Defence minister misleads Commons over Chinook

Independent MP Martin Bell secures the first debate in the House of Commons over the causes of Chinook crash

Last week, independent MP Martin Bell secured the first debate in the House of Commons over the causes of the Chinook crash on the Mull of Kintyre, but information presented on the role of the Fadec software system was once again inaccurate.

Lewis Moonie has become the latest defence minister to unwittingly mislead the House of Commons over a Chinook accident caused by a fault in the design of the helicopter's engine control software.

The minister was speaking during an adjournment debate in the Commons, in which MPs from all parties were seeking to open an independent inquiry into the Chinook crash on the Mull of Kintyre in 1994. Although the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said the helicopter pilots were grossly negligent, Computer Weekly and Channel 4 News have uncovered evidence that there were problems with the helicopter's software system dating back to an earlier accident in 1989.

Like other ministers before him, including John Reid and Doug Henderson, Moonie gave a misleading impression to MPs about the legal action taken by the MoD after the 1989 Chinook accident. He denied that the legal action arose out of a problem with the Chinook's Full Authority Digital Engine Control (Fadec) software system. The action arose because of negligence by the manufacturers during the ground test of a MoD-owned Chinook in 1989, he said.

However, Computer Weekly has MoD evidence that the opposite was the case. Legal papers show that the MoD believed, and argued in legal hearings, that the 1989 accident was due to a fundamental fault in the Fadec system.

Indeed, in arbitration proceedings in the US, the MoD advanced detailed and ultimately successful arguments on why there was no negligence in the test procedures.

Hundreds of pages of documents from the case and various inquiries related to it have been obtained by Computer Weekly. These include the minutes of a joint review meeting held in the US on 21 January 1989, the day after the accident, to review its causes.

At the meeting were representatives from Textron Lycoming, the main contractor of the Chinook's Fadec system, Chandler Evans, one of Textron's US-based subcontractors on Fadec, the UK Chinook Liaison Office, which represented the MoD's interests in the US, and representatives from Boeing.

Contrary to the impression given by the MoD to the Commons last week, there was no criticism or any hint of negligence in the testing procedures. The meeting concluded that there was a "problem with the fault logic" in the Fadec's design.

In conclusion, the minutes say, "It was agreed that among items to be completed prior to continuation of testing was the correction of the identified fault logic [in the Fadec system] and a detailed review to identify and correct other problems."

And the official legal documents, prepared by the Government's law firm Morgan Lewis and Bockius, describe the arguments that were put forward at the arbitration proceedings over the 1989 accident.

"Textron's allegations that the damage [in the 1989 accident] was really somebody else's responsibility, Boeing's or the British Government's, fell flat at the hearing. In the end these attempted defences were supported neither by documentary evidence nor by testimony."

As a result of the hearings, the MoD won $3m (£1.9m) from Textron.

The Government's lawyers said, "The evidence introduced in this case shows, and Textron's own admissions confirm, that the over-speed and the damage were caused by Textron's faulty design of the Fadec."

They added that Boeing's test procedures were adequate and reasonable.

In the 1989 accident, a Chinook manufactured by Boeing and owned by the MoD was severely damaged by a sudden and uncontrollable surge or "over-speed" of the number one engine, during a ground test of a helicopter fitted with the new Fadec system. The Fadec manages acceleration and deceleration of the Chinook's two jet engines, without any pilot intervention or any direct pilot control.

Five years later a fatal crash of a Chinook on the Mull of Kintyre on 2 June 1994 killed all onboard, including four crew and 25 police and intelligence officers. The MoD blamed the pilots for the crash but specialists have said a faulty Fadec could have contributed to it.

There is no suggestion that Moonie or the other politicians deliberately misled the Commons over the 1989 accident. But the consistently inaccurate briefings of ministers by MoD officials raises questions over whether the functionaries are unclear or ill-informed about the facts, are simply following a departmental line, or are being intentionally misleading.

For different reasons, the causes of the accident in 1989 are regarded as important by the MoD and to campaigners who are seeking to clear the names of the two pilots who were blamed for the crash on the Mull.

Campaigners say that, although two air marshals found the pilots grossly negligent, Fadec or other problems could have caused the accident on the Mull. It was recognised by the RAF Board of Inquiry into the crash on the Mull that Fadec could have contributed to the accident.

To these campaigners the 1989 accident is significant because it shows that Fadec was capableof causing anuncontrollable engine surge.

For the MoD the accident is important because it has made official statements to MPs since the Mull crash that the Fadec is not a safety critical system and cannot cause a potentially catastrophic accident.

If the MoD was now to accept that the Fadec caused the accident in 1989, this would not only undermine its claims that the Fadec was not safety critical, but also it would suggest the MoD was wrong in the reasons it gave for approving the Fadec for operational service in Chinook Mk2 helicopter types in 1993.

The MoD's airworthiness assessors at Boscombe Down had said it was "essential" that the software was rewritten before it was deployed in an operational aircraft. But the MoD overruled Boscombe Down, saying that the Fadec had never caused an accident and was not critical to safety.

Last week, in the Commons debate on the crash on the Mull of Kintyre, Moonie described the MoD's official position on the 1989 accident as that which the ministry had gone to lengths to discredit during the arbitration proceedings.

He said the case brought by the MoD after the 1989 accident "concerned a case of negligence by the manufacturers during a ground test of one of the helicopters - it was not about the Fadec system itself".

A similar statement was made by the then defence minister Reid to the Defence Committee in 1998. He said the legal action arising from the 1989 accident "was not - I repeat, it was not - on account of the failure of the [Fadec] software". Reid had added that this was "one of the misconceptions that has been unfortunately allowed to flourish the case was essentially against Boeing and Textron Lycoming for negligence in their testing procedures, not against the software".

Henderson, when he was minister, later confirmed the veracity of Reid's comments in a letter to Bruce George, chairman of the Defence Committee.

Ironically, Moonie's statement last week came at the end of a Commons debate in which several MPs criticised the MoD for issuing misleading and incorrect statements, many of them related to the Fadec.

In the minds of some MPs and Lords it is not only the blaming of the pilots of Chinook ZD576 that merits an independent inquiry. They feel that the conduct and integrity of the MoD itself should be put on trial.

What MPs said in the debate

Comments by MPs during the Chinook debate in the House of Commons last week.

Martin Bell (Independent):

"To those who argue that the RAF has better things to do with its time than to re-open an inquiry into a crash that happened six years ago, I would say that it has not, and that perhaps this case matters more than anything elseÉ the matter of principle, honour and natural justice is never time-expired."

Martin O'Neill (former Labour Defence spokesman):

"I associate myself with the criticisms of opinions presented as facts. Such criticisms have been made repeatedly in the columns of respectable journals such as Computer Weekly which went to great lengths to examine the software debate."

David Rendel (Liberal-democrat):

"We cannot say that Fadec was not the cause of the accident. The issue is not simply one concerning computer software but one of fairness and justice, and the matter must not be left where it is."

Frank Cook (Labour):

"The torch of inquiry that has been fuelled by the disinformation and evasive tactics of the MoD can be extinguished only by truth and openness."

Frank Field (former Labour welfare minister):

"The longer our campaign continues, the more serious it will become. It will move from a simple matter of rectifying a gross injustice to the more fundamental question of how a department of state can operate against elected ministers."

Robert Key (former Tory Defence Minister):

"It has become clear that the [Defence] Committee was misled - unintentionally I am sure - on at least five or six major points."

This was last published in July 2000

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