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Q&A: Nimrod MR2 explosion

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 04 December 2007

The findings of an inquiry into a 2006 RAF Nimrod explosion in Afghanistan which killed 14 British servicemen are published later today.

Q: What happened in 2006?

On 2 September 2006, a Nimrod MR2 reconnaissance plane came down 12 miles west of Kandahar, Afghanistan, killing 12 crew, a Royal Marine and an Army soldier.

It exploded shortly after mid-air refuelling during an intelligence-gathering mission. It is thought that fuel leaking into the bomb bay was ignited by hot air from a broken pipe. However, exact causes have yet to be confirmed.

Q: What was the aircraft's mission?

The aircraft, call sign XV230, was supporting Operation Medusa, which has been launched by the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Afghan forces, in an attempt to clear the Taliban from Kandahar's Panjwayi district.

The incident remains the single biggest loss of life suffered by Britain's Armed Forces since the war on terror began and the largest single loss of military personnel since the Falklands.

Q: Who were the crew on board?

They were from 120 Squadron based at RAF Kinloss in Moray, Scotland. The explosion stunned the close-knit community of Kinloss, which has a long association with the air force.

The RAF Kinloss base's station commander, Group Captain Chris Birks, said previously that the air crew were "very experienced" in Afghanistan.

The names of those who died

The 12 RAF personnel killed were Flt Lt Steven Johnson, Flt Lt Leigh Anthony Mitchelmore, Flt Lt Gareth Rodney Nicholas, Flt Lt Allan James Squires, Flt Lt Steven Swarbrick, Flt Sgt Gary Wayne Andrews, Flt Sgt Stephen Beattie, Flt Sgt Gerard Martin Bell and Flt Sgt Adrian Davies, Sgt Benjamin James Knight, Sgt John Joseph Langton and Sgt Gary Paul Quilliam.

L/Cpl Oliver Simon Dicketts, from the Parachute Regiment, and Royal Marine Joseph David Windall also perished.

Q: Is the Nimrod fleet safe?

Although the aircraft had undergone routine safety checks before its mission, the incident inevitably questioned the safety of the Nimrod fleet - the aircraft which exploded was nearly 40 years old.

The fleet was introduced in 1969, but concerns including leaking fuel and failing equipment have been raised about of the ageing fleet, initially designed as a sea patrol and anti-submarine aircraft.

Despite their age, these aircrafts were sent to Iraq and Afghanistan and Iraq on lengthy missions and would employ air-to-air refuelling to keep them flying for longer.

However it is considered an essential tool, especially in Afghanistan, as the aircraft's spy cameras provide useful images to the British ground troops.

They were due to go out of service in 1995, but will continue to fly operations over Iraq and Afghanistan until replaced by the new MRA4 model.

However, the MRA4 will not be ready until at least 2011. Budget cuts by the Treasury and MoD have been blamed for this delay.

Q: Have there been any other Nimrod MR2 incidents?

In November 1980. a Nimrod MR2 crashed near RAF Kinloss after three engines failed following multiple birdstrikes, killing both pilots. The remaining crew survived.

In September 1995, a Nimrod MR2 crashed into Lake Ontario during the Canadian International Air Show, killing seven crew members.

Last month, the RAF launched an investigation after one of the aircraft, also based at RAF Kinloss, was found to be leaking fuel into an empty bomb area.

"Only the Ministry of Defence board of inquiry and coroner's inquest can answer these questions and a 12-month wait is a disgrace."
Angus Robertson, MP for Moray

Q: What was the political response?

At the time, Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond described the explosion as "one of our blackest days since the Second World War".

In August this year, Angus Robertson, MP for Moray and the SNP's leader at Westminster, branded the wait for the Ministry of Defence's board of inquiry and a separate coroner's inquest into the deaths a "disgrace".

He said, "Publication dates have been put back and put back and the Ministry of Defence should get on with it."

"We were promised within a couple of weeks of the crash that once the RAF had begun its inquiry we could go up to Kinloss to ask questions. That day never happened."
Graham Knight, father

Q: What was the response from family members?

The wait for results of inquiries into how the accident happened has brought about anger from family and friends who have received invitations to Whitehall for the MoD's board of inquiry revealing its findings.

However, some relatives, who blame Government "failures" for the incident, have refused to attend, amid criticisms of delays and fears that aspects of what happened could be "brushed under the carpet".

Graham Knight from Bridgwater, Somerset, whose 25-year-old son Ben, died in the explosion, previously wrote a letter to the Government outlining his anger at the inquiry

55-year-old Mr Knight, who previously said he was not attending because of "consistent delays", claimed RAF officials ignored warnings that its Nimrod aircraft were unsafe before it exploded over Afghanistan.

He said previously, "My initial reaction is one of anger, because the consultation we were promised throughout never happened. My greatest fear is that a lot of things could be brushed under the carpet as a result of this inquiry.

"In terms of recommendations, I do not know what I hope for. I would be interested to see if they find whether they attribute the cause to the fact the RAF were carrying out mid-air refuelling."

He has also accused the military of not fully taking into account a 2004 safety report by BAE Systems over MR2 fuel leak concerns and condemned a failure to act on the report's 19 outstanding recommendations out of 41.

Q: What has the MoD said so far?

In response to Mr Knight's comments, the MoD said it would be "unhelpful to speculate on the outcome until the board's findings are published".

In February, the MoD also decided to ground all MR2 aircraft while investigations were carried out on fuel pumps - although they were quick to point out that this was not necessarily related to the crash in Afghanistan.

They have also defended the aircraft's safety record after concerns about fuel leaks and questions over defence budgets, saying if it did not have confidence in the fleet it "would not continue to fly them".

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