MPs fight on for independent Chinook inquiry

As peers and MPs rally to the cause for a new independent inquiry, former defence minister Malcolm Rifkind is among those to criticise the reasons for the...

As peers and MPs rally to the cause for a new independent inquiry, former defence minister Malcolm Rifkind is among those to criticise the reasons for the MoD's latest refusal to hold an inquiry into the fatal helicopter crash.

T he reasons given by the Ministry of Defence for refusing to open a new inquiry into the controversial 1994 Chinook helicopter crash have caused deep resentment among senior IT specialists, former ministers, MPs and peers.

Senior parliamentarians have undertaken to fight for a new independent inquiry, whatever obstacles are put in their way and however long it takes.

The MoD regards the crash in 1994 as an old issue and maintains that there is no doubt whatsoever that the two pilots of Chinook ZD576 were grossly negligent for flying too low and too fast in bad weather.

But IT specialists, MPs and peers have said the issues that arose from the crash - including the accountability of the MoD and the accuracy of its statements to Parliament - needed to be explored in an independent forum.

Campaigners for a new inquiry have also pointed to the lack of evidence over what happened during the last minutes of the flight. They argue that the MoD cannot be sure that the pilots did not experience some sort of emergency.

Now, in a departure from its previously strident line, the MoD has conceded that there is uncertainty over the actions of the pilots, although it maintains that they were grossly negligent.

In a parliamentary reply to Lord Jacobs, defence minister Baroness Symons said, "It is possible to be certain of the cause for something happening even though the precise details of events leading up to it are less definite."

One area of uncertainty is whether the controls jammed or the aircraft's Full Authority Digital Engine Control (Fadec) computer system caused a sudden acceleration of the engines.

The MoD's reply has caused some anger among those who have taken a close interest in the crash. Independent peer Lord Chalfont, chairman of the Mull of Kintyre Group of peers and MPs, which is campaigning for a new inquiry, said, "Lady Symons, usually so careful in her replies, has been let down badly by whoever wrote her official brief. This is like saying 'my mind is made up. Kindly do not confuse me with the facts'."

Malcolm Rifkind, secretary of state for defence at the time of the crash told Computer Weekly, "Lady Symons' reply is disturbing. It is agreed by all that the Chinook should not have been where it was at the time of the accident. The unresolved question is why it was there. The MoD maintains that as there is no evidence of any other reason it must have been pilot negligence. I believe that is an unacceptable basis for a finding of negligence especially as there is no black box to help explain the last few minutes of flight."

In the weeks before the crash, Fadec problems had caused Chinook engines to accelerate unexpectedly, cut out or cause spurious warning lights to illuminate. The Fadec had also malfunctioned without registering any fault codes on its display panels.

In an internal report, the MoD's airworthiness assessors at Boscombe Down described the Fadec software as unsuited for its intended purpose. They recommended that the software be rewritten before it went into operational service. But the MoD and the RAF decided to put the Chinook into service without a software rewrite.

On 1 June 1994, flight trials of the Chinook Mk2, fitted with Fadec, were stopped because of concerns over the software. But there was a shortage of Chinooks at the time, and the RAF expected operational pilots to continue flying. A day after the cessation of flight trials, Chinook ZD576 crashed on the Mull, killing everyone onboard - four crew and 25 senior intelligence and police personnel.

An RAF Board of Inquiry said there was insufficient evidence to reach a firm conclusion about the cause of the accident. Two air marshals reviewed the evidence of the board and found the two pilots grossly negligent. RAF rules state that deceased aircrew should be found grossly negligent only if there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever.

Since the crash, it has emerged that the air marshals might not have been aware of the seriousness of the Fadec problems or the system's criticality to flight safety. Only after repeated questioning of the MoD in the late 1990s did the MoD admit the system was categorised by its manufacturer Boeing as flight-safety-critical.

The air marshalls might also have been unaware that a Fadec had caused one of the Chinook's jet engines to accelerate uncontrollably during one of the system's first full tests at Boeing's Flight Test Facility in the US in 1989. The MoD sued over the accident and won $3m in damages from the Fadec's manufacturer Textron Lycoming.

Nothing about the 1989 accident or the Textron litigation was brought to the attention of the RAF Board of Inquiry or the air marshals. The MoD said the 1989 accident involved a different Fadec to the one installed on Chinook ZD576. However, internal MoD papers show that the Chinook suffered from serious Fadec problems before the Mull crash and for about a month afterwards.

In addition, the air marshals could not have known at the time of the Mull crash that US Army Chinooks would suffer a series of incidents due to unidentified problems. And when a US Army Chinook crashed fatally in 1996, no fault was found in an initial investigation. Subsequently, Boeing paid millions of dollars in compensation to the families of the dead crew, after it was found that the Chinook had suddenly lost the use of its stabilising AFCS computer system because of water leaks.

In the case of the Mull crash, critics of the investigation have pointed to inherent conflicts of interest. If a new inquiry were to find that Fadec was one of the possible causes of the crash, the MoD could face criticism for allowing the Chinook to go into operational service without the software rewrite that Boscombe Down had recommended.

In any new inquiry the MoD could also face criticism for not giving information about the 1989 Chinook accident and evidence on other software-related problems to the accident investigators, the Board of Inquiry and the Scottish Fatal Accident Inquiry. The MoD may be further criticised for its misleading statements to Parliament following the crash.

Former welfare minister and Labour MP Frank Field, who has joined Chalfont in campaigning for a select committee to investigate the crash, said, "Everybody in the country who knows about the Chinook incident now believes there is an element of doubt [over whether the pilots were negligent], with the sole exception of the senior advisers to ministers. Ministers need to ask why this is."

computer Weekly comment

Peers and MPs have described the latest statement from the Ministry of Defence on the Chinook crash on the Mull of Kintyre as arrogant and disingenuous. This highlights one of the wider concerns over the accident - the Ministry of Defence's apparent lack of accountability.

Since Computer Weekly published its RAF Justice report last year, the MoD has used sophistry to rebuff campaigners for a new inquiry into the Chinook accident.

In upholding the RAF's contention that the pilots of Chinook ZD576 were negligent beyond any doubt whatsoever, the MoD has suppressed facts, misstated elements of the case and misrepresented the opposite opinions. Misrepresentation is one of the gravest accusations against any public institution. But we have seen this time and again.

This is done, to the most aggravated degree, by public servants who are acting in perfect good faith. They are not ignorant or incompetent. They are loyally holding the departmental line that the RAF does not make mistakes when it finds its pilots negligent.

But if that line cannot be challenged by Parliament, how can the department regard itself as accountable?

It is a lack of genuine accountability that has contributed to the failure or cost overruns in so many government computer-related projects. If a department does not feel compelled to be objective when explaining disasters to Parliament and auditors, it may not have any real incentive to avoid them in the first place.

In the case of the Chinook accident, the MoD has nothing to gain and much to lose by a new inquiry. It is only to be expected that it will muster every argument to oppose such a hearing. But the MoD has also persuaded the prime minister that there should be no new inquiry. Tony Blair is not even prepared to meet senior peers and MPs, although they want him to hear the arguments as expressed by those who believe in them.

Therefore, the MoD has avoided being seriously challenged either over the verdict against the Chinook pilots, or the statements it has made to Parliament over the affair.

If this is what the prime minister regards as accountability, the stage is set for further injustices and more government IT-related disasters.

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