Page last updated at 17:49 GMT, Saturday, 19 April 2008 18:49 UK

Hercules crew tactics questioned

Hercules C130K
Hercules planes were fitted with ESF after the 2005 crash

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

Aviation expert Sean Maffett was in court for BBC News:

This week's hearings have been focusing on whether the elite crew of the Hercules XV179 were right to have been flying low when they were shot down.

The inquest has heard the transport plane was at a very low altitude when it was brought down 25 miles (40km) north-west of Baghdad on a flight from the Iraqi capital to Balad, about 40 miles away.

Elite crew

The inquest in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, heard the eight crew members, from the RAF's elite No 47 Squadron, were regarded as among the uppermost echelon of specialist aviators in the highly secret world of special operations.

In the words of one senior officer, identified only as EA, they were "at the top of their game", with the captain, Flight Lieutenant David Stead, "an Olympic athlete" among air crew.

But the tactics that the crew adopted on 30 January 2005 were called into question by witnesses, including a highly experienced specialist RAF navigator identified only as CN.

CN, who was serving at the tri-service Air Warfare Centre at the time of the incident, gave evidence from behind a screen.

Conflicting advice

He said: "My view is that Operational Low Flying (OLF) was not the correct tactic for this flight."

He said this was also the official view of the Air Warfare Centre, which provides advice and guidance to crews operating in hostile conditions.

But CN admitted the crew's captain would have had conflicting advice from his own squadron senior officers.

In my opinion, it was correct to fly that leg at low level
Witness EA

OLF means flying very low so as to run less risk of being shot down by missiles.

But this very low flying put the aeroplane into the range of rifles and machine guns, known as small arms fire (SAFire).

An RAF board of inquiry into the shooting down has concluded that a lucky small arms shot could have been what brought the aircraft down.

However, witness EA gave a conflicting view. A previous 47 Squadron flight commander, he said: "In my opinion, it was correct to fly that leg at low level."

He said crews tried to avoid flying at low level in daylight because of the risks involved but sometimes the urgent operational nature of their tasks made it inevitable.

Safety foam

The inquest has also been looking at the question of whether so-called explosive-suppressant foam (ESF) - which it is thought could have saved the lives of the nine Britons and one Australian onboard - was widely known about in this specialist area of RAF operations at the time of their deaths.

The foam, which has since been fitted in most Hercules aircraft, works by filling up the space in fuel tanks when they are partly empty, space which otherwise is filled by a potentially explosive fuel-air vapour.

It was this vapour that is thought to have exploded in a starboard wing tank of the Hercules XV179, blowing off the outer third of the wing and making the aircraft uncontrollable so that it crashed.

Several witnesses, specialists in these sorts of RAF operations, said they had never heard of ESF until after XV179 was shot down.

This was despite the fact that Hercules aircraft of the United States Air Force had had ESF fitted since the Vietnam war. Royal Australian Air Force aircraft were similarly protected.

Hercules 'vulnerability'

However, one witness, known as DW, an RAF Hercules pilot with more than 9,000 flying hours, said the desirability of installing ESF in RAF Hercules had been a regular topic of conversation in squadron crew rooms.

He said several post-operation and post-exercise reports in the 1980s and 1990s had drawn attention to the vulnerability of Hercules aircraft to SAFire without ESF - but that nothing had been done about it.

A document, dating from 1993, was presented to the inquest, in which the Defence Evaluation and Research Establishment at Farnborough drew attention to the vulnerability of Hercules aircraft to SAFire damage to fuel tanks. The document warned that the UK was seriously lagging behind the USA in explosion-protection matters.

All witnesses who spoke this week denied any knowledge of the document.

Witness EA told the inquest how he had "sacked" a United States Air Force pilot on an exchange posting with the squadron, after the pilot had refused to carry out "daylight low flying" in Afghanistan.

Asked by Coroner David Masters if the reason for the pilot's refusal to fly had been the lack of ESF, EA said: "That might have been a reason but we needed to continue day flying."

The Ministry of Defence says all RAF Hercules that fly in hostile areas will be given the protection of ESF, which has already been installed in many aircraft.
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.

The inquest continues on Tuesday 22 April.

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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