Page last updated at 22:29 GMT, Thursday, 28 August 2008 23:29 UK

Beleaguered Nimrod keeps crews' trust

By Caroline Wyatt
Defence correspondent, BBC News


Inside the Nimrod as safety measures are explained

Britain's most controversial spy-plane stands shimmering in the fierce afternoon heat at its base in the Middle East, at a location we have been asked not to disclose for security reasons.

We were taken there by the head of the RAF, Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy, for an exclusive look at the Nimrod MR2 and to talk to its air and ground crews about how they feel flying an aircraft whose safety has been fiercely debated.

At an inquest this year into the deaths of 14 servicemen in a mid-air explosion over Afghanistan in 2006, coroner Andrew Walker called for the Nimrod fleet to be grounded, citing fuel leaks and a fatal design flaw that positioned hot air pipes next to fuel feed pipes.

He was fiercely critical of both the RAF and the MoD, saying the aircraft had "never been airworthy", and that "this cavalier approach to safety must come to an end".

His words clearly stung.

'Eyes and ears'

The MoD had already admitted liability for the accident in its own board of inquiry.

Since the tragedy, the RAF insists that the MR2's main design flaw has been rectified, and that - with stringent safety checks and a ban on air-to-air refuelling - the MR2 remains safe to fly until its replacement is ready.

A pair of Nimrod MR2s
The Ministry of Defence has insisted RAF Nimrod aircraft are safe to fly

The Nimrod's capabilities are essential, as the "eyes and ears" of Britain's ground troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, but its replacement, the MRA4, is now eight years behind schedule and 800m over budget.

The RAF's most senior engineer Air Marshal Sir Barry Thornton, Chief of Defence Materiel (air), comes with us to talk to the crews.

He says he himself took a trip on the Nimrod recently, and believes the changes that have been made have addressed the RAF's own concerns about the Nimrod's safety following the tragedy.

"We no longer air-to-air refuel to eliminate that risk, in the same way that we took out the serious design flaw.

"These are our people who fly this aircraft, and there is no way we would risk their lives," he tells me, as we walk around one of the two Nimrods currently undergoing checks on the tarmac.

The safety checks we witness are indeed rigorous and take up much of the engineers' day, with maintenance crew working on the undercarriage of the plane in searing heat of around 45C.

We go on board to meet the crew. The aircraft's interior looks dated but functional. Its sturdy on-board computers and an array of screens are all switched off so that we cannot film the Nimrod's exact capabilities.

There is even a small galley kitchen area, essential on flights that - when air-to-air refuelling was possible - could last some 12 to 15 hours for the air crew.

The whole foundation of what we do in the RAF is relying on the aircrews' sense that they want to come back alive
Flt Lt Nick Mudford

Flt Lt Nick Mudford, 26, is the engineer officer for the detachment. He has spent two and a half years in the RAF, one of those on the Nimrod, and says he is reassured that it is a safe aircraft.

"The big indicator is: are the crews happy to fly on it or not? And they are," he says.

"The whole foundation of what we do in the RAF is relying on the aircrews' sense that they want to come back alive. The way aircrew work relies on their sense of self-preservation. If they don't think the aircraft is safe, they don't fly on it."

He admits his family have asked him questions about the plane. "I do get the occasional question from my mum - and I try to explain things to her. But my parents know it's the business I've joined, and they know I'd sense it if something were being covered up."

Flt Lt Mudford says the rigorous inspection scheme the Nimrods in theatre are now subject to make it one of the most heavily inspected in the fleet and, he insists, one of the safest.

Lost friends

"It is an enormously capable aeroplane, and with what we deliver to the troops on the ground, it's unique. All my guys work every hour of the day and are very proud of what Nimrod brings to the troops in Afghanistan."

The engineer on board, Cpl Ian Doughty, 37, known as Alf, agrees. "The amount of extra checks we do these days is huge - sometimes it governs your whole day. And if I didn't think it was safe, I wouldn't fly on it."

Sqn Ldr Gez Forward, 33, has flown Nimrods for almost a decade as a navigator, and is now in charge of the MR2 detachment at the base. He also says he is happy with the current level of safety.

Our families and our friends keep seeing the negative stories
Sqn Ldr Gez Forward
"The period after the accident was a difficult time for everyone, because we at RAF Kinloss had lost friends and colleagues; everyone had lost someone they knew. And the families of those who were lost will always be in our hearts and minds," he tells me.

"But I wasn't worried about returning to work on the Nimrod after the accident - the aircraft by then had undergone dramatic transformation with the safety measures, and the MoD board of inquiry gave the potential causes of the accident so we could take action."

He admits that the halt to air-to-air refuelling has meant shorter sorties than were possible in the past. But, he says, the Nimrod crews have adapted and adjusted.

"It is a great aircraft - it's great at what it does, and the crew are dedicated and focused. Following loss of XV230, it's been very hard for our families as well.

Nimrod mechanics
Checks can take up most of the day and continue in 45C heat
"There's been so much negative reporting on Nimrod - but we fly the plane, and we know it's safe to fly. Our families and our friends keep seeing the negative stories, so I really want to stress that if Nimrod weren't safe to fly, we wouldn't be on board."

Back in England, Graham Knight, whose son Sgt Ben "Tapper" Knight died in the accident, agrees that the aircraft is safer now than it was when his son was killed on board XV230 in 2006. But he says it remains a tragedy that it took the deaths of 14 men to ensure today's rigorous checks.

The MoD is currently negotiating compensation with the families of the 14 men who died, after admitting liability. The ministry has also announced an independent inquiry into the accident.

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