MoD remains unaccountable

Whitehall has set a dangerous precedent by allowing the MoD to stand by its Chinook verdict

Whitehall has set a dangerous precedent by allowing the MoD to stand by its Chinook verdict

The Ministry of Defence's mulish rejection of independent inquiries by two Parliamentary committees, and its insistence on upholding its decision to blame pilot error for the crash of Chinook flight ZD576, suggests that it cares more about losing face than about righting a miscarriage of justice.

Its decision to stand by its verdict of "gross negligence with absolutely no doubt whatsoever" on the part of RAF flight lieutenants Jonathan Tapper and Richard Cook flies in the face of all the evidence to the contrary that has accumulated since the tragedy claimed the lives of 29 crew and passengers on the Mull of Kintyre in June 1994.

A compelling body of evidence points to flaws in the Chinook's Full Authority Digital Engine Control System (Fadec) as a possible cause of the crash. Indeed, problems with Fadec, which regulated the fuel to the Chinook's jet engines without direct pilot control, had caused other Chinook engines to behave erratically prior to the crash.

To support its standpoint, the MoD this week brandished the results of a fresh Boeing simulation of the crash - despite the recent assertion by Boeing staff that their simulations are merely investigative tools that should not be treated as proven fact.

Computer Weekly has long campaigned to clear the names of pilots Tapper and Cook, because they never had the chance to do so themselves.

But it has also sought to point out the dangerous precedent of assuming that a lack of concrete evidence of software malfunction is sufficient to pin the blame for a disaster on operator error, rather than any failing on the part of the software manufacturer.

For complex technology, only the manufacturer can understand the system well enough to identify any design, coding or testing flaws within it. Yet no commercial manufacturer can seriously be expected to implicate itself in a software-related disaster.

Moreover, the circumstances of a disaster such as the one that occurred in 1994 make it extraordinarily difficult to recover any meaningful evidence of software flaws. To accept the verdict of pilot negligence is to accept that in all such cases it is reasonable to blame the operators as a matter of course, if the cause of a disaster is not known.

In other words, manufacturers of safety-critical software have this week received an unequivocal message from Whitehall that if flaws in their products lead to loss of life, they are unlikely to be held to account.

In refusing to budge from its original position, the MoD seems determined to live down to the reputation for "unwarrantable arrogance" for which it was chastised by the Public Accounts Committee two years ago.

More sinisterly, in expressing absolute confidence that the pilots were the cause of the crash of Chinook ZD576, it has sought to exonerate itself of any blame for allowing into service an aircraft which even its own air safety experts had warned featured defective safety-critical software.

The MoD found itself on trial this week. Its ability to defend itself successfully can be explained by the fact that it was able to act as its own judge and jury.
This was last published in July 2002

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