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Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an important point and, indeed, Dr. Anderson reports how, in several areas, the best and most effective source of information was the local radio, with regular bulletins and so on. Dr. Anderson is clear that that is one of the lessons that we can all learn. He also identifies the need for an overall communications strategy, not least about subjects such as biosecurity and ensuring better information, training and practice on farms to minimise some of the difficulties that were experienced in the outbreak.

David Burnside (South Antrim): The Secretary of State will agree with me that the whole of the farming community and inward tourism in the United Kingdom suffered in the same way, but will she not learn lessons from different parts of the UK? Northern Ireland managed the disease better; it had very few outbreaks. Given that the disease came into Northern Ireland with smuggled sheep from the north of England and that there are a lot of operators—not the whole of the farming community—in the dealers' yard who need to be penalised and sanctioned, will the right hon. Lady give a commitment to the House that in her review and her recommendations on contingency plans, she will include penalties for those who spread the disease through the mainland and into Northern Ireland?

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. To some degree, but in a slightly different context, he echoes the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin): it was illegal behaviour on someone's part that led to the disease having any impact in the Province. It is clear that one of the things that we must do is to discourage such behaviour because of the dreadful consequences that it has had for so many.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. We must move on to the next statement.

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Chinook Accident (Mull of Kintyre)

4.45 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the crash of Chinook ZD 576 on the Mull of Kintyre.

During a routine flight from Aldergrove to Inverness on 2 June 1994, all on board—the 25 passengers and four crew—were killed. What we must remember, above all, is that this was a tragedy. Twenty-nine families lost loved ones that day. The whole House will once again want to extend their sympathy to them. This was also a blow felt throughout the Royal Air Force and in the many other areas of the armed forces and the public service from which the passengers on board were drawn.

This has been the most extensively examined air crash in the history of British military aviation. Not only aviation and engineering experts but at least 10 Ministers from across two Governments—from the right hon. Sir Malcolm Rifkind to, most recently, Lord Bach—have considered the case. Each new Minister has, like me, had the advantage of coming to this with an open mind. Every new Minister who has examined the facts of the case has come to the same conclusion.

The senior reviewing officers of the original RAF board of inquiry found the pilots grossly negligent. They concluded that the pilots had flown the aircraft at a consistently high speed at low level, and into poor weather that they had been warned to expect. These facts led the board of inquiry to believe that the only possible conclusion was that this accident was a result of a controlled flight into terrain.

Many have challenged this conclusion. As a result, in April last year a Select Committee was established in the other place to consider the justification for the findings by the senior reviewing officers. The Select Committee concluded that the reviewing officers were not justified in their findings that negligence on the part of the pilots "caused the crash".

The Government have now considered the Select Committee report extremely carefully. We have thoroughly examined the alternative explanations for the crash that were considered by the Committee in the other place. We have painstakingly reviewed the complex technical, legal and airmanship issues which the report raises. We have sought further clarification from Boeing on the points made about its original work conducted as part of the RAF board of inquiry in 1994.

In order to leave no question unanswered, we have also asked Boeing to undertake further work to review its original analysis, including a full FADEC simulation. Those familiar with this case will know that the FADEC system, by controlling the fuel supply, maintains approximately 100 per cent. rotor speed in all conditions and matches engine torque between the two engines on the aircraft. It has been argued that the failure of this system was a cause of the accident.

Our deliberations are now complete, and I am arranging to place in the Library, as well as in the Library of the other place, copies of our response, together with copies of the further work by Boeing. A number of theories have been put forward to explain the cause of the accident. Each theory depends on a particular interpretation of the

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evidence. That is why at the outset I want to try to set out as best I can those facts that are not actually in dispute. We know that, as before every routine flight, the pilots received meteorological information, in this case, warning them of poor weather conditions in the vicinity of the Mull. They took that into account in planning their route from Aldergrove to the Mull lighthouse; on to Corran, near Fort William; and then up the Great Glen to Fort George, near Inverness.

We know that the first way point entered on the aircraft's navigation computer was very close to the lighthouse on the western tip of the Mull. That way point was the position where the pilots intended to change or adjust their course to head towards Corran. Taking into account the weather conditions, they planned to fly their route at low level under visual flight rules, which means that they needed to maintain at least 1,000 m of visibility. If they were unable to do so during the flight, they would be required under the rules either to turn away from the poor conditions or to climb to a safe altitude of 1,000 ft above the height of any known obstacle. They would then have flown under instrument flight rules, which would require them to fly with sole reference to their cockpit instruments.

