13 Jul 2011

Liam Fox apologises to dead pilot families

Defence Secretary Liam Fox apologises to the families of the Chinook pilots blamed for the Mull of Kintyre helicopter crash 17 years ago. Alex Thomson gets reaction from the pilots’ relatives.

It comes after a fresh review into the RAF’s worst peacetime disaster concluded that Flight Lieutenants Jonathan Tapper and Richard Cook should not have been blamed for the crash in 1994.

The accident killed all 29 people on board, including 25 of Britain’s most senior intelligence experts, who were flying from Belfast to attend a conference in Inverness.

Dr Fox said he had written to the widows of the airmen to apologise for the distress caused to them by the RAF’s original finding that they were guilty of “gross negligence”.

He told the Commons: “I hope that this report, and the action I have taken in response to it, will bring an end to this very sad chapter by removing the stain on the reputations of the two pilots.”

The chairman of the review, Lord Philip, a retired Scottish judge, specifically rejected evidence he heard from Sir William Wratten and Sir John Day, two air marshals, who accused the pilots of gross negligence.

This is the end. And to the end the families of the dead pilots maintain their dignity, writes Channel 4 News Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson.

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spoke to them first as they emerged form Parliament, their key campaigner, Lord O'Neil, walking up to us up and shouting: "Game, set, match - what a bloody amazing day for justice!"

The families themselves, as ever, dignified, Chris Cook, brother of one of the pilots said: "It's been so long this is a very emotional day for us. But it means the end. It means we can move on."

He himself is moving on - he's a pilot and is in the cockpit tommorrow.

I asked Mike Tapper, father of one of the pilots and for so long a determined thorn in the flesh of the Minsitry of Defence, how he felt: "It's closure. It's the end. We can move on. But, my God, I did not expect such a clean sweep as this."

Across the road, at a hurriedly arranged press conference, key party campaigners lined up. Tory David Davies, Labour peer Martin O'Neill, of course, and Sir Menzies Campbell, who said, gesturing at parliament behind him: "What this shows is that this place works."

Read more: Alex Thomson on a 17 year fight for justice.

The new findings come after nearly two decades of campaigning by the families of the two pilots, backed by politicians of all parties, to clear their names.

Successive defence secretaries resisted pressure to reopen the case, but in May last year Dr Fox announced he was ordering a review of the evidence, honouring a pledge made while the Conservatives were in opposition.

Lawyers for the family of Flt Lt Cook welcomed the new report’s findings. Solicitor Peter Watson, from Glasgow-based Levy and McRae, said: “Those who ordered a finding of gross negligence have now been shown to have acted wrongly.

“They need to explain their conduct which has caused such hurt to the families and damaged the reputation of two fine pilots.”

Former prime minister Sir John Major said the evidence to support the original finding of negligence was “always questionable”.

“I warmly congratulate Liam Fox for exonerating the pilots from blame,” he said.

“Natural justice demanded this outcome, which I am sure will be a great comfort to their families as they – and others – continue to mourn the loss of the brave people who lost their lives over the Mull of Kintyre, in the service of their country.”