800 miles, speeds of up to 360 knots (414mph) and a maximum altitude of 44,000ft.

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