We know that the aircraft took off from RAF Aldergrove at 17.42. We know from an exchange between the crew and air traffic control that at just after 17.46 the aircraft was 7 nautical miles from the Aldergrove radio beacon. A number of witnesses reported the aircraft flying low as it headed for the coast. Those sightings are consistent with a high-speed, low-level transit towards the Mull along the planned track.

We know from the data in the SuperTANS navigation system on board every Chinook that the aircraft was 0.81 nautical miles from the lighthouse when the pilots took the steps necessary to enter the second way point—89 miles away at Corran—into the computer. Given their training and experience, the pilots would not have performed that task if they had been experiencing any significant difficulty in handling the aircraft. The Committee in the other place accepted that it was highly unlikely that the pilots would have entered the way-point change if they had thought they were not in control of their aircraft.

We know from all the eye witnesses on the Mull that the weather there was generally foggy and very bad—indeed, consistent with the meteorological advice. The lighthouse keeper estimated visibility to be 15 to 20 m at most.

We know from the power down recording in the SuperTANS system that the time of initial impact was 17.59 and 36 seconds, giving a total journey time of just under 18 minutes. From those facts we can calculate that the ground speed of the aircraft from the air traffic control fix to impact averaged 158 knots, which shows that the pilots had selected a high cruising speed for their crossing to the Mull.

We know that the ground speed at impact was at least 147 knots from the evidence on the aircraft's instruments at the crash site and corroborated by data extracted from the global positioning system and the navigation computer.

We know that the aircraft hit the ground at a height of 810 ft above sea level. All the evidence clearly points to the aircraft having flared—or "pulled up" in layman's

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terms—with its nose upward at an angle of 30 deg in the final few seconds of flight. That is shown not only by the physical evidence at the crash site—in particular, the alignment of the fuselage—but by the fact that the collective control, which controls power, was set at or near full travel at impact, with the cyclic control, which controls pitch or elevation, at 25 per cent. aft and 23 per cent. left of neutral, all indicating a demand for high power and nose-up attitude in what was probably a last desperate attempt to pull away. That evidence at the crash site also indicates that the aircraft was almost certainly responding properly to its controls, at least in the final seconds before impact.

Those then are the facts, which have not been seriously challenged by anyone. What remains at issue is what happened in the last 20 seconds or more of the flight, from the point at which the pilots entered the way point change into the navigation computer until moments before impact, when they pulled hard up in a clear attempt to avoid hitting the ground. Various theories have been put forward and we have considered each in turn. They are examined in detail in our fuller response which has been placed in both Libraries.

One hypothesis suggests that, because of the low cloud, the pilots had slowed down for the way point change, intending to turn left to hug the coast towards the way point at Corran while remaining at low level. The Committee in the other place has accepted that the aircraft was performing satisfactorily up to and including the way point change. It suggests that, the aircraft having performed the required deceleration successfully, some catastrophic failure occurred in the last 20 or more seconds of flight. That failure caused the aircraft to accelerate out of control so that it flew at high speed into the Mull, with the pilots unable to control the aircraft, at least until the final few seconds.

Was it the crew's intention to slow down significantly for the way point change? Boeing's analysis shows that, given a normal rate of acceleration, it would not have been possible to achieve the speed conditions for the final flare if the ground speed was below 80 knots at the way point change. If the aircraft had slowed to around 80 knots at that point, an even higher average cruising ground speed from the air traffic control fix to the way point change would have been necessary and, crucially, the aircraft would have begun to decelerate about one mile before the way point change and, in the process, to reduce power considerably, adopting a nose-up attitude for a considerable period. Such a manoeuvre is not consistent with any of the evidence.

In addition, the further analysis from Boeing shows that, given a normal rate of acceleration, it would not have been possible to accelerate from below 80 knots and achieve the speed conditions necessary to be consistent with the final flare just before impact.

Even if the aircraft had performed the manoeuvres necessary to slow to 80 knots at the way point change, what plausible explanations could account for the pilots not being able to execute the turn and to cause the aircraft to accelerate to the known speed at impact? And what sort of incident could have cleared in time to allow the pilots to perform the final flare in the seconds just before impact?

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It has been suggested that a control jam of some sort could have occurred. For that to have happened, the aircraft would first have had to be rotated nose down to an accelerating attitude, the power set to full and the controls "frozen" to such an extent that neither a heading change, nor a climb, nor a speed change was possible. Moreover, that condition would have had to have remained fixed throughout the significant period required to achieve the acceleration. To achieve those conditions either simultaneous multiple failures would have had to have occurred to the pitch of the aircraft and have frozen the controls, or the pilots would have had voluntarily to conduct at least some of the extraordinary control combinations needed themselves.

