A Norwegian investigation into whether British military jets were involved in a fatal mid-air collision with a passenger plane over northern Norway was thrown into fresh controversy yesterday by the Ministry of Defence.
A parliamentary inquiry in Oslo is examining the circumstances of the crash on 11 March 1982 in which 15 people were killed when their turboprop plane came down in the sea near Mehamn, in Norway's northernmost province of Finnmark.
More than 30 people have reported seeing military planes flying in the area, according to a BBC investigation, and there has been speculation in the Norwegian press that a damaged Harrier jet that landed at the Bardufoss airbase, 300 miles south of Mehman, had been the cause of the crash. In a written answer to the House of Lords last year, the MoD admitted that a Harrier on exercises in the area had been damaged that day and made an emergency landing after it was "struck by a ricochet during a live-firing exercise".
Yesterday, the MoD said it had made "an unfortunate error" and that the jet, from RAF Number One Squadron, had sustained "no damage".
"The pilot declared an emergency because he believed the plane had been struck by a ricochet. A subsequent check on the ground, however, found no damage to the aircraft," a ministry spokeswoman said. She said "a noise" could have caused the pilot to think he had been struck in mid-air.
The MoD has confirmed that there were 10 Harrier jets in the area taking part in a Nato exercise, but denies that any aircraft came into proximity with a civilian plane. However, reports of sightings of a damaged military aircraft in the region at the time have fuelled claims that the MoD covered up the circumstances of the crash because it occurred within forbidden airspace. Although Norway is a member of Nato, it declared Finnmark off-limits to the alliance during the Cold War, over worries that military activity in the province might provoke the neighbouring Soviet Union. Last year a retired lieutenant-colonel, Per Garvin, said that he watched by radar as two British Harriers entered Finnmark, and said that one of the pilots requested an immediate landing because of technical problems after the commuter plane crashed.
A technician at the Bardufoss airbase near Tromsoe, Stein Trondsen, said that he saw a damaged Harrier in a hangar the morning after the crash.Reuse content