Page last updated at 14:59 GMT, Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Helicopter 'pilot error' led to SAS deaths in Iraq

Cpl Lee Fitzsimmons
Cpl Lee Fitzsimmons was killed in the helicopter crash

A helicopter crash in Iraq which killed two SAS soldiers in 2007 was primarily caused by pilot error, a coroner has ruled at an inquest into their deaths.

However Herefordshire coroner David Halpern also criticised the Ministry of Defence for "indefensible procedural and maintenance errors".

Sgt John Battersby, 31, of Lancashire, and Cpl Lee Fitzsimmons, 26, from Peterborough, died in the crash.

Two other servicemen were seriously injured in the incident in Baghdad.

Mr Halpern said a lack of equipment contributed to the men's deaths.

He also said it was "inexplicable" a fuel valve had not been the subject of any checks for almost 30 years.

When our sons lay their lives on the line for the greater good, I think they deserve better than this
Jacqui Auty

The inquest at Hereford Town Hall had heard that an anti-spill valve on the crashed helicopter was faulty and that the device might have prevented a fire taking hold so rapidly.

The men's colleagues had attempted to rescue them but were forced back by the exploding aircraft and ammunition "cooking off", causing a barrage of bullets to fly out of the burning wreckage.

The crash happened as the soldiers tried to find and capture insurgents believed to be responsible for a bombing campaign.

MoD failings

Sgt John Battersby
Sgt John Battersby is believed to have died before the fire took hold

Recording narrative verdicts on both men, Mr Halpern said he believed Sgt Battersby had died before the fire had taken hold, while Cpl Fitzsimmons had died from a severe head injury and the inhalation of fumes.

The inquest was told Cpl Fitzsimmons' injuries had not been survivable and it was inconceivable they would not have rendered him unconscious.

Mr Halpern said he did not want to be "over-critical" of the pilot, who had been faced with "a very difficult task".

The pilot, identified only as Soldier J, had told the inquest how he had lost communication with other aircraft and had taken the split-second decision to land.

Coming down heavily, the helicopter rocked and, fearing it would tip over, Soldier J took off again, but the Puma hit the ground.

The coroner criticised the MoD for its failure to foresee the risk of a fuel anti-spill valve "sticking" when an aircraft rolled over, and its failure to fit display night-vision goggles to the Puma.

The inquest heard soldiers had not been wearing restraints because seatbelts had not been long enough for the equipment they had been carrying.

"They really do need to implement, prosecute and police their policy regarding the use of restraints," Mr Halpern said.

However the soldiers would have been justified in not wearing them when the helicopter had landed during a fast-moving mission, he added.

'Deserve better'

After the hearing Cpl Fitzsimmons' mother, Jacqui Auty, said: "When our sons lay their lives on the line for the greater good, I think they deserve better than this.

Jacqui Auty: "I think they deserve better than this"

But she said it was of "some comfort" to hear that several of the failings had already been acted on.

In a statement issued by her solicitor, Sgt Battersby's widow, Joanne, said her husband had died doing a job he had loved and been totally committed to.

"I do not blame the RAF for his death, the pilot was doing his best under difficult circumstances," she said.

"He and many like him can only work with the tools they are given, and my thoughts about the role played by the MoD are best kept secret.

Speaking to the media, after the inquest, Gp Capt Jonathan Burr, the station commander at RAF Benson, in Oxfordshire, offered his condolences to both men's families.

He said the coroner's verdict had "reinforced" the action the RAF had already taken as a result of its own board of inquiry.

Barrister John Cooper, who represented the soldiers' families, said he hoped the MoD had learned lessons from the tragedy.

"One hopes they have learned that equipment should be properly maintained," he said.

Two Lynx helicopters and another Puma helicopter were also involved in the mission on the evening of 20 November 2007.



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FROM OTHER NEWS SITES
Telegraph Coroner criticises MoD over Iraq helicopter crash that killed two SAS soldiers - 3 hrs ago
The Independent MoD criticised over fatal helicopter crash in Iraq - 9 hrs ago
Times Online Pilot error and MoD failings responsible for fatal helicopter crash - 11 hrs ago
ITN MoD 'failed to maintain' crash helicopter - 19 hrs ago
Build.co.uk Puma Crash Caused By 'Pilot Error' - 20 hrs ago



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