Having read today’s papers on the Chinook crash (e.g. Michael Settle’s piece in the Herald), I thought I’d post a short follow on comment from my blogpost of yesterday (see below).
First off, if I were Mike Tapper, the father of pilot Jonathan Tapper who was tragically killed in the crash, I’m pretty sure that like him and any Dad I’d have spent years trying to change the verdict of the MoD. His single-mindedness is truly commendable. And it’s quite possible that his comment that the problem is now one of lack of leadership from Labour was made on the spur of the moment. Yet I think it’s important to understand something about the politics, if I can call it that (and with a small ‘p’), of the MoD.
I’ve spoken personally to a number of former Labour Defence Secretaries about this. They were all extremely engaged with the issue and naturally feel strongly for the bereaved families (all 29). Boards of Inquiry following accidents, though, are very much ‘hands-off’ for ministers; and who would want it any other way? It’s very much about experts making expert judgements, just like command decisions in the field.
The fundamental problem for senior RAF officers is that once it’s been accepted that visibility on the day was patchy and that there was no radical loss of height before the crash, then it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that the pilots should have been flying well above, or around, the obstacle, as per standard operating procedures in poor visibility. Regardless of whether there was a technical problem or not, the fact remains that the aircraft would not have hit the Mull of Kintyre if the aircraft hadn’t been flying low.
David Davis MP, quoted in the article above, seems to be aware of this key point and calls for the MoD to look again at the ‘gross negligence’ decision, rather than suggest that the board made an error in determining the height of the aircraft as the key factor. He has an arguable case, but it’s one with wide military implications and that really can’t be a matter for politicians to crudely overrule experts.
Ministers can, at best, hint about what they’d like to see happen (and it’s pretty obvious what that is) but there’s an important line they mustn’t, and don’t, cross.
And it’s worth considering this. Once it was accepted that the pilots were in the wrong place, it would have been possible to have an open and intelligent analysis of why that was the case. Were they subject to fatigue? In which case perhaps work routines had to be adjusted. Were there other pressures upon them? Generally, for example, it’s more comfortable for passengers to fly high. But it’s not unusual for occasional passengers to want to fly low for other reasons and for pilots to oblige where they judge it’s safe. In all of this, it’s important to remember that 27 of the dead weren’t pilots and their families will have wanted to know why their loved ones died.
For my own part, and as a politician and Dad, I feel the same as David Davis. Military folk take great risks on our behalf and perhaps ‘gross negligence’ is too harsh a verdict. If senior officers can alter this, then that would be fine and appropriate. But I’d counsel strongly against trying to falsely interpret the whole thing as party political – since that would imply that if the Tories win the election (which I hope they won’t) they would immediately intervene in operational military matters. That would be a disaster, and I imagine it’s why Liam Fox MP, Shadow Defence Secretary, has kept his own counsel on the matter.
I truly hope all the families get the comfort they deserve, but it mustn’t be done by politicians acting as armchair Air Marshals.