Human error blamed in US helicopter disaster

First Edition

A CATASTROPHIC SERIES of blunders, all 'human error', led to US jets shooting down two of their own helicopters on a UN mission over Northern Iraq on 14 April, killing 26 people including two British officers, according to the investigation report released by US Defence Secretary William Perry yesterday.

The report now goes to military commanders to determine what disciplinary action, if any, should be taken. Until then, the pilots and air traffic controllers involved will not be named. But they could face court martial.

The pilots of the F15C fighters mistook the US UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters for Soviet-built Iraqi helicopters violating the no-fly zone north of the 36th parallel.

The investigation found that the two American pilots who fired missiles at the Black Hawks were not briefed in advance about their presence in the area of northern Iraq.

Air traffic controllers aboard US Airborne Warning and Control Aircraft (AWACS) directing the fighters and helicopters, the report continued, were confused and failed to communicate with each other.

The errors were compounded because the electronic IFF ("Identification Friend or Foe") system used by the helicopters had been set on the wrong frequency.

"I can't tell you what will happen," said one defence official. "It could range from no action to official admonishment to court martial."

Immediately after the tragedy, the Defence Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, said the incident was 'quite incomprehensible given the normal procedures that applied, given the fact that it was not in the fog of war, indeed it was broad daylight. A lot of very painful questions need to be asked and more importantly they need to be answered'.

Mr Perry and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen John Shalikashvili, released the report at a Pentagon news conference yesterday.

In the crash 15 Americans, five Kurds, three Turkish, two British and one French officers died. The investigation was headed by US Major-General James G Andrus, commander of the US Third Air Force, based in Mildenhall, Suffolk.

The Dead Britons were Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Swann correct, 51, of the Royal Artillery, who was married with two children and Major correct - acting Maj Harry Shapland, 28, of the Irish Guards, a single man. Lt Col Swann's wife, Helen, was abroad yesterday, and Maj Shapland's family did not wish to make any comment.