By Steuart Campbell
The 2nd of June will see the 20th anniversary of the RAF’s worst peacetime accident: the crash of a Chinook helicopter (ZD576) into the Mull of Kintyre in 1994 killing all 29 occupants. The 25 passengers were all top security specialists involved in planning secret tactics against the IRA in Northern Ireland, the origin of the flight. They were on their way to a conference at Fort George.
No definitive cause of the accidents has ever been found. The original RAF Board of Inquiry could not determine the cause, although a review by senior officers accused the pilots of ‘gross negligence’ for not obeying flight safety rules. As a result, half the compensation payable to the relatives of all the victims was withheld from the relatives of the pilots on account of their ‘contributory negligence’.
Although a lengthy Fatal Accident Inquiry was held in Paisley in 1996, it also failed to come up with an explanation.
Due to persistent agitation by the pilots’ families and various sympathetic MPs and members of the House of Lords, there were several debates in Parliament, all attempts to overturn the MOD’s verdict on the pilots necessarily based on the idea that there must have been a fault with the aircraft. However, no evidence of a fault has ever been found.
Eventually, in 2001, a House of Lords Select Committee combed through the evidence and interviewed witnesses. Its prejudiced conclusion was that the aircraft was not under the control of the pilots, implying that it has suffered a mechanical failure.
The Government responded to the Commitee’s report in both Houses of Parliament on 22 July 2002, defending its stance and criticising the report. A five-hour debate about the matter, in which Lord Chalfont attempted to get the verdict on the pilots overturned, was held in the Lords on 5 November 2002, but the motion was lost, with many Lords regretting that they had ever supported Chalfont’s ‘Mull of Kintyre’ group.
The MOD had always made it clear that they would only reopen their Inquiry if new evidence appeared. Consequently, it is surprising that it took no notice of a Boeing report attached to their own 2002 response to the HoL’s Committee (HL Paper 25 (iii)).
Boeing Helicopters, who made the Chinook, had been asked to undertake further work using a computer simulation that modelled the behaviour of the aircraft more accurately. This discovered a previously unknown course change, which Boeing declared needed to be explained. It never was, except by me.
In its campaign for the 2010 general election, no doubt in an attempt to gain votes, the Tories promised to hold another inquiry into the crash, but with an implication that they would clear the pilots’ names. Indeed, this was announced on 26 May 2010, shortly after their return to power, albeit in coalition. Prejudicing the inquiry, it referred to the ‘persistent idea that the pilots were wrongly accused of causing the accident’.
Later it was announced that the evidence would be reviewed privately by retired Scottish judge Lord Philip, assisted by three Privy Counsellors (Lord Forsyth, Baroness Liddell and MP Malcolm Bruce). I gave evidence to Lord Philip, but never saw any of his assistants.
Lord Philip’s Mull of Kintyre Review, published on 13 July 2011, recommending that the MOD’s verdict of ‘gross negligence’ should be ‘set aside’ (quashed) and that an apology should be given to the families of the pilots. The same day, Liam Fox MP, then Secretary of State for Defence, announced these recommendations and that the Government would act on them.
I think that Lord Philip has inappropriately applied a legal nicety (in civil courts no verdict can be based on ‘no doubt whatsoever’). However, it is obvious that the air marshals regarded flying into cloud without climbing as required by safety rules as 'gross negligence', a verdict that, according to RAF rules, needed to be based on 'no doubt whatsoever'.
I am sure that, on that matter they did have no doubt. However, Lord Philip related it to the fact that no one knew the cause of the accident, another matter altogether. Thus he set aside the verdict on the wrong premise. Whatever the cause of the accident, which he thought would never be known, the pilots were still grossly negligent in ignoring flight safety rules.
Many welcomed this decision as a victory for the families of the dead pilots and their supporters and concluded that the matter was settled: that the pilots were not responsible and that no further investigation is required. Even the MOD seems to think so; it has released the withheld compensation and seems to be relieved that the matter is resolved.
However, this is surely a mistake. Setting aside the verdict of ‘gross negligence’ leaves the cause of accident unknown. In fact clearing the pilots while admitting that the cause is unknown is inconsistent; the cause could still be pilot error.
The MOD has ignored Boeing’s ‘new evidence’ and seems content to abandon all further enquiries. This means that no one knows whether or not there was a mechanical fault that could still exist or whether or not the pilots made an error that could be repeated. The absence of an identifiable cause for the accident stands out as anomalous and regrettable.
Some older aircraft accidents remain unexplained, but there is no excuse for a modern accident to remain so. Modern accidents generate so much data that it is rare for them to remain unexplained. This one in particular should not remain so.
Steuart Campbell’s book about the accident (Chinook Crash) was published in 2004 by Pen and Sword.