The Committee in the other place also explored the possibility that the thrust balance spring attachment bracket and other inserts detached before impact, as some of these flying control components were found to be detached at the crash site. But because the controls are hydraulically powered, such a fault would result in a change to the "feel" of those controls and would be detected by the pilots. Moreover, the aircraft would still be controllable. It is not credible that that could have caused the accident as it occurred. In any event, the report from the air accidents investigation branch indicated that the brackets were likely to have become detached during the post-accident break-up of the aircraft.

Despite suggestions from other commentators, the Committee in the other place accepted that the FADEC system and the trials of the Chinook Mark 2 which had been suspended at Boscombe Down had no bearing on this accident. In fact all the available evidence indicates that the engines were working normally up to the point of impact. The Committee was also satisfied that the E5 software fault, which has also been the subject of much media speculation, had no relevance to this accident.

We have examined in detail all the alternative hypotheses put to the Committee by witnesses. The question is, when taken in the context of the whole flight, are they, or is any one of them, plausible—plausible against the strict standard of proof needed at that time before a finding of negligence could be made against deceased aircrew?

As the Committee observes, the standard of proof of "absolutely no doubt whatsoever" is even higher than that applicable in criminal cases. I am, of course, aware that four of the five members of the Committee in the other place are distinguished lawyers.

It also follows from this strict standard of proof that if there is another plausible explanation for what took place other than the one accepted by the board of inquiry, its conclusion cannot be allowed to stand. The reviewing officers in this case were required to be in no doubt whatsoever that the pilots' negligence was a cause—although not necessarily the sole cause—of the accident.

No investigation into a serious accident can ever hope to answer every question with absolute certainty. Negligence can itself be the cause of an accident, or it can be one of a number of factors. The reviewing officers were charged with considering all of the evidence as a whole; they were entitled to call on their own knowledge and experience of military flying, and to take proper recognition of the very high standard of airmanship that is required of RAF pilots.

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It follows that if the senior reviewing officers were left with no "honest" doubt that the pilots were negligent, and that the negligence was a causative factor in what happened, they would have failed in their duty if they had not found the pilots to be negligent. It would have been wrong of the reviewing officers to avoid such a finding on the basis of a hypothesis for which there was no plausible evidence.

The senior reviewing officers' finding of negligence was not dependent upon whether the pilots could see the Mull at the time of the way point change. We can deduce that at some point the aircraft entered cloud—which the crew had been warned to expect—well below what was the safety altitude. The issue is whether at the time that they did so the aircraft was fully under the control of the pilots. There is no other plausible explanation for the accident: the only realistic explanation is that found by the reviewing officers of the board of inquiry.

As they approached land, the pilots would have been aware that their visibility was about to reduce significantly. Had they been flying with the minimum visibility allowed for visual flight rules, by the way point change they would have seen the landmass of the Mull and would have recognised their perilous position. They should have taken prompt action by flying higher or by turning away. The finding of negligence is therefore based on the fact that they failed to take such avoiding action.

This is a sensitive and emotive case. I recognise that some people would have liked to reach a different conclusion from that of the reviewing officers. Indeed, some former Ministers have since changed their minds about their original interpretation of the facts. However, we require senior military officers to make decisions on the facts at the time, applying their judgment as professional airmen against the high standard of airmanship to which the Royal Air Force adheres.

We have therefore reviewed the material put forward by the Committee with the very greatest care. We have considered the alternative hypotheses rigorously to see if there is any other plausible explanation that fits with the facts. We have agonised over whether there was some way in which we could exonerate the pilots posthumously, but on the basis of all the evidence, I am unable to do so.

Apportioning blame for such a terrible accident to men who lost their lives in it was not an easy task for those responsible. Reviewing the circumstances of the case has been one of the hardest duties that I have been asked to perform as a Minister. Nevertheless, where lives have been lost, we must be willing to examine the facts as carefully and dispassionately as possible, for the sake of all those involved. This we have done.

I know that this response to the Select Committee's report will be unwelcome to some. As I have consistently stated before, should new evidence come to light, I would certainly be prepared to look at that evidence again. Indeed, it was precisely the possibility of new evidence that led me to commission the further work from Boeing.

I hope that this statement and the supporting detailed analysis which is being published today will assist the House in understanding the reasons why we have not been able to support the conclusions of the latest report into this tragic accident.

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