Safety device 'could have saved Hercules crash victims'

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The deaths of 10 military personnel in an air crash in Iraq could have been prevented if a fuel safety device had been fitted to their British plane, it was reported today.

The crash happened on 30 January 2005, when the Hercules was hit by ground-to-air fire which caused an explosion in the right-hand wing fuel tank.

It was was the single biggest loss of British life in Iraq since military action began in 2003.

But according to the BBC, documents show that RAF pilots had requested explosive-suppressant foam devices be fitted to Hercules fuel tanks two years before the attack.

A board of inquiry said the crash was not survivable but admitted that the lack of a fuel tank safety system could have contributed to the crash.

The Ministry of Defence said none of its planes in Iraq or Afghanistan had the foam, but some would be fitted soon.

Campaigners say they will sue ministers for corporate manslaughter if any more lives are lost.

The foam has been in use in US Hercules aircraft since the Vietnam war.

An internal RAF document obtained by BBC Radio 4's Today programme suggested that requests for the explosive-suppressant foam were being discussed at least as early as 2002.

The document read: "Urgent operational requests for all Hercules aircraft should continue to be actively pursued. Specifically, all aircraft should be fitted with fire suppressants in fuel tanks."

Former Hercules pilot Nigel Gilbert, who flew with 47 Squadron in Afghanistan in 2002, said his father wrote to the Ministry of Defence after he voiced his own worries about the lack of defensive equipment.

In a letter in August 2002, defence minister Adam Ingram told him: "I can assure you that all C130 Hercules aircraft are operating with a suite of defensive aids.

"We are confident that for all military flights into Afghanistan, appropriate aircraft self-protection measures are in place."

But Mr Gilbert told Today: "I was flying the aeroplane and can tell you we didn't have a suite of protective aids.

"We had this old jammer which people have described as about as useful as a chocolate fireguard.

"To protect us from small arms, we resorted to coiling up chains under the seat and maybe to make yourself feel better you would put on a flak jacket as well."

He added: "Most people have a picture of flares, chaff, sirens going off on the flight deck for missiles coming in-bound.

"We had none of that. We stationed a couple of personnel down the back of the aeroplane on either door and their job was to look out for a plume of light and shout 'break right' or 'break left'.

"We figured we would have a second or two to react and try to avoid it that way.

"We are really going back almost to the Second World War here. We had absolutely nothing. We just had our wits about us to try to keep ourselves safe."

Mr Gilbert said the crew of the downed plane would probably have survived if the foam had been fitted.

"I believe the probability is that the crew would have survived that attack if the aircraft had explosive suppressant foam in the fuel tanks," he said.

"That crew was so good they could have put it down on a road or they could have left the landing gear up and landed straight in the desert. It was as flat as a pancake."

Mr Gilbert added: "Just a few weeks ago, we waved goodbye to four Hercules crews going to Afghanistan. Not a single plane had foam in its fuel tanks.

"Last week, we placed the defence ministers on notice of corporate manslaughter in the event that they lose any more lives on a Hercules aircraft due to lack of protective equipment.

"It seems to me that lives of UK servicemen are more expendable than those of our coalition counterparts."

He rejected suggestions that only some of the Hercules needed protection: "Every man and his dog out there has an AK47. An AK47 can bring a Hercules down."

Sarah Chapman, whose brother Sergeant Bob O'Connor died on board the Hercules, said the first she heard of the foam was at the publication of a Board of Inquiry report into the incident in December.

She told Today: "When I heard about some sort of device that may have altered the outcome of the incident, I didn't know what to do. I was absolutely devastated and floored.

"It was the first I had heard about it. I tried to ask questions at the time, but I was railroaded off. It was like 'Go away, girl'."

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Michael Moore told Today: "Anybody would be distressed and appalled that it has taken so long to get what appears to be reasonably basic equipment fitted to these Hercules aircraft.

"When the Defence Secretary made his statement to the House of Commons in December about the Board of Inquiry report, he said two or three times that these findings from the Board of Inquiry would be tackled urgently and that this particular bit of equipment would be fitted.

"Five months on, for us to be in a position where we might be getting some of the Hercules fitted and yet there are some of them in Afghanistan and Iraq still at risk, most people would regard as scandalous."

Mr Moore added: "This foam inerting system is clearly fundamental. The Americans fit it as standard. Why not the British?

"The Secretary of State himself said that this would be looked at urgently. It appears from the report of the Board of Inquiry this is a fundamental and basic thing that ought to be in all these aircraft."