MoD admits Hercules in fatal crash was unsafe

Court document reveals C-130 in which 10 servicemen died had a catalogue of faults, including wings in danger of metal fatigue
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The Independent Online

An RAF Hercules aircraft that crashed in Iraq killing 10 servicemen was "unfit" for its role and should not have been flying, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has admitted. The plane was flying with unsafe wings, had faulty anti-missile defences and was flying without suppressant foam to protect its vulnerable fuel tanks from exploding.

The catalogue of faults is admitted in documents revealed in a legal battle between families of four of the crew members who were killed in the 2005 crash shortly after the aircraft left Baghdad airport.

An inquest last year heard the likeliest cause of the crash was the plane being hit by ground fire which caused the fuel tanks to explode. It ruled the men were unlawfully killed and criticised the MoD's decision not to fit the fuel tank foam despite years of repeated warnings. After the inquest the MoD apologised to the servicemen's families and promised they had enhanced the protection of the aircraft.

However, documents seen by The Independent on Sunday reveal the plane was suffering from more extensive faults than previously disclosed. Bernard Colleary, lawyer for some of the families, said: "This really is a case of a cascade of errors, at every level."

According to legal documents on the case, the plane was "not fit for purpose" when it deployed for flight operations in Iraq because its outer wings had exceeded their safe life and were "more vulnerable to structural failure". The documents reveal the plane's anti-missile defences had failed five times in three months before the crash. The MoD admits this failure may have led to the crew taking the risk of flying at low altitude in an attempt to evade missiles but making themselves a target for small-arms fire. The MoD has also admitted there was a breakdown in intelligence, which meant the crew had no idea it was flying over an area where it was liable to be shot at.

Ten days ago, lawyers acting for the MoD admitted negligence for the deaths. Millions of pounds of compensation could be paid out to the families of the dead.

Kellie Merritt, the widow of Flight Lieutenant Paul Pardoel, the navigator, said yesterday: "It was a plane that was past its sell-by date. It doesn't make sense to place your best crew in a plane like that. Nobody should have flown in [it]. My children said it was like doing a cross-country run at school and having your teacher telling you to run across the edge of a cliff."

Flt Lt Pardoel, 35, was on his final deployment before returning to his native Australia with his wife and their three children. His wife said she was worried about crews still flying the Hercules planes. "People should understand that the coroner's inquest did not look into the airworthiness of these planes. Someone needs to look into it," she said. "I want to know that the crews still serving in them are safe, particularly in special operations. I was part of a Special Forces family and I worry about those that are left."

The Hercules C-130K planes are more than 40 years old and 14 are still in service, despite the MoD wanting to have them all initially retired last year. Only six Hercules C-130Ks are "fit for purpose" and a combination of budget pressures and delays over the replacement Airbus A400M mean that defence officials are desperately trying to find ways of keeping the wings up to standard to enable them to use the planes until 2014.

Despite this, only five of the existing Hercules are having replacement wings. The MoD has defended its decision not to replace wings on all the planes. "The out-of-service date for the C130K remains at 2012 and to replace the wings would not provide value for money," said a spokesperson. "We constantly review all of our aircraft programmes."

But Tim Ripley from Jane's Defence Weekly said: "The issue is that these planes have a finite life, and they either have to buy new airplanes, fit new wings or just ground them."

The shadow Defence minister Dr Liam Fox said: "There is no more serious charge against any government than sending our troops into battle without proper protection. Men were deployed in a plane that was unfit for purpose, which became a death trap."