Shortly after 7.30am on Friday June 2 1994, crew members of a Chinook helicopter,
airframe registration number ZD576, had their last breakfast.
They ate cereals; one had poached eggs as well, and another had a full fried breakfast.
Then the crew collected their weapons, ready for the day’s duties, which were mostly
around Northern Ireland.
The aircraft’s crew flew some undemanding sorties around the province in the
morning and arrived back at RAF Aldergrove, in good time to prepare for their next
flight to Fort George, Inverness, Scotland.
A few minutes after 5 o’clock that afternoon the two pilots, Flight Lieutenants
Jonathan Tapper and Rick Cook joined two crew and 25 passengers on board ZD576.
The passenger list was shredded on take-off. The 25 names included key military
intelligence personnel, including army intelligence officers, agents of the MI5
counter-terrorist agency, and special branch police officers.
Soon after 5.42pm, the Chinook was seen on a low-level flight path across the
province. About 15 minutes after take-off, a yachtsman Mark Holbrook, saw it flying
low and straight in good visibility.
In front of the Chinook was the Mull of Kintyre, the top of it covered in cloud. To the
left was open, unfettered sea and continued good low-level visibility.
The pilots entered onto their navigation computer the pre-planned change of course: a
left-turn to avoid the Mull. About 18 seconds before impact everything seemed
However the Chinook did not make its intended turn.
Instead it flew a course – nobody knows for certain in these last few seconds if it was
going straight, weaving or undulating – towards the bad weather on the top of the
Mull. The station commander at RAF Odiham, the UK’s main Chinook base, would
later tell an RAF Board of Inquiry that he did not believe that the crew would have
elected to fly straight towards the bad weather on the Mull.
At about 6pm several people on the Mull heard a dull thump followed by a loud
whooshing sound. The air was filled with flames, and two cyclists on the hillside were
enveloped in smoke.
Chinook ZD576 had hit the hillside, bounced, broken up and landed again about
300m further on. All the occupants of the aircraft suffered major trauma on impact
and died instantly.
The RAF could have investigated the incident itself, but it chose to request help from
the Department of Transport’s Air Accident Investigation Branch.
The investigators concluded that there was no evidence of a technical malfunction
capable of causing the crash. Later a RAF Board of Inquiry could not determine why
the pilots had not made a left turn as planned and blamed them for flying into the
Queen’s regulations state that: “only in cases where there is a absolutely no doubt
whatsoever should deceased aircrew be found negligent.”
Jonathan Tapper and Rick Cook were convicted posthumously of gross negligence.
No professional airman can be branded with a more infamous mark of disgrace.
Ministers of the last two governments, and the Ministry of Defence, have defended
the decision to blame the pilots with vigour, on the basis of the report by the Air
Accident Investigation Branch.
However there may have been a world of difference between “no evidence of
technical malfunction” and no malfunction.
Four years after the crash on the Mull of Kintyre, Bric Lewis finds himself piloting a
Chinook which is flying particularly smoothly.
Inside the cavernous cabin of a Chinook the ferment of noise is intrusive. With two
large jet engines and six 60-foot rotor blades slapping the air at 225 revolutions per
minute, you can cup your hand over someone’s ear, shout and they will not
understand a word.
But when Lewis exclaims involuntarily “Oh God” into the microphone of his headset,
and the words are transmitted instantaneously to all those on board, the cabin goes
almost ethereally quiet, as if life itself were held in suspension.
The Chinook is falling out of the sky … upside down …yet the displays in the cockpit
show no warning lights… no evidence of any technical malfunction… no evidence of
It was exactly the phrase that had been used four years earlier to condemn the two
pilots, Jonathan Tapper and Rick Cook after the crash on the Mull of Kintyre. Lewis
and his crew knew then that, if they did not survive, they too stood to lose not only
their lives but their reputations.
It was a simple equation: accident plus no evidence of technical malfunction equals
Yet Lewis’s aircraft had become uncontrollable without warning, for no apparent
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