Hercules crew were not given vital warning that may have saved them

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Vital intelligence which may have saved an RAF Hercules aircraft from being shot down in Iraq was not passed on to the flight, an official report into the crash revealed yesterday.

The crew were not told that they were flying into an area where two American Black Hawk helicopters had come under fire on the same day.

At the same time, intelligence staff on the ground did not even know the flightpath being taken by the transport plane.

These failures of intelligence led to Flight XV179, en route to an airbase at Balad from Baghdad, being brought down by insurgents with 10 servicemen killed, the largest single loss of British lives in the conflict.

Ground-to-air fire exploded the fuel tank and sheared off one of the wings. The C-130 transport plane became "uncontrollable. The crash was not survivable," the report said.

The Royal Air Force Board of Inquiry also concluded that flying at low altitude in daylight made the aircraft particularly vulnerable to ground-to-air fire.

Also, the lack of a fuel tank safety system led to the combustion of the fuel and air mix in the tank.

However, it was what the report, and the Defence Secretary, John Reid, described as not "robust" enough information about the other attacks that has come under critical focus.

Information about the US helicopters being brought down arrived by e-mail to the Air Component Headquarters (ACHQ), which collects information about coalition flights in Iraq, an hour and 20 minutes before the Hercules was brought down on 30 January.

"However, the crew of XV179 remained unaware of the earlier attack and ... flew close to the Safire [surface-to-air fire] site and crashed shortly afterwards," the report states.

"The fact that the aircraft took off on a routine sortie without an accurate threat picture proves that intelligence collation and dissemination system needs urgent review."

The inquiry also found that the ACHQ was not even manned around the clock.

It continues: "The air and ground intelligence picture generated for all aircrew was produced by one corporal, who obviously did not work 24-hour shifts and was, in reality, dependent on the product produced by the ACHQ."

The inquiry also foundthe lone corporal did not learn about the attacks on the Black Hawk helicopters until the day after the Hercules was shot down.

Around 873 attacks have taken place on coalition Hercules aircraft in Iraq between May 2003 and end of January 2005 without any casualties.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the head of the Royal Air Force, said: "Flying in an environment like Iraq is never safe and there are no guarantees." He added that all the "contributory factors" that led to the incident were being urgently addressed.

Asked why the Hercules aircrew were not told about the attacks on the US helicopters, and why those collating information were unaware of the Hercules' flightpath, Air Chief Marshal Stirrup said some intelligence needed to be withheld for security reasons. He said: "You don't know what you don't know ... Some people didn't need to know."

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