13 Jul 2011

RAF pilots cleared of negligence over Mull of Kintyre crash

Chief Correspondent

Defence Secretary Liam Fox apologises to the families of the pilots in the Mull of Kintyre helicopter crash after a new report clears them of an earlier finding of negligence.

The fresh review concluded that Flight Lieutenants Jonathan Tapper and Richard Cook should not have been blamed for the accident in 1994.

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 findings 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.”

29 people, including some of Britain’s most senior intelligence experts, died when their Chinook helicopter crashed on the Mull of Kintyre in 1994.

The RAF found the pilots guilty of causing the accident. But the report has recommend overturning the charge of negligence against the pilots. It means their families could be entitled to compensation, writes Channel 4 News Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson.

The end of the saga

In the unassuming Dover House building, on the site of the old Scottish Office close to Downing Street, the marathon Mull of Kintyre saga looks set to end.

As relatives gather, they are angry at the Ministry of Defence, blaming it for leaking some details of Lord Philip’s inquiry as a “spoiler” last weekend.

Their long, long battle goes back to that fateful flight from near Belfast to a military base near Inverness.

Lord Philip’s inquiry, 17 years on, questions the sense of packing such priceless payloads into RAF choppers for such get-togethers.

Looking back on it, the astonishing thing was that they had done it before. It was almost routine.

The previous year the MoD had seen fit to pack the best of British intelligence officers from the RUC, the British Army and MI5 in Northern Ireland, into a Chinook twin-rotor RAF transport helicopter at RAF Aldergrove, adjacent to Belfast International Airport, and fly them off over the most dramatic terrain the UK can offer to, well, play golf.

The previous year it was to RAF Machrihanish, in the shadow of the Mull of Kintyre. But the jolly get-together this year – 1994 – would be Fort George, close to Inverness.

So it was that among the burned-out wreckage of Flight ZD 576 on the Mull that foggy night of 2 June were golf clubs, strewn all over the crash site.

So it is that Lord Philip’s inquiry, 17 years on, questions the sense of packing such priceless payloads into RAF choppers for such get-togethers. They could have flown them all on civilian scheduled flights.

Best of the RAF

And then there were those four crew members beyond the 25 passengers killed. All four – two loadmasters and pilots Flight Lieutenant Jonathan Tapper and Flight Lieutenant Rick Cook – among the very best the RAF had.

These were Special Forces-calibre men of expertise and real experience. The men they came to when they needed to air-drop the SAS behind the lines in the dead of a desert or mountain or jungle night. Experienced, skilled, tested, and tested again.

One of the pilots, Rick Cook, was so concerned that a few days before the flight he changed his life insurance. Serious, Special Forces pilots simply don’t do this kind of thing.

Yet even these pilots were worried men in the days before they flew. They’d begged their bosses to fly the tested and long-serving Mark 1 Chinook. No dice.

Orders were to fly the newer Mark 2, rushed into service with a history of flight-critical mechanical problems. 300 miles south east, in the tranquillity or rural Wiltshire, another group of expert fliers were every bit as worried.

Memorial to the 29 people killed in the 1994 Mull of Kintyre helicopter crash (Reuters)

Smoking gun

The Boscombe Down base is where they flight-test RAF Chinooks. Even as Jon Tapper and Rick Cook were finalising their preparations for the fatal flight, Boscombe Down decided enough was enough.

The very afternoon before the crash, they sent an urgent memo to the MoD. In it, they said the computer engine-control on the Mark 2 simply wasn’t trustworthy.

They told the MoD they were grounding their Chinooks indefinitely. Then, in an extraordinary move, they begged the RAF “in the strongest terms” to do the same.

The ‘Boscombe Down memo’ took Channel 4 News more then 13 years of investigation to uncover. It is a genuine smoking gun.

The RAF did nothing. One day later it suffered its biggest loss of life in peacetime in its history.

The “Boscombe Down memo” took Channel 4 News more then 13 years of investigation to uncover. It is a genuine smoking gun, providing incontrovertible proof that the safety of that helicopter was in grave doubt.

And doubt, is what it’s all about. Inquiry after inquiry agreed there was doubt about what caused the crash – nobody knew what caused it, and to this day nobody knows.

The Sheriff inquiry, the fatal accident inquiry, a House of Lords inquiry, a Commons inquiry – as the years rolled by, one after another, they all agreed you simply could not blame the pilots “beyond any doubt whatsoever” when doubt was as thick as the Mull mist.

But that – contradicting their own RAF investigation – is precisely what Air Marshalls Sir John Day and Sir William Wratten did.

The pilots couldn’t defend their reputation and only now, 17 years on, all indications suggest that Lord Philip has removed the stain these two men placed upon them in their graves.

Long-awaited apology

The apology has been long-awaited by the families of those two young pilots.

Too late for John Cook, Rick’s father, who campaigned tirelessly and on his deathbed asked his son Chris to carry on the fight, which he did.

Equally Jon Tapper’s mother, Hazel, who died before justice could be done.

They did not campaign for compensation. They did it simply to clear the names of those two young men.

The wait has been long, often quite lonely, and frequently cruel against a Ministry of Defence and two air marshalls incapable of saying they’d got it badly and painfully wrong.

For the families agree their pilots in that cockpit could have caused the crash. But if you cannot know for sure, you cannot blame them beyond doubt.

They did not campaign for compensation. They did it simply to clear the names of those two young men.

They have done it. So ends a long journey for many of us. Indeed, by far the longest investigation in the history of Channel 4 News, with the indefatigable freelance producer David Harrison at the helm with me, down the years.

I was myself on the Mull that night. I’ve returned many times as we’ve brought new information time and again into the public domain, to be met with the consistent lie from the MOD that new information “wasn’t new”.