Lady Hermon (North Down):
It is a pleasure speak in the debate, having heard the contribution of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). I am greatly concerned by some of the evidence put before us this evening, and I hope that the Minister will address these issues.
I have listened intently to hon. Members' contributions, but we should reflect for a moment or two on the personal tragedy involved. On 2 June 1994almost eight years ago29 people were killed outright on the Mull of Kintyre in dreadful circumstances, which were made worse by the fact that the aircraft in question caught fire. It was a great tragedy, and the circumstances proved deeply upsetting to the widows. Air Chief Marshal Sir William Wratten described it as
"the largest peacetime tragedy that the Royal Air Force had suffered."
Although my husband, a former Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, retired from the RUC some five years before that crash, I know that it was also the greatest tragedy in the RUC's history. Ten members of the police service, who were also members of special branch, died. Even today, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland rightly paid tribute, in a completely different context, to the work of special branchnot only in respect of the security of Northern Ireland, but in a wider sense.
This morning, I spoke to one of the six RUC widows who live in my constituency. She said:
"My husband is dead, but he still has his reputation. The MOD can do no more to him or for him, but the MOD can do more for Flight Lieutenants Tapper and Cook . . . they can clear their names and give them back their reputations."
The fact that 29 people died caused enormous heartache and pain, as it would to anyone who lost a loved one in such dreadful circumstances. The fact that the two pilots
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were held to be grossly negligent was enormously painful, hurtful and offensive not only to the flight lieutenants but to the others widowed in that crash.
Earlier, hon. Members discussed the difference between negligence and gross negligence. I may be corrected by the Minister, but I had understood that the pilots being held to be grossly negligent had at an early stage affected the compensation payable to their widows. Gross negligence made a difference. If the circumstances have changed, I should be glad to hear the Minister explain to the House the compensation issues that arise.
The RAF's manual, which was available at the time to the air marshals and does not constitute fresh evidence, clearly states in black and white:
"only in cases in which there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever should deceased air crew be found negligent".
The manual contains guidelines on what amounts to negligence or human frailties, so it is not as though no guidance was available. Paragraph 1 of annexe G to chapter 8 of the manual states that, broadly speaking, causes of accidents fall into three categories: technical faults, natural operating or medical hazards, and human failings.
Paragraph 2 explains what human failings amount to and suggests that judgments be made by answering two questions. The first is:
"Was the person's act which is under consideration an essential link without which the final event would not have happened?"
The second is:
"Ought the person to have foreseen that their action or their failure to take action would in all probability occasion the final event?"
The House of Lords Select Committee report concludes:
"the question to be answered is whether there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that they ought to have foreseen that their action would in all probability occasion the final event."
Referring to the air marshals' conclusion that
"the pilots were grossly negligent in placing the aircraft in the position in which it was at or before the way point change was made",
it found that
"regardless of what happened thereafter, the question to be answered is whether there is absolutely no doubt",
and that the air marshals had not properly answered the questions.
The Government must be fair. As I said in my intervention on the Secretary of State earlier, in considering fatal accident inquiries and investigations, great sensitivity should be used. In light of the extremely high standard required at the time, the MOD should not linger for six more months but quickly conclude that an error of judgment was made in finding that the two flight lieutenants were grossly negligent. Their names must be cleared. The MOD has an opportunity to do that, and I urge it to do so at the earliest opportunity.
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood):
The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) made a deeply moving speech.
I declare an interest as an elected companion of the Royal Aeronautical Society by virtue of five years' service on the flight safety awards panel of the Civil Aviation Authority.
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In my speech on 14 February I stated that in my judgment the air marshals were
"justified in their belief, with the wisdom of hindsight, that the crew, who were flying in very marginal weather with high ground ahead and with the aircraft slightly off track to the right, probably ought to have aborted, or at least got well clear of the high ground with all speed."
The point is this. On take-off, the weather forecast for the vicinity of the Mull of Kintyre gave a 30 per cent. probability of weather that could by no possible stretch of the imagination be construed as suitable for flights under visual flight rules. The reports that we have make it clear that as the aircraft approached the mull the weather was indeed well below conditions for visual flight rules.
In justifying Air Chief Marshal Sir William Wratten and Air Vice Marshal Sir John Day, who reviewed the board of inquiry's conclusions, I added:
"The House would be wise not to follow the path taken in the other place, or to try to second guess the investigations of military accidents, however tragic the circumstances"
few could have been more tragic than these
"however much we sympathise with the grief".[Official Report, 14 February 2002; Vol. 380, c. 383-84.]
There could have been no better qualified air officers commanding to review a board of inquiry's findings than those two air marshals. Air Vice Marshal Day has a BSc in aeronautical engineering from Imperial college, served two tours as a flying instructorone in command of a flying training squadronwas a support helicopter pilot and then commanded a support helicopter squadron. Indeed, less than 10 years before the accident he commanded the base at RAF Odiham where the Chinooks are located.
Air Chief Marshal Sir William Wratten is an aviator's air marshal if ever there was onecertainly, he is no Whitehall warrior. He commanded the Royal Air Force in the Gulf war and led the battle of Britain fly past a few months previously. One could not find a finer flyer and a prouder example of the best traditions of the service.
That is not to say that the professional distinction, the Air Force crosses, the legions of merit and the aeronautical degrees immunise the two air marshals from the possibility of error, any more than long experience on Chinooks, including much time in a special forces role, precludes the possibility that two much-respected deceased flight lieutenants could commit an error of basic airmanship that constituted gross negligence.
However, since my 14 February speech I have studied the sortie profile again and have looked in greater depth at the original conclusions of the board of inquiry, the air accidents investigation branch's findings and Sheriff Young's fatal accident inquiry, together with their recommendations and those of the House of Lords Select Committee. I did so in the knowledge that the air marshals were not callous or unfeeling or insensitive to the reputations of the pilots whom death had robbed of the right of reply. On the contrary, a lifetime of service flying, with the inevitable loss of many friends in all-too-frequent air accidents, will have taught the air marshals that military flying operations and their safe execution require standards of discipline and perfection that can never be compromised.
Flying regulations are quite simply life preservers. Failure to comply with them is often likely to be fatal and cannot be condoned in peacetime operations.
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In circumstances where they are not followed, as in the case of Chinook ZD 576's attempts to maintain low-level flight according to visual flight rules, in instrument meteorological conditions, at about cruising speed, in the vicinity of high ground on the Mull of Kintyre, this cannot be exonerated by the experience of the crews. Indeed, far from being a mitigating factor, the very experience of the crew justifies the attribution of gross negligence. Sentiment cannot enter into air accident investigations; probity is what they are about.
There is no doubt that the aircraft was flying in instrument meteorological conditions. The witnesses on or about the mull confirm that. There were 10 of them, including a lighthouse keeper whose job is to take weather reports. The aircraft's speed is not in doubt, in that it can be verified by the spread and disintegration of the wreckage at the crash site, as well as by readings recovered from the instrumentation. There was no confirmation of any technical malfunction that would, of itself, have caused the accident, and this was verified by the board of inquiry and by the air accidents investigation branch's report. The point is that the crew should not have been flying in a way that could have led to the loss of the aircraft, had there been any malfunction.