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Defence: Chinook Helicopters

Volume 716: debated on Thursday 7 January 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the concerns about FADEC software and the general safety of Chinook helicopters expressed by the Ministry of Defence’s Aircraft Testing Centre at Boscombe Down before 2 June 1994 were made available to and seen by Air Chief Marshal Wratten and Air Vice Marshal Day during their inquiry into the cause of the accident at the Mull of Kintyre.

My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of those killed in Afghanistan recently: Lance Corporal David Leslie Kirkness, 3rd Battalion The Rifles; Rifleman James Stephen Brown, 3rd Battalion The Rifles; Corporal Simon Hornby, 2nd Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment; Lance Corporal Michael Pritchard, 4th Regiment Royal Military Police; Lance Corporal Christopher Roney, 3rd Battalion The Rifles; Lance Corporal Tommy Brown, The Parachute Regiment; Rifleman Aiden Howell, 3rd Battalion The Rifles; Sapper David Watson, 33 Engineer Regiment (Explosive Ordnance Disposal); and Private Robert Hayes, 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment. I am sure that our thoughts are with their families and friends and, indeed, all those who are serving in Afghanistan.

Turning to the Question, the concerns expressed by technical experts at Boscombe Down were widely known. These concerns had been addressed in operating restrictions imposed by the initial release service for the Chinook mark 2. The air marshals both gave evidence to the House of Lords committee that they had been aware of questions raised about FADEC, but had discounted them as possible factors in the accident.

I thank my noble friend. I share her concern about the loss of servicemen’s lives at any time, not least during the current struggle in Afghanistan. As chairman of the Mull of Kintyre Group, I am used to such replies as she has given us this morning. Is she aware that, since the findings of the inquiry conducted by Wratten and Day were, in effect, overturned by the Scottish fatal accident inquiry, grave doubts have been raised about the quality of the evidence that led to the far higher requirement of guilt that Wratten and Day were able to place on record against the service personnel? These concerns have never been satisfied. I ask the Minister whether she would be prepared to appoint a senior legal figure—a retired judge, for example—to assess all of the evidence that was before the original tribunal and anything that was not available at the time but has since come to hand, and to confirm that this higher level of proof of guilt of gross negligence can be justified. Until such assurances can be given, grave doubts will be raised by the families not only of the pilots and crew but also of the other men whose lives were lost in this dreadful tragedy.

My Lords, my noble friend and everybody who has been involved in this issue have taken it extremely seriously. The fact is that the board of inquiry was properly conducted and properly reviewed. Many Secretaries of State for Defence and other Ministers have looked at this issue time and time again, as have chiefs of air staff. The simple point that we must reiterate is that no new evidence has been presented. The issue in my noble friend’s Question was included in the Powers report that he himself was instrumental in submitting to the Secretary of State two years ago and which was looked at in great detail. In the absence of any new information it is not possible to raise any hopes that this inquiry can be revisited.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that Air Chief Marshals Wratten and Day are men of great probity? I served with them when I was in the Royal Air Force. While I appreciate the great distress caused to the families of all who died, is not the fundamental point about this tragedy the standard of airmanship displayed in the vicinity of the Mull on a routine transit flight with many passengers on board?

My Lords, I have to agree completely with the noble and gallant Lord. I was very open-minded about this issue when I looked at the information. It is very disconcerting to consider what happened on that day, but I am afraid that the judgment that it was about a fundamental standard of airmanship is the correct one.

My Lords, first of all can I enjoin these Benches in the earlier tribute to those who have been lost so sadly in Afghanistan? Just before Christmas, a number of us were engaged in querying aspects of the Haddon-Cave report into the tragic loss of the Nimrod in Afghanistan and discussing the Statement made to the House. Now the Chinook affair has flared up again. Developing the point that the noble Lord made a little earlier, would it not make sense for a truly independent commissioner to be appointed to consider any personal appeals in these types of situation, or the importance of any new evidence that may come along?

My Lords, it is important to recognise that the Haddon-Cave review made no criticisms of the board of inquiry procedures. There are very clear procedures laid down. When there is an accident of any kind, action is taken very quickly to set up the appropriate kind of inquiry. We should not hold out hope to people when there has been such an extensive inquiry, as there has been on the Mull of Kintyre incident. I have heard it described as the most extensively examined air crash in the history of British military aviation. There comes a point when we have to draw a line and accept the conclusions that have been arrived at.