Page last updated at 16:39 GMT, Saturday, 26 April 2008 17:39 UK

Coroner extends Hercules inquest

Hercules C130K
Before the crash RAF Hercules were not fit for purpose, the inquest heard

Evidence has been continuing in the inquest into the deaths of 10 military personnel whose Hercules plane was shot down in Iraq in January 2005.

Aviation expert Sean Maffett was in court for BBC News.

The inquest had been expected to end on 23 April.

But on that day, the coroner, David Masters, told the court that it had proved impossible to hear the necessary evidence in the time available.

He adjourned the inquest "part heard" from 25 April until 30 September and said that he expected it to last another three weeks after that.

He had discussed the adjournment with the families of the dead personnel and their advocates, as well as the Ministry of Defence, and they had unanimously agreed on the proposal.

'Despairing memo'

So this has been the last week of the first part of the inquest.

It was distinguished by differences in evidence from various Royal Air Force aircrew members.

Perhaps the most striking evidence came from Squadron Leader Chris Seal.

He retired from the RAF in January 2005 - just before the Hercules was shot down.

He had been a flight commander on 47 Squadron, and he had written a "lessons identified" memo - referred to despairingly as "lessons ignored" - after he returned from serving in Afghanistan in 2002.

Among his concerns had been that ESF (explosion-suppressant foam) should be fitted to the Hercules fuel tanks.

On 30 January 2005, near Baghdad, the RAF 47 Squadron Hercules was hit in a tank in its right wing by small arms fire.

The tank exploded, blowing off part of the wing, which made the aircraft uncontrollable. Everyone on board died when it crashed.

I'm gob-smacked, astonished
Squadron Leader Chris Seal

It was only after this that ESF began to be fitted on RAF Hercules aircraft.

Mr Seal was shown documents from the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (Dera), dating back to 1993, about the lack of UK research into ESF, which US Hercules planes have had since the Vietnam War.

'Lagging behind'

One Dera document, from 1994, said the UK was "lagging behind the US" on the issue.

Mr Seal said he never knew about this research.

"I'm gob-smacked, astonished," he said on seeing the documents.

He said he only found out about ESF after a US pilot told him his aircraft had it.

However, Mr Seal said that, by the time he had made this report, he had already "got into trouble" for voicing his concerns about other Hercules safety issues, among them infra-red counter-measures and night flying tactics.

He had been reprimanded for not following proper staff procedures and "censored" thereafter, he said.

Bernard Collaery, for Kellie Merritt, the widow of Flight Lieutenant Paul Pardoel, said his client wished to "commend" Mr Seal and "hoped others would be as assertive about the needs of their men".

Mr Seal replied: "All I can say is it does not do your career any good."

Mr Seal agreed with Richard Stead, father of the Hercules' captain, that the RAF's Hercules fleet was, before the recent improvements, "not fit for purpose".

A witness identified only as EK, who had been a flight commander on the squadron in Iraq six months before the plane was shot down, said he had known little of ESF.

Most of what he knew he had heard from United States Air Force officers serving on exchange tours with the squadron.

The subject of ESF had come up in informal discussion but, as far as he knew, it had not been formally recommended before the crash.

He pointed out that the Hercules had always been known as a robust aircraft, capable of withstanding battle damage.

Funding issue denied

The last witness before the adjournment was Air Commodore Ray Lock, who had been the Station Commander at RAF Lyneham at the time when Sqn Ldr Seal's urgent recommendations about ESF and other protection questions had been going through the system.

The coroner put it to the air commodore that another witness, whose evidence was yet to be heard, had said in a statement that the then Group Captain Lock had told him it would take someone being shot down and killed before money was found to provide ESF for the Hercules.

The air commodore did not recall saying that, and denied that he would have said that absence of funding would have prevented ESF from being installed.

When the coroner suggested that such differing recollections were difficult to understand, the air commodore agreed, but insisted that ESF had not been mentioned in conversation with this witness.

The inquest reopens 30 September.

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

  • RAF 47 Squadron's Flt Lt David Stead, the aircraft captain, 35
  • Flt Lt Andrew Smith, 25, the co-pilot
  • Master Engineer Gary Nicholson, 42, the flight engineer
  • Flt Sgt Mark Gibson, 34, the air loadmaster
  • Flt Lt Paul Pardoel, 35, a navigator on exchange posting from the Royal Australian Airforce
  • 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.

Graphic showing how explosive-suppressant foam works
1. Without foam: Explosive mix of fuel vapour and air above liquid fuel ignites easily. Once this ignites, a compression wave pressurises the remaining gas, increasing the explosion.
2. With foam: Foam expands to fill space in tank as fuel level drops. Vapour ignition is confined to the area close to spark, stopping explosion.

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