RAF pilots cleared over helicopter death crash

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RAF pilots blamed for the 1994 Chinook helicopter crash that left 29 people dead were today effectively cleared of causing the disaster.

A House of Lords inquiry concluded there was no justification for finding fault with the men, who died along with their 25 passengers and two other crew.

Many of those on board were among Britain's most senior counter–terrorism officers working in Northern Ireland.

A Ministry of Defence investigation into the accident on the Mull of Kintyre on 2 June, 1994, had accused the two special forces pilots, Jonathan Tapper and Richard Cook, of "gross negligence", which infuriated their families.

But doubts were later raised about the reliability of new computer software used to fly the aircraft.

Today, an all–party select committee of five peers cast doubt on the MoD's finding.

They said: "We unanimously conclude that the reviewing officers were not justified in finding that negligence on the part of the pilots caused the aircraft to crash."

The Lords said their conclusion was based on all the evidence before them and the fact that the standard of proof required for blaming a pilot should leave "absolutely no doubt whatsover".

Flt Lt Cook's father John Cook, who lives in Church Crookham, Hants, had said he feared his son's name would not be cleared by the report.

The specially–established committee published its findings at Westminster today after a seven–month review of the crash.

It happened during a flight from RAF Aldergrove in Northern Ireland to Fort George, near Inverness, and remains the RAF's worst peace–time accident.

As well as Flight Lieutenants Cook, 30, and Tapper, 28, it killed two experienced crewmen and 25 of the most senior SAS and MI5 counter–terrorism officers, including the head of Special Branch in Northern Ireland.

At the 1995 RAF Board of Inquiry, the official theory was that the pilots put the helicopter into a long, fast and shallow climb over the Mull, misjudging the speed and position of their machine.

The Board said its wrong rate–of–climb explanation was the likeliest cause, based on limited evidence, and technical malfunction was unlikely but could not be disproved.

What distressed pilots' relatives was how this became a finding of "gross negligence" on the part of the pilots by senior officers who counter–signed the inquiry report.

The relatives, former Cabinet Ministers, MPs from all parties, peers, Gulf war veterans, journalists and film–makers all complained that the RAF had been unfair to the dead pilots.

There were repeated claims that the helicopter's FADEC (Full Authority Digital Engine Control) computers might have malfunctioned.

In response, in July last year, the Lords committee was established with a remit to consider the justification for the finding of those reviewing the Board of Inquiry's conclusions that both pilots were negligent.

The peers heard evidence that the engines were prone to massively speeding up or slowing down the rotors for no reason, and leaving no physical or electronic trace.

But the committee also heard from RAF Air Chief Marshals Sir John Day and Sir William Wratten, who insisted that they were right to conclude that "gross negligence" was the cause of the crash.

During their inquiry, the peers reviewed the information that was before the investigating board and also heard fresh evidence.

Flight Lieutenant Cook's father told them his son had expressed concerns over the Chinook Mark II's safety and that the aircraft "isn't ready and we are not ready".

John Cook, an experienced pilot himself, told the Lords last September: "It's important to understand just how suspicious the crews were of the new Mark II."

He was backed up by Mike Tapper, the father of Flt Lt Tapper, who told the inquiry: "The Mark II truly frightened the pilots."

In their report today, the peers, chaired by Lord Jauncey of Tullichettle, said it was wrong to have ruled out mechanical failure, even though there was no evidence of any.

Their report said: "We heard a good deal of evidence about mechanical problems suffered by Chinook Mark IIs. Some of these problems were intermittent, leaving no trace, and others were readily detectable.

"Although no trace of any mechanical fault, other than a defective radar altimeter, was found by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch inspector, he was unable to dismiss the possibility of an undemanded flight control movement, an engine run–up or a control jam having occurred.

"Any of these could have had a serious effect upon the crew's ability to control the aircraft. Once again, we consider that it could not be said that there was absolutely no doubt whatsoever that some mechanical failure had not caused the loss of control of the aircraft."

The peers said it had not been their role to determine the likely cause of the accident, merely to decide whether it had been fair to blame the pilots.

The select committee's proceedings were not judicial and have no direct effect on the validity of the original finding of negligence.

But the Government will be invited to respond to the findings in a Lords debate to be introduced by Lord Jauncey.

Today, former minister Lord Chalfont, who took up the campaign for the families, said the families simply wanted the pilots' names to be cleared.

"We are not interested in any conspiracy theories, we are not particularly interested in apologies – although I would have thought it would be right for the Ministry of Defence to make one after all these years," he told BBC Radio Scotland.

"All we want to see is that the reputation and names of these two young pilots absolutely cleared.

"If the Ministry of Defence will do that, I and the families will be satisfied."

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell, who has backed the families during the inquiry, called on the Ministry of Defence to quash the findings of its investigation into the crash.

Mr Campbell said: "The duty of the Government is clear. They must accept the conclusions of the report, reopen the inquiry and quash the finding of negligence made against the pilots.

"Any other course of action would be totally unacceptable. An error of judgment has led to an injustice which must now be put right," he said.

A spokesman for the MoD said: "It is a complex issue and we will study the

report in detail and make a response.

"However, the professional judgment of the reviewing officers, endorsed by the department, was and still is that the standard of proof was sufficient."

Downing Street said the Government would need time to study today's report, but

insisted that its position had not changed as yet.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesman said: "This is obviously an issue where there has been a huge amount of scrutiny and a significant number of inquiries in the past.

"I'm not aware that this report provides any new evidence but clearly they have reached the conclusions based on what is in front of them. Everybody understands that the detailed technical, legal and airmanship issues here are very complex and clearly we will want to study this report in detail and give a response to it.

"The 'no doubt whatsoever' which was the standard of proof which the reviewing officers reached is obviously a very high standard of proof.

"That was their professional judgment that that standard of proof was met. The Board of Inquiry rules at the time required in the case of an accident attributed to negligence for a decision to be reached as to whether that was minor negligence, gross negligence or recklessness.

"They decided that this was gross negligence. It was their duty to reach an honest verdict based on the evidence and that is what they did.

"Clearly we will look at this report but I am not aware that there is any new evidence which has come to light and that remains the Government's view at the moment."

A senior member of the legal team representing Flight Lieutenant Cook's family

said the decision drew a line under a "shameful episode".

Solicitor Advocate Peter Watson said unanswered questions remained about both the helicopter and the RAF's insistence that the pilots were to blame.

Mr Watson, senior partner at Levy and McRae, said: "Today sees a wrong righted. This decision ends a shameful episode which saw the names and reputations of the pilots sacrificed for reasons that remain a mystery.

"From the outset everyone knew that this model of the Chinook had problems.

"Both pilots had seen active service and both were highly regarded.

"The RAF's own rules require that pilots be blamed only in the clearest of cases. This was never such a case."