Page last updated at 10:11 GMT, Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Nimrod crash review raises hopes

Graham Knight
Mr Knight hopes the review will identify those responsible for failures

When Graham Knight thinks about the death of his son Ben, aged 25, aboard an RAF Nimrod spy plane in Afghanistan, one phrase repeatedly haunts him.

"Ben would say to me 'they wouldn't let us fly unless they thought the plane was safe'," says Mr Knight, recalling how he would question Ben when technical troubles had prevented take-off.

"They must have thought it was safe that day," says Mr Knight. "But it wasn't."

His youngest son, a sergeant, was killed alongside 13 others when the aircraft exploded in mid-air above Kandahar shortly after air-to-air refuelling in September 2006.

Ahead of the release on Wednesday of an independent report into the incident, Mr Knight, from Bridgwater in Somerset, recalls the "stomach-churning" feeling on hearing how his son died.

"We knew he had been killed but then what we thought was a tragic accident suddenly became a preventable one."

If they were safe to fly, why are they suddenly grounding them until their pipes have been changed?
Graham Knight

Around three days after the explosion, Mr Knight first heard doubts raised about the safety of the craft, with other crewmen saying they were lucky to survive fires.

In December 2007, an RAF Board of Inquiry concluded the explosion had probably been caused when leaking fuel caught fire as it made contact with hot air pipes.

Contributing factors could have included the age of components, maintenance of the fleet's fuel and hot air systems and a lack of fire detectors and extinguishers, it said.

Des Browne, the defence secretary at the time, apologised to the families but insisted Nimrods were safe, saying action had been taken to ensure similar accidents could not happen.

He repeated this nearly six months later, despite coroner Andrew Walker declaring the craft had "never been airworthy".

Top L-R: Flt Sgt Adrian Davies; Flt Lt Leigh Mitchelmore; Flt Lt Gareth Nicholas; Sgt Benjamin Knight; Sgt Gary Quilliam, Flt Lt Steven Swarbrick, Sgt John Langton Bottom L-R: Flt Sgt Stephen Beattie; Flt Lt Allan Squires; Flt Sgt Gary Andrews; Flt Sgt Gerard Bell; Flight Lt Steven Johnson, Marine Joseph Windall, L Cpl Oliver Dicketts.
The three-week inquest proved emotional for the families of those killed

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) angered the families by refusing the coroner's call to ground the entire fleet.

Afterwards Robert Dicketts, the father of crash victim L/Cpl Oliver Simon Dicketts, criticised the ministry for describing the aircraft as "tolerably safe" during the inquest.

He said: "I think that was really an insult - would you drive somebody's car that was tolerably safe?"

However, in March this year, the MoD withdrew all overseas-based craft from operations to allow for vital modifications to replace engine bay hot air ducts.

HOW THE NIMROD CRASHED
Nimrod
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

Mr Knight says: "If they were safe to fly, why are they suddenly grounding them until their pipes have been changed?"

Ministers have said that "all reasonable practical measures" had been taken to minimise the risk to the craft.

But for the families of those who died, the biggest frustration has been what they see as a lack of accountability for the incident.

After the Board of Inquiry report was released, Adele Squires - whose husband Flt Lt Allan Squires died aged 39 in the crash - said she blamed the MoD.

"We just want some justice and the MoD to sit up and take notice," she said.

"What they have done could have been avoided. We live in hope that they will not let this happen in future."

Along with relatives of another victim, Flt Lt Steven Swarbrick, 28, from Liverpool, Mr Knight is pushing on with a legal case against the ministry.

"If this had been an Easyjet or BA plane, three years later somebody would have been charged or prosecuted over what happened, or at least would have resigned," Mr Knight says.

'Buffoons'

Charles Haddon-Cave QC, who has been reviewing the systems in place for ensuring the Nimrod's safe operation, is expected to identify where responsibility lay for any failures.

Mike Bell, whose brother Gerard was another of the victims, insists he must name names.

"We've already had assurances from [Defence Secretary] Bob Ainsworth that people will be named and if they are named they will be brought to book."

Mr Bell believes that "incompetence" by some individuals - whom he calls "buffoons" - led to potentially lethal problems with the Nimrod being ignored.

"Had they been doing their jobs properly, or had they handed those tasks onto people who knew how to do those jobs, the aircraft would not have been at risk and would not have crashed.

"I firmly believe that."



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