'Critical' shortfalls in Sea Kings exposed

Official report tells MoD to upgrade Navy helicopters and revise flying rules to avoid further collisions
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An official report into the collision of two British helicopters during the Iraq war has exposed a series of critical problems with their equipment, radar and safety procedures, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

The classified report warns ministers that a crash similar to the one that involved two Royal Navy Sea Kings, with the loss of all seven crew on board, could happen again.

It has urged the Ministry of Defence to take "immediate action" to install new safety equipment such as better identification lights, and to upgrade all Sea Kings so that they carry night-vision goggles. It also called for wholesale changes to the Royal Navy's rules for using radar at night.

The report's disclosures come after the Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, and senior defence officials faced further allegations last week about kit shortages and equipment problems in the Iraq conflict.

Last week, the commander of the Black Watch, Lt-Col James Cowan, said his troops entered battle with insufficient anti-nuclear and biological warfare suits. Also this month Samantha Roberts, the widow of a soldier killed after being ordered to give up hisprotective vest, called for Mr Hoon's resignation.

The collision, in the Arabian Gulf at 4.25am local time on 22 March, just two days into the war, amounted to the second largest single loss of British life in the conflict.

The crash dealt a heavy blow to the coalition war effort, the report says. Six Navy lieutenants and a US officer on secondment were killed. All six British crew were highly skilled, some, such as Lt Antony King, with more than 13 years' experience. The pilots, Lt Andy Wilson and Lt Philip Green, were "green-rated" - at the top of their profession.

The aircraft, based on HMS Ark Royal, were half of a Sea King flightprovidingbattle data to 3 Armoured Brigade, then entering south Iraq on the Al-Faw peninsula. The report describes their role as the "centrepiece" of Ark Royal's contribution to the war.

Defence sources admit the loss could have led to crucial difficulties for the coalition's invasion. The plan is now to upgrade the Sea Kings and reviewflying rules.

Paul Tyler, the Liberal Democrat MP for Cornwall North, a constituency close to the Sea Kings' base at RNAS Culdrose near Penzance, is preparing Commons questions on the crash this week. "The Sea King families are legitimately frustrated and aggrieved that, six months after the board of inquiry raised all these issues, there has been a complete lack of effective communication by the MoD. They are no wiser than they were six months ago," he said.

The 36-page report from the MoD'sboard of inquiry says the crash probably occurred because of difficult flying conditions, the wrong rules for night-flying, a lack of critical equipment and minor technical problems with equipment, which led to, and exacerbated, mistakes by the aircrew.

The collision happened when the Sea Kings, code-named Redrat 34 and Redrat 35, were handing over missions. The aircraft were flying at night, in hazy conditions, 200ft above the sea near the Al-Faw peninsula, withcrews relying solely on eyesight.

Crucially, the Ark Royal was using "reduced and deceptive" war-time lighting, its lights set so that it looked like a merchant ship. The board believes the crew of RR34 thought they had seen the other craft, RR35. In fact, they saw another Navy helicopter, a Lynx. They had no onboard radar and no minute-by-minute air-traffic support from Ark Royal to help them spot the other Sea King, and realised their mistake too late.

Just 55 seconds before the collision, RR34's pilot could be heard on the flight recorder asking desperately "where my playmate is now, please?"

The inquiry states that both aircraft and the Ark Royal had followed the rules correctly. It warned, however, that those rules were now shown to be out-dated and ineffective.

The report says a high-intensity strobe light fitted to the front of all the Navy's Sea King helicopters breached the MoD's own regulations and was "detrimental" to the crew. Navy Sea Kings routinely turn off their lights on low-level night flights as the reflections can dazzle pilots. The board said these lights had to be replaced "immediately".

Neither Sea King had been fitted with night-vision equipment because Fleet Air Arm had decided that none of the Navy's 10 Mk6 and Mk7 Sea Kings required such gear for the roles they were given.

The inquiry report reveals: "Aircrew reported significant difficulty in recognising with the naked eye ships employing deceptive lighting. Those on night-vision goggles reported no such difficulty." The report also says minimal use of radar in these missions had been a mistake. There had been"complacency".

The MoD said it was acting on nearly all of the board's recommendations, although it refused for security reasons to explain what action was being taken concerning radar and night-flying rules.

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