Page last updated at 16:04 GMT, Wednesday, 7 May 2008 17:04 UK

RAF Nimrod's last moments heard

RAF Nimrod
The government has defended the RAF Nimrod fleet's safety record

The families of 14 servicemen who were killed when their RAF Nimrod crashed in Afghanistan have heard a recording of the plane's last moments.

Oxford Coroner's Court was emptied so they could hear the cockpit recording in private.

The 37-year-old reconnaissance plane exploded just minutes after undergoing air-to-air refuelling near Kandahar on 2 September 2006, killing all on board. The Nimrod and most of the crew had been based at RAF Kinloss, in Moray.

'Very distressing'

The deaths of the servicemen marked the heaviest loss of life to be suffered by British forces in a single incident since the Falklands War.

It was the fourth Nimrod crash in 36 years of operations.

The victims' families viewed a similar plane on Tuesday as part of their preparation for the inquest.

BBC News defence correspondent Caroline Wyatt said the recording contained the very last moments as the crew realised fire had broken out, sent a mayday signal and tried to land.

Two minutes after the recording finished, the plane crashed.

She said it was "very emotional, very distressing" for the families and many were crying as they left the courtroom.

RAF pathologist, Wing Commander Graeme Maidment, said the men died from multiple injuries, probably caused by the aircraft's impact with the ground and not the mid-air explosion.

He also apologised to the families for any additional distress that may have been caused by DNA complications which initially meant some victims were wrongly identified.

Squadron Leader Guy Bazalgette, a commander of the RAF's Nimrod detachment in Afghanistan at the time, said the plane underwent regular air-to-air refuelling (AAR).

Most of the men were based at RAF Kinloss in Scotland

He said: "The aircraft was doing the majority of missions. It was also doing the majority of AAR."

The plane was only one of two available to him, he explained, and flew eight missions in two weeks, with an estimated five of them including AAR.

The officer, responding to a question by the coroner, agreed that if the inquest finds AAR was a danger, "then we were increasing the risk of this happening by the amount of AAR we were doing".

The families later questioned the experience of Flight Lieutenant David Bain, the Engineering Officer in charge of the Nimrod XV 230's maintenance.

The inquest heard he had taken responsibility for the plane after a two week training course in "Nimrod Management".

He said: "Across the board I felt that I had sufficient experience."

After the accident Flt Lt Bain told investigators: "The XV 230 was such a good jet that the view of the engineers was that it was A-OK."

An RAF Board of Inquiry (BoI) report into the incident concluded that ageing components and a lack of modern fire suppressants were among the "contributory factors" leading to the accident.

1. Nimrod refuels in mid-air
2. Possible fuel over-flow from number one tank
3. Second possible source of leak is pipe couplings behind number seven tank
4. Leaked fuel contacts hot pipe and ignites
5. Fire and smoke alarms triggered in bomb bay and underfloor by sensitive wiring

The BoI report said fuel probably escaped during air-to-air refuelling into a bay on the starboard side of the aircraft, either because of a leaking fuel coupling or an overflowing fuel tank.

The fuel probably caught fire when it made contact with hot air pipes - through a gap in insulation - which can reach temperatures of 400C.

The crew initially aimed to land at the Kandahar airbase, but with the plane on fire and rapidly losing pressure, witnesses reported an explosion within six minutes of the first alarm.

Defence Secretary Des Browne and Chief of Air Staff Sir Glenn Torpy have both previously apologised to the families of the crash victims.

But the Ministry of Defence has defended the Nimrod fleet's safety record against accusations of problems with fuel leaks and questions over cost cutting.

The inquest is being held by Oxfordshire assistant deputy coroner Andrew Walker.

The 14 RAF personnel killed were Flight Lieutenant Steven Johnson, 38, from Collingham, Nottinghamshire, Flt Lt Leigh Anthony Mitchelmore, 28, from Bournemouth, Dorset, Flt Lt Gareth Rodney Nicholas, 40, from Redruth, Cornwall, Flt Lt Allan James Squires, 39, from Clatterbridge, Merseyside and Flt Lt Steven Swarbrick, 28, from Liverpool.

Also Flight Sergeant Gary Wayne Andrews, 48, from Tankerton, Kent, Flt Sgt Stephen Beattie, 42, from Dundee, Flt Sgt Gerard Martin Bell, 48, from Newport, Shropshire, and Flt Sgt Adrian Davies, 49, from Amersham, Buckinghamshire, Sergeant Benjamin James Knight, 25, from Bridgwater, Sgt John Joseph Langton, 29,from Liverpool and Sgt Gary Paul Quilliam, 42, from Manchester.

Lance Corporal Oliver Simon Dicketts, of the Parachute Regiment, from Wadhurst and Royal Marine Joseph David Windall, 22, from Hazlemere also died.

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