• July 12, 2011

Chinook Report Will Vindicate League Concerns About Military Aircraft Safety

A report next week into the RAF Chinook helicopter accident on the Mull of Kintyre is expected to exonerate the two pilots who previously had been blamed for the crash.

The independent report complied by a retired judge, Lord Phillip, is expected to say that system failures were to blame and already safety experts are saying that the issues the report will highlight point to a more generic failure of the maintenance and safety culture of a number of military aircraft and helicopters.

It is a vindication of Celtic League attempts over the years to publicise safety shortcomings involving a number of fixed and rotary winged aircraft operated extensively over the Celtic countries.

It is over fifteen years since the Celtic League expressed reservations about the safety of a number of military aircraft types and urged UK politicians to act – a request which went unheeded.

In 1997 we said:

“The Commons Defence Select Committee should focus on the overall record of British Military helicopter operations. They should expose a cover-up that has cost lives in Wales, Scotland and Ulster.

The UK House of Commons Defence Select Committee will turn its attention this week to the Kintyre Chinook helicopter crash, in which 25 senior intelligence figures died together with all four crew men. The latest move comes after further revelations about faults with the helicopter type.

The Chinook is, however, the most sensational scandal in a series involving the procurement, maintenance and operation of British support helicopters as the British struggled to meet commitments in N. Ireland and elsewhere over the past 15 years.

The Commons Defence Committee would be better tasked to addressing the overall picture rather than facilitating a drip feed of information to the public in a process which appears to involve more damage limitation than openness.

Over the past few years the Celtic League, which monitors all military activity across the Celtic areas, has pieced together an alarming picture: Overworked and poorly maintained equipment, procurement problems and no fleet wide upgrades for some ageing types, lessons and safety recommendations from earlier incidents ignored.

Whilst modern machines like the Chinook HC2 were experiencing difficulties, MOD officials were scouring junkyards worldwide and were prepared, had the deal been clinched, to press into service seven obsolete Australian Air Force Chinook HC1s. Fortunately for both the aircrew who would have manned them and the troops who would have flown in them, the deal fell through. At Padarn Lake, Wales in 1993, an elderly Wessex helicopter plunged into a lake whilst ferrying several air cadets on an air experience flight. The accident was eventually ascribed to faulty maintenance and yet this helicopter type, which had no fleet wide upgrade in over thirty years of service, was already the subject of check recommendations after a crash in 1990. These recommendations appear to have been ignored and three of the teenage cadets died.

A more blatant example of enquiry reports being ignored occurred in 1995 when a Gazelle helicopter crashed in the Wye valley: The crew were killed. The aircraft, it transpired, was not fitted with a radar altimeter despite a earlier crash enquiry in 1993 making this recommendation.

Returning to the troubled Chinook, last year, again in Wales, a crewman was killed when he fell from an aircraft over the Pembroke, Castlemartin, range. The door on this recently modified HC2 machine had inexplicably detached. Again, the vexed subject of the security of helicopter doors was well known following earlier tragic crashes.

In correspondence in July 1996 the MOD told us:

“I can assure you that the circumstances of all aircraft incidents are investigated and any significant lessons learned are circulated widely within the service”.

However, our analysis is that this is not the case.

More disturbingly, however, as in the Chinook enquiry and other sensitive military air crashes, there is a reluctance to publicise accurate information. In August 1996, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Earl Howe, tellingly stated in correspondence to the Celtic League:

“All occurrences are of course investigated in a manner appropriate to their circumstances and significance. Details of each occurrence are maintained within the Royal Air Forces flight safety organisation. It is not however my Departments policy to make public detail of aircraft statistics relating to them…. I can assure you that this is not an attempt to ‘cover up’ the
existence of such incidents and neither is it a reflection of my Departments investigative process.”

It had however taken the intervention of Nationalist MP Dafydd Wigley to elicit a reply to our concerns and despite what Earl Howe said at the time, we still believe there was and is a cover-up of which the Chinook crash at Kintyre is the most serious manifestation.

The Defence Select Committee might like to extend its remit and encourage a public revelation of that which the MOD wants to hide.”

Sadly, the Commons Defence Select Committee did not act and personnel continued to die not just in helicopter accidents but also in accidents with Hawk Trainers and Nimrod maritime reconnaissance aircraft – two other types whose safety record we questioned almost two decades ago.

J B Moffatt (Mr)
Director of Information
Celtic League


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