An open letter to Geoff Hoon, secretary of state for defence

Dear Mr Hoon, We were astonished to hear the critical comments you made about Computer Weekly during last week's Commons debate...

Dear Mr Hoon, We were astonished to hear the critical comments you made about Computer Weekly during last week's Commons debate on the 1994 Chinook helicopter crash on the Mull of Kintyre.

You referred to the "nonsense written about [Chinook] in Computer Weekly", and added, "The way in which that journal hysterically pursues the subject does not give me cause to accept anything it says at face value."

Over the past five years Computer Weekly has brought to public light a weight of information concerning the crash and the Fadec engine control system on the Chinook Mk2. Much of this information was not previously known by the various bodies that have investigated the circumstances of the crash. Without Computer Weekly, perhaps much would still not be known. For example:

  • We published details of a secret report on the Fadec software written by the MoD's independent contractor EDS-Scicon, which said the software contained hundreds of anomalies. We also revealed that the MoD's own software assessors had recommended a rewrite of the software before the Chinook MK2 went into operational service, but that did not happen.

  • We provided details of an incident in 1989 when an MoD Chinook was almost destroyed by an engine surge caused largely by the faulty design of the Fadec. When the MoD sought to convince Parliament that the incident was not due to problems with the Fadec we produced MoD documents to show that the incident had led to the MoD suing the manufacturer over its "faulty design of the Fadec".

  • After the MoD's permanent secretary Kevin Tebbit told the Public Accounts Committee that the Fadec software was not safety-critical, we gave the PAC, MoD and Boeing documents showing otherwise.

  • We revealed the existence of an incident in 1997 in the US when a Chinook flipped onto its back for no apparent reason. The "barrel roll" incident was quoted by the Lords Select Committee in its recent report.

  • When the Lords committee was told that the halting of flight trials of Chinooks Mk2s in 1994 had nothing to do with Fadec software, we produced MoD documents showing that the RAF's own technical experts at Boscombe Down had ordered a halt to trials flying because the manufacturer had not satisfactorily answered questions about the Fadec.

Outside of the MoD, Computer Weekly has been widely praised for its work on this matter, and the evidence that we have unearthed has helped to persuade two parliamentary committees to call for the verdict against the pilots to be overturned.

In 2001 the Public Accounts Committee, as part of its own report on the way the Chinook Mk 2 was brought into service, published in full an 11-page report by Computer Weekly that detailed the inaccuracies in the statements made to Parliament about the crash. The PAC report called for the verdict to be overturned and accused the MoD of "unwarrantable arrogance".

In February of this year a House of Lords Select Committee report vindicated our campaign when it found that there is doubt about the cause of the crash. Specifically, the report found that a technical malfunction such as a problem with the Chinook's Fadec system "could have had a serious effect upon the crew's ability to control the aircraft".

For its efforts to exonerate the pilots, Computer Weekly was awarded the Periodical Publishers Association (PPA) Campaign of the Year award in 2001. We also won a PPA Writer of the Year award for a 140-page report entitled "RAF Justice", published on the Internet, which analysed the flaws in the MoD and RAF's procurement of the Chinook's software.

Our campaign has drawn cross-bench support from both the Commons and the Lords. We were named in an early-day motion, signed by nearly 90 MPs, which called on the Government to re-examine the verdict against the pilots in the light of Computer Weekly's findings.

In 1999 your own cabinet colleague Jack Straw, then home secretary, awarded Computer Weekly a Freedom of Information Award largely for our work in bringing to public light information concerning the Chinook crash.

So your comments in last week's debate came as quite a surprise.

Computer Weekly has written three times to various ministers seeking a meeting to discuss our findings. On each occasion our offer was rejected by the MoD. This would have provided a perfect opportunity to put specific criticisms to us.

We take pride in the work that we have done to clear the names of flight lieutenants Tapper and Cook, the pilots who were unjustly found guilty of gross negligence after their deaths in the crash.

But we also take great pride in our accuracy and fairness. If you have any evidence that anything Computer Weekly has written on this matter is inaccurate, misleading or biased, we would be happy to receive it. If we have misled our readers, we will print a correction.

Otherwise, I would like you to retract what you said and apologise for the slur it implies on the journalism and integrity of Computer Weekly's award-winning editorial team and the hundreds of Computer Weekly readers who have helped us in our quest to unearth the truth behind the Chinook crash.

Karl Schneider , editor, Computer Weekly

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