Page last updated at 13:31 GMT, Monday, 31 March 2008 14:31 UK

Truth urged at Hercules inquest

Hercules aircraft
Ten servicemen died when a Hercules came down in Iraq

The sister of one of 10 servicemen killed when an RAF Hercules crashed in Iraq urged a coroner not to be deterred from conducting a "full" inquiry.

The plane came down after a fuel tank was hit by enemy gunfire and exploded, blowing one of the wings off.

At the time it was the biggest single loss of life among British forces in the Iraq campaign.

An RAF inquiry admitted the lack of anti-explosive foam in the fuel tanks may have contributed to the crash.

Wiltshire Coroner David Masters began the inquest, which will not be heard before a jury, on Monday.

'Waited three years'

The inquest comes in the wake of a High Court challenge by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to ban coroners from using the term "serious failings" in respect of MoD conduct, because that could be seen to be apportioning liability.

Sarah Chapman, sister of Sgt Bob O'Connor, killed in the crash, said outside the inquest: "We have waited three years to get to this point.

"There is only one inquest and it is of paramount importance that it is done correctly, and for truth and transparency to be upheld."

The plane came down between Baghdad and Balad air base on 30 January 2005.

Mr Masters, commenting earlier on the MoD's legal challenge, said: "I do not consider that this will deflect coroners from conducting full, frank and fearless inquiries...if something needs to be said I'll say it."

Matter of urgency

He has already laid out the main areas for investigation.

He will ask whether the plane should have been fitted with anti-explosive fuel tanks, what the RAF tactics are for low-level flying during daylight and the availability of intelligence about the threat to aircraft from ground attack.

Explosive-suppressant foam (ESF) which prevents fuel tanks exploding if they are hit, has been fitted to American Hercules aircraft since the 1960s and Australian Hercules also have it.

In May 2006, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Lord Drayson, said the initial programme to fit ESF to Hercules would cost 600,000 per aircraft.

A military Board of Inquiry into the crash recommended that ESF be fitted to RAF Hercules aircraft as a matter of urgency, but some are still without.

The victims included eight crew and two passengers.

The crew, who were mainly based at RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire, were:

  • RAF 47 Squadron's Flt Lt David Stead, the pilot, 35
  • Flt Lt Andrew Smith, 25, the co-pilot
  • Master Engineer Gary Nicholson, 42
  • Flt Sgt Mark Gibson, 34
  • Australian airman Flt Lt Paul Pardoel, 35, a navigator
  • Chief technician Richard Brown, 40, an avionics specialist
  • Sgt Robert O'Connor, 38, an engineering technician
  • Acting L/Cpl Steven Jones, 25, of Fareham, Hampshire, a Royal Signals soldier.

The passengers were:

  • Sqn Ldr Patrick Marshall, 39, from Strike Command Headquarters, RAF High Wycombe
  • Corporal David Williams, 37, a survival equipment fitter.

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