Page last updated at 13:50 GMT, Monday, 4 January 2010

Chinook crash 'may have been caused by software faults'

Chinook helicopter crash
The Chinook Mark 2 helicopter crashed on 2 June 1994

New evidence has emerged that computer software faults may have caused the 1994 Chinook helicopter crash on the Mull of Kintyre, the BBC has learned.

The RAF found the two pilots guilty of gross negligence after the crash in fog which killed all 29 people on board.

An internal MoD document, written nine months before the crash, said the software was "positively dangerous".

The MoD said the helicopter was airworthy and the latest information could not be classed as new evidence.

In light of the new information, Conservatives are calling for the Ministry of Defence to quash the gross negligence finding which they say "smears the reputation of two brave pilots".

'Cease operations'

The Chinook Mark 2 helicopter crashed on 2 June 1994 en route from Northern Ireland to Inverness in the worst RAF helicopter accident in peacetime.

The bulk of the aircraft was destroyed, killing special forces crew and 25 senior members of Northern Ireland's intelligence community.

Their deaths were a blow to the Conservative government of the time, temporarily confounding the anti-IRA campaign, and posing some embarrassing questions over why the UK's top anti-terrorist personnel had been flying together.

For the past 15 years, families of the pilots have been fighting to clear their dead relatives' names and they want the MoD to reopen the inquiry in light of the internal documents passed to BBC Today programme's Angus Stickler.

The documents from the MoD aircraft testing centre at Boscombe Down show there were serious concerns and warnings over the engine control computer software.

One, written nine months before the crash by a senior engineering officer, said "deficiencies" in the software meant the pilot's control of the engines could not be assured.

Other documents show the warnings and recommendations were ignored.

Flt Lt Richard Cook, left, and Flt Lt Jonathan Tapper
Relatives want to clear the dead pilots' names

One written on the day of the crash stated it was "imperative" that the "RAF should cease operations".

Flt Lt Jonathan Tapper, 30, from Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, and Flt Lt Richard Cook, 28, from Church Crookham, Hampshire, were initially cleared of blame by an RAF board of inquiry.

It ruled it was impossible to establish the exact cause of the crash and a fatal accident inquiry reached the same conclusion.

But an official RAF inquiry into the incident concluded the aircraft was airworthy and found the pilots guilty of gross negligence.

However, three subsequent inquiries have found the cause of the crash on the western coast of Scotland was inconclusive.

The pilots' families and campaigners have always believed serious flaws in the helicopter were likely to have been responsible for the crash.

Mike Tapper, father of Flt Lt Tapper, said: "There's too much evidence against the MoD, there's too many people who know the truth now.

A hazard analysis identified engine software as "safety critical" and stated that "any malfunctions or design errors could have catastrophic effects"
"21 category one and 153 category two anomalies have been revealed. One of these... is considered to be positively dangerous"
"The density of deficiencies is so high that the software is unintelligible… Pilot's control of the engine(s) through FADEC (engine control computer system) cannot be assured"
Report written nine months before crash by senior engineering officer at Boscombe Down MoD aircraft testing centre

"They cannot get away with this. We're not after money. Just for his name to be cleared - purely a question of honour."

The BBC has also spoken to Squadron Leader Robert Burke, who was the chief test pilot for the Chinook Mark 2 at the time of the crash.

He said he was told by a senior officer to stop advising the civilian air accident investigator. He was not asked to take part in the official RAF inquiry into the crash.

He believes the RAF rushed the Chinook into service knowing it to be dangerous - and then blamed the pilots to save face when their "showcase" flight went wrong.

"The Chinook Mark 2 was very, very late coming into service," he said.

"The Army were complaining bitterly about this - they couldn't get their training done - indeed the RAF couldn't get their training done.

"If you blame the pilots you sweep the whole thing under the carpet."

Conservative MP Malcolm Rifkind, who was defence secretary at the time of the crash, said the documents obtained by the BBC added to the "growing, and almost unanswerable, amount of evidence that the finding of gross negligence against these two pilots was unsafe".

'Bureaucratic stubbornness'

He said the Ministry of Defence had failed to inform ministers of software problems and criticised the RAF inquiry.

"Their finding of gross negligence is not because there was hard evidence of gross negligence - it was because they had ruled out everything else," he said.


He added that it was "bureaucratic stubbornness" stopping the Ministry of Defence from reconsidering the matter.

Senior Tory MP David Davis, who chaired a House of Commons inquiry into the disaster, said: "The finding of gross negligence... amounts to a conviction for manslaughter on the basis of very little evidence at all."

He called for the Ministry of Defence to quash the finding which "smeared the reputation and honour of two brave, young, and very capable pilots".

Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell said the fresh information confirmed his view that an injustice had been done and called for the Board of Inquiry to be reopened.

SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson said the pilots should be exonerated.

Following the latest revelations, the MoD said the Chinook crashed in poor visibility and since the tragic incident, the fleet has had a remarkably safe and successful service history.

In a statement, it said: "Ministers have repeatedly stated that they would reopen the Board of Inquiry if any new evidence is raised.

"Despite numerous representations over the years, nothing has been presented to successive secretaries of state that would justify reopening the Inquiry.

"This latest information is from an RAF document; it was available to the inquiry team and cannot be classed as new evidence."

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