Nimrod fleet grounded over safety fears

RAF surveillance aircraft withdrawn eight months after plea by grieving relatives
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Less than a year after the Defence Secretary refused to ground the RAF's Nimrod aircraft, insisting they were airworthy, the Government announced yesterday that all of the surveillance planes are to be withdrawn from Afghanistan and Iraq to undergo safety modifications.

The volte face came as a bittersweet victory to the families of the 14 servicemen who perished in the British military's greatest single loss of life since the Falklands War. On 2 September 2006 the 12 RAF crew as well as a Parachute Regiment trooper and a Royal Marine died when their Nimrod MR2 exploded over Kandahar.

Graham Knight, whose son, Sgt Ben Knight, 25, was among those to lose their lives that day, said: "After his death I said to my wife I hope something good comes from something so bad. If it improves the safety of aircraft in the RAF, it will be a fitting tribute to him."

Mr Knight, who has fought for more than two years for modifications to the Nimrod fleet, described the announcement as a "vindication" of the families' demands as well as that of the coroner, Andrew Walker, who said the entire fleet should be grounded.

"This is what we were asking for," he said. "We all said that we would like these repairs and modifications to be carried out before they flew again. They said 'No, they're safe to fly'. It now appears they have been withdrawn. Have they been flying them since June without these safety modifications? Well, obviously the answer is 'yes'. Safety has been compromised since the inquest."

Last May Mr Walker, assistant deputy coroner for Oxfordshire, concluded the inquest into the 14 deaths by insisting the fleet of 40-year-old Nimrods had "never been airworthy", and called for them to be grounded until ALARP (as low as reasonably practicable) standards were met.

The inquest had heard that the Nimrod exploded shortly after air-to-air refuelling. A board of inquiry had concluded that this was caused by a leak of fuel that burst into flames on contact with uninsulated hot-air pipes.

Des Browne, who was defence secretary at the time, insisted the security of personnel was an absolute priority but changes had been made to the Nimrod that meant they were now safe to fly. But yesterday, the Defence minister Bob Ainsworth announced that all the planes would be withdrawn from operations overseas until the early summer. They are to be brought back to Britain for the replacement of fuel seals and engine bay hot-air ducts.

The Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, Nick Harvey, said: "This is in effect an admission by the Government that the Nimrod fleet is not safe to fly, and has not been for years. It is disgraceful that it has taken so long for ministers to ground unsafe aircraft which have already claimed the lives of our service personnel and are still putting others at risk. It is shameful that MoD complacency and penny-pinching has put the lives of our servicemen and women at risk for so long."

The shadow Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, said: "It beggars belief that even after 18 months, the MoD and its contractors have failed to modify these aircraft which are undertaking critical surveillance operations in Afghanistan. It is a further example of the inability of this Government to get a grip on their defence procurement programme."

The MoD said yesterday that approximately half a dozen of the RAF's 18 Nimrods had already been modified but there had been a delay in providing replacement fuel seals.