I served as an Army staff officer in Northern Ireland in the early 90’s and left shortly before the 1994 Chinook helicopter crash at the Mull of Kintyre , in the news today , claimed the lives of  29 intelligence personnel and aircrew.  The scale of the tragedy was such that many of us serving in NI at the time knew someone on the aircraft.  Following the disaster, an RAF Board of Inquiry found the pilots, Flight Lieutenants Jonathan Tapper and Rick Cook, liable for the crash.  This verdict has been hotly disputed over the years by campaigners including the officers’ families, former Defence Secretary Sir Malcom Rifkind and former Defence minister Lord Chalfont.

As I see it, the objections to the finding extend from two arguments.  The first is that there were shortcomings at the time about the aircraft’s FADEC software system and a number of highly qualified experts have attested to that.  It is hypothesized that something went badly wrong with the aircraft  which the pilots could not control.  The second argument is that in the absence of a clear causation, the equivalent civilian authorities would not have found pilots in that situation liable, whereas the practice at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is to do the opposite.  Some argue that this is unfair on the pilots, and of course their families.

Taking the first argument first; some people have suggested that following the emergence of the misgivings by experts about the FADEC system, the failure by the MoD to change the verdict over the years amounts to a cover-up.  However, I think this misunderstands the reasoning behind the original verdict.

It is accepted by all parties that the Chinook was gaining height very fast as it approached the Mull of Kintyre; indeed it very nearly made it over and the debris was scattered over the land and not in the sea.  It’s also accepted by most parties, although some do dispute this, that visibility was patchy on the day.  The RAF ruling, as I understand it, was based on the fact that since the visibility was patchy the pilots should have been following standard operating procedures and flying at high altitude (around 10,000 feet), or should have turned away from the Mull of Kintyre (but also, for balance, see Alex Thompson of C4 News).  Had they been doing so then regardless of whether or not there had been a cataclysmic failure of the aircraft, it would not have hit the Mull of Kintyre.  The inability of the inquiry to determine the technical cause of the crash (there was no ‘black box’) did not, for the Board of Inquiry, negate that fact.

The second argument, that it isn’t fair to blame the pilots when an equivalent civilian board may not do so, seems to me potentially a more political one (mainly with a small ‘p’).  The MoD operates enormously varied and complex equipments and human beings often bear great risk.  It’s essential that correct lessons are learned from Boards of Inquiry, even ‘though that may be painful for all of us (and particularly the families).  It is perfectly possible to argue, of course, that the consequences of civil disasters are every bit as great yet the civil authorities still feel able to err on the side of benevolence when no precise and conclusive evidence exists about the cause.

Some might argue that civil aircraft all carry black boxes, so it is rare for no conclusive evidence to exist; while military operational tragedies are frequently unaccompanied by clear single causations.  Nevertheless, this is the area most likely to yield a solution which campaigners might find acceptable, if indeed any is possible.

My own feeling, for what it’s worth, is that the Board of Inquiry was right to regard as critical the fact that the aircraft was flying low in patchy visibility, but that it might be possible to amend the options available to Boards of Inquiry to include learning the appropriate lessons yet erring away from blaming the pilots unless conclusive evidence about the causation is available.  (and see this for an interesting thought about the legal side of ‘gross negligence’) As I understand it, this was the recommendation of the two senior officers who conducted the pre-inquiry report, although this was overturned by the more senior officer who chaired the Board (who would clearly have hated having to reach that decision).

If the MoD changes its position it will, I think, be on that basis.  But it’s a very tough call.