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Chinook Helicopter Accident Inquiry

2.5 p.m.

Lord Chalfont rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will review the findings of the RAF Board of Inquiry into the accident involving Chinook helicopter ZD576 in June 1994.

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The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. Before explaining the background, perhaps I may offer a warm welcome to the noble Lord on his first appearance at this Dispatch Box as Minister of State. This is, of course, not his first tour of duty as a Minister, and he brings to this House a formidable fund of knowledge of defence matters.

More than 30 years ago I made my own maiden speech in your Lordships' House from the same Dispatch Box as a Minister of State but then without the political experience of the noble Lord. I welcome his appointment in the confidence that we shall receive from him the same consideration and courtesy as we were accustomed to receive from his predecessor, the noble Earl, as a Minister in the previous Government.

In that context perhaps I may say at once that I ask this question in no confrontational or contentious spirit. It is an attempt to clarify a matter which has been a mystery to me for some time, and, as it became clear from a recent, and quite remarkable television programme on the subject, has been a mystery to many other people as well.

The story which lies behind this question begins on 2nd June 1994, when a Chinook helicopter of the Royal Air Force crashed on the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland on a flight from Northern Ireland. It was carrying 25 passengers, most of them senior members of the British Intelligence Services, and it was manned by a crew of four--two pilots and two loadmasters, all from the Royal Air Force Special Forces. All 29 people on board were killed in that accident.

After a year of investigations into the crash, a Royal Air Force board of inquiry concluded that the two pilots--Flight Lieutenant Tapper, the captain, and Flight Lieutenant Cook, the co-pilot--had been guilty of gross negligence and that that negligence was to blame for the disaster. My purpose in raising this issue now is to suggest that to the families of the two pilots, and to many knowledgeable people both inside and outside the Royal Air Force, that verdict constituted a grave injustice to the two young pilots.

The important point of departure in this analysis, and one that one must keep in the front of one's mind throughout any consideration of it, is the apparently unambiguous guidance issued by the Royal Air Force relevant to accident investigations of this kind. With the leave of the House I shall quote it verbatim, because it is important. It states:

    "only in cases in which there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever should deceased air crew be found negligent".

The simple and fundamental question is: was there in this case absolutely no doubt whatsoever about the cause of the accident?

For me it is the only question. Speculation about aircraft serviceability, inadequate equipment, even the dark possibility of intelligence-related cover-ups and sabotage is entirely unsubstantiated. But it can also be argued that negligence on the part of the pilots is equally unsubstantiated and the history of this episode

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demonstrates clearly why there is a widespread belief that this was not a case in which there was "absolutely no doubt whatsoever".

Let me go briefly through the sequence of events. In the first place the initial findings of the president of the very thorough and comprehensive Royal Air Force board of inquiry contained the following conclusions:

    "There were many potential causes of the accident and, despite detailed and in depth analysis, the Board was unable to determine a definite cause".

With regard to Flight Lieutenant Tapper, the board's findings were:

    "it would be incorrect to criticise him for human failings based on the available evidence";

and on Flight Lieutenant Cook,

    "The board concluded that there were no human failings with respect to Flight Lieutenant Cook".

The officer commanding Royal Air Force Odiham, the parent station in this case, reviewing these findings, referred to a possible failure to ensure the safety of the aircraft, but observed:

    "In assessing human failings, the evidence is insufficient to be specific".

And the station commander RAF Aldergrove, the station from which the flight originated, noted:

    "I am impressed by the meticulous and detailed examination of events which the Board has provided. However, I believe that the exact train of events can never be determined with absolute certainty".

So far, so good--all the opinions and evidence indicating that up to this point the Royal Air Force view, the view of the board of inquiry and two station commanders, was that this was certainly not a case of "absolutely no doubt whatsoever".

However, in reviewing the proceedings of the board of inquiry, Air Vice-Marshal Day, the air officer commanding No. 1 Group, interpreted the same evidence differently, coming to the conclusion that Flight Lieutenant Tapper and Flight Lieutenant Cook were both,

    "negligent to a gross degree";

and Air Chief Marshal Sir William Wratten, at that time the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Strike Command, although conceding in his review--this is a very important qualification made by the air chief marshal--that:

    "there is inevitably a degree of speculation as to the precise detail of the sequence of events in the minutes and seconds immediately prior to impact",

nevertheless concluded that:

    "the actions of the two pilots were the direct cause of this crash. I also conclude that this amounted to gross negligence".

It is important to be clear that these two senior and experienced reviewing officers had every right to disagree with the opinion of the president of the board of inquiry, as they are an integral part of the whole inquiry procedure. It is not over until they have concluded their review.

I have been able to discuss this issue with both these senior officers. They are clearly both men of great experience and total professional integrity, who would not do anything which they did not believe to be fair

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and in the interests of the service. However, the families of the two pilots, among many others, find it difficult to understand, in the light of the opinion of the president of the board of inquiry and the other officers concerned, how they could possibly have come to a conclusion that there was "absolutely no doubt whatsoever" about the cause of the accident.

Their judgment was delivered in April 1995. But they were not the last words on the subject. Because the accident took place in Scotland, early in 1996 a fatal accident inquiry was held under a civil judge, Sheriff Sir Stephen Young who is a distinguished legal figure. After hearing all the evidence, including that of the president of the Royal Air Force board of inquiry, the sheriff came to the conclusion that there was no proof that the pilots were to blame. I quote a crucial passage from the judge's determination:

    "I have found myself unable to accept the conclusion reached by ... the [RAF] board of inquiry.... It may then be asked what was the cause of the accident. For my part, I can only say that I do not know ... in the absence of any evidence from eyewitnesses aboard the aircraft or of information that might have been recorded from a cockpit voice recorder or an accident data recorder, I do not think any useful purpose would be served by my speculating further on the matter".

It seems to me that in the light of all that it must be a matter for grave concern that two young officers of the Royal Air Force Special Forces, officers with exemplary records and considerable flying experience, should be found guilty of gross negligence and held entirely responsible for a disaster of this magnitude when two thorough and comprehensive inquiries--one military and one civilian--have clearly been unable to identify beyond doubt the cause of the accident. It is impossible to imagine a more terrible indictment of two professional service officers than that they have brought about by gross negligence their own deaths and the deaths of 27 other people, not to mention the total destruction of the aircraft which was under their command.

Apart from the appalling impact of that on the families of the young men, the episode must inevitably involve the jealously guarded honour of the Armed Forces. It seems to me that there would be nothing dishonourable in now conceding that the verdict of gross negligence was severe and unjust, however honestly and sincerely it might have been reached.

When the television film was made--and it was a quite remarkable documentary film--the Ministry of Defence complained subsequently to the programme makers that the Royal Air Force side of the case had not been adequately represented. In concluding, I express the hope that if the Question today does nothing else, it will provide the Minister with an opportunity to repair that alleged omission and to explain precisely why, in the absence of evidence and in the absence of a situation where there was no doubt whatsoever, these young men were found guilty of gross negligence. I hope too that the Minister will be able to go further and agree to review the whole matter in the expectation that it might be possible to restore the reputations of two young officers and bring at least some comfort to their families.

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