BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning raised the question of whether the Ministry of Defence hierarchy is “protecting its own” by maintaining that two pilots were to blame for the crash of a Chinook helicopter that might not have been airworthy.
The broadcast, by Today investigative reporter Angus Stickler, follows his report last week on a “positively dangerous” flaw in the Chinook Mk2’s Fadec engine control computer system.
Computer Weekly last week published the internal MoD memo on which Stickler’s original report was based.
This is what was said on the Today broadcast this morning:
James Naughtie [presenter]: “Last week, an investigation by this programme into the loss of a Chinook helicopter in 1994 – that crash on the Mull of Kintyre – revealed that there were serious concerns about computer software which was being used to control the engines.
“Now a rather bitter debate has erupted in the wake of those reports, in the letters pages of at least one national newspaper. Our reporter Angus Stickler – whose report it was – has been unpicking the detail.
[News reader from recording of BBC News on 4 January 2010] “The Ministry of Defence is facing calls for the inquiry into the crash of an RAF Chinook helicopter to be re-opened because of evidence that the computer system may have been at fault. Twenty-nine people died when the helicopter came down in bad weather on the Mull of Kintyre in 1994. The RAF found the pilots guilty of gross negligence.”
Angus Stickler [reporter] ” Following the revelations last week – the RAF and MoD declined repeated requests for interviews. The MoD issued written statements dismissing the evidence relating to the FADEC computer software as not new – it was only in the House of Lords that a politician was taken to task. Defence Minister Baroness Taylor of Bolton responded to calls to reopen the inquiry.”
Baroness Taylor of Bolton: “My Lords turning to the question, the concerns expressed by technical experts at Boscombe Down were widely known. And these concerns had been addressed in operating restrictions imposed by the initial release service for the Chinook Mk2. The air marshals both gave evidence to the House of Lords committee that they had been aware of questions raised about the FADEC, but had discounted them as possible factors in the accident.”
Stickler: “While the Air Marshals – discounted the software problems – others did not. It is important to understand the sequence of events.
“The original Air Accident Investigation and the subsequent Board of Inquiry stated that “an unforeseen technical malfunction of the type being experienced on the Chinook Helicopter… remained a possibility and could not be discounted”. The Air Marshals reviewed the findings and handed down a verdict of gross negligence.
“Speaking on this programme Squadron Leader Robert Burke – Chief Test Pilot for the Chinook at the time of the crash – also dismissed the operating restrictions issued to pilots – as simply inadequate.
Squadron Leader Robert Burke: “The only real operating instructions of significance that I can think of is that the aircraft was restricted to a maximum weight where the pilots could deal with a single engine running down. What was not accounted for was an engine running away up – that’s over speeding – which is highly dangerous because it can damage the rotor system and the transmissions to the point where the aircraft could crash ultimately.”
Stickler: “The MoD and RAF assertion that the concerns expressed by Boscombe Down “were widely known” is remarkable. Regardless of the verdict of gross negligence campaigners argue that a conscious decision was made to put an aircraft into service – knowing it was not safe to fly.
“The man who signed the document releasing the aircraft to the RAF – seven months before the crash – was the Controller Aircraft at the time … He left the RAF in 1994. We sent him a copy of the MoD memo and a list of questions – asking if he knew of the safety concerns. He declined the offer of an interview.
[The former Controller Aircraft’s statement to “Today” is read out on the programme] “Without consulting the historic files on the detail I could not begin to answer your questions. In any case, I have to say that I believe it would be improper for me to engage in an on the record interview on this subject because it is very much a matter for the MOD.”
Stickler: “There are other internal documents from Boscombe Down. During the eight month period prior to the crash – after the Chinook had been released to service – there had been at least 15 engine related incidents – four were considered to be serious. One document, written on the day of the crash, states that: “the recommendations with respect to FADEC have, to date, been ignored.” It is unequivocal. It says: “It is imperative that the RAF should be provided with a recommendation to cease Chinook Mark 2 operations”.
Baroness Taylor [Labour Defence Minister in House of Lords] “My Lords, I know that my noble friend has taken this issue extremely seriously as has everybody who has been involved in it … and I think that the simple point that we must reiterate is that there has actually been no new evidence presented. …In the absence of any new information it is not possible to raise any hopes that this inquiry can be revisited.”
Stickler: “The MoD has now admitted that the document passed to the BBC describing the software as positively dangerous was not referenced in the original Board of Inquiry and cannot confirm that it saw it. Yet it still maintains that the pilots were to blame.
“Campaigners say this is the hierarchy protecting its own.”
The Mod made no comment on the programme.
Was software to blame for Chinook crash? – BBC News 4 January 2010
Chinook computer was “positively dangerous” says newly-disclosed MoD document – ComputerWeekly.com
More questions than answers on Chinook crash – The Guardian
Short debate on Chinook Fadec system in House of Lords – Parliament’s website
PPRune – long-established forum on crash of ZD576 – still active