Officer insists pilot error most likely cause of Chinook crash

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The families of two helicopter pilots blamed by the Royal Air Force for the Chinook helicopter crash on the Mull of Kintyre took the campaign to clear their names to Westminster yesterday.

But at the opening of a House of Lords investigation, the officer in charge of the first investigation into the RAF's worst peacetime disaster said he stood by his original conclusion that, although there was no definitive proof, pilot error was the most likely cause.

The helicopter was flying from Northern Ireland to Scotland carrying 27 anti-terrorism experts who died when it crashed into a hill in June 1994.

Controversy over its cause still rages, with a campaign to clear the pilots' names leading to the decision to set up a fresh investigation. It will look at whether a later RAF inquiry was right to overturn the first investigation, ruling that the accident had definitely been caused by the crew selecting the wrong rate of climb when going over the Mull.

Group Captain Andrew Pulford, who presided over the initial RAF inquiry, said: "I have seen and heard nothing, and believe me there are evenings when I wish I knew, why it occurred the way it did. I have not been convinced by any other arguments."

He said a simulation of the accident indicated that the pilots were flying at the high speed of 150 knots when they should have been flying "low and slow" because of the conditions.

Capt Pulford also believed there had been "compound errors" in plotting the route. "They thought they were further away from the Mull, these are metres rather than miles, but with these errors ... they might have thought in their minds they were further away than they were," he said.

He was accused by Lord Tombs of issuing a "fairly cavalier dismissal" towards the possibility of technical problems causing the crash.

Capt Pulford, an experienced Chinook pilot, admitted the possibility of a "minor technical malfunction", such as a flickering gauge, could not be ruled out. But it would have been a "cause of possible distraction to the crew" rather than "the cause of the accident itself". He also conceded there were a lot of "ambiguities" over the case.

The five-member committee of peers chaired by Lord Jauncey of Tullichettle, a former Scottish law lord, will prepare a report for the Upper House by the end of January next year.

They will also take evidence from Air Chief Marshal Sir John Day and retired Air Chief Marshal Sir William Wratten, who reviewed the initial findings and concluded pilot error was definitely to blame.

The committee is expected to continue taking evidence through the autumn.