MoD knew of crews' fears over Nimrod spy planes years ago

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Yet more safety fears over the RAF's ageing Nimrod spy planes have come to light, showing that the fleet continued flying despite hundreds of crew reports warning of potentially lethal faults on the aircraft.

Concerned flight crews complained repeatedly for years about problems ranging from leaking fuel pipes and smoke and fumes coming in from bomb bays, MoD documents confirm.

As part of our Military Covenant campaign, this newspaper has been calling for better equipment for Britain's armed forces.

More than 100 incidents were reported in the months between September last year and June 2007, when the records end. British troops suffered their biggest single loss of the conflict in Afghanistan when a Nimrod crashed in September 2006, killing all 14 aboard. Leaked emails revealed this week that the MoD had been aware of concerns about fuel leaks on that aircraft.

The incidents recorded on the Defence Aviation Centre database all resulted "in the aircraft sustaining damage or a person receiving an injury or which discloses a flight safety hazard or potential hazard". In the past 20 years, pilots and crew have reported about 2,000 such incidents. Other documents obtained under freedom of information legislation show that the planes' manufacturer, BAE Systems, flagged up a potentially lethal problem earlier this year – that if a fire broke out in the bomb bay, there was no mechanism for putting it out.

The fleet of 18 planes was put into service in the late 1960s, and a £3bn project to replace it is behind schedule and over budget.

An inquiry report into the Nimrod crash in Afghanistan has yet to appear, and the MoD is at pains to point out that until then all possible causes are speculation. Since the accident, the RAF has suspended mid-air refuelling on the aircraft except in unavoidable circumstances and taken one of the nine fuel tanks out of use. It has also put out special instructions for monitoring fuel leaks in other tanks, pipework and within the bomb bay. While some leaks were repaired, others were deferred for several months.

Graham Knight, whose 25-year-old son Ben died in the 2006 crash, has obtained documents showing that numerous leaks in the aircraft in the month before the crash were not fixed.

"Once a fire started in my son's aircraft the crew were doomed as there was no fire-suppression system fitted in the bomb bay," he said. "Yet BAE Systems produced a report... in 2004 recommending that, in the Nimrod MR2 bomb bay, the MoD should consider utilising the extended range tankage role to fit fire-detection suppression systems in normal operations. This recommendation was not adopted by the MoD mainly because of the cost. Had a fire-detection suppression system been fitted to XV230, my son's aircraft, it may have bought them the three minutes they needed in which to land. What price does the MoD put on 14 human lives?"

An MoD spokesman said: "The Nimrod aircraft has a good safety record and remains a potent and respected aircraft. Regular reviews of airworthiness and safety of all our aircraft types is standard practice. If we didn't have confidence in the aircraft, we would not continue to allow it to be flown."

Further viewing: 'Commando: On the Front Line', about Marine recruits in Afghanistan, is on Mondays, 10pm, ITV1