Helicopter tragedy in Iraq raises fresh concern over RAF training

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Military experts have expressed grave concerns over the training of helicopter pilots after the RAF lost its fourth Puma aircraft this year in a crash last week in Iraq.

The crash claimed the lives of two SAS servicemen. The Ministry of Defence said yesterday it would not be naming the men. An investigation is under way but The Independent on Sunday understands an early theory is that the helicopter crashed shortly after successfully evading fire.

Two machines collided in April north of Baghdad and another crashed during a training exercise in Catterick, North Yorkshire, in August, killing three. In July 2004, a Puma crashed while trying to land at Basra airport, killing the pilot.

Pumas entered service in 1971 and are described as "workhorses" used for ferrying troops and equipment and for low-flying, high-speed special forces missions. Operating in difficult desert conditions, they require regular servicing. At the end of October, Des Browne, the Secretary of State for Defence, admitted that one in three Pumas were not "fit for purpose".

Military sources have told the IoS that pilots are being provided with insufficient training.

One said: "The age of the aircraft doesn't matter. The basic aircraft is great. Soldiers love it because it has doors on both sides. It's a good solid workhorse. The issue, however, is training and the number of flying hours pilots have before being sent to Iraq."

An inquest into the death of Flt Lt Kristian Gover, who died in Basra in 2004, concluded that inadequate training was a key factor. The coroner, Andrew Walker, said: "The training of the crew was insufficient."

Comments on RAF online message boards later supported that view.