By Tony Collins
Today’s coverage of the death of Margaret Thatcher leaves out one not-so-little thing: her unlikely support for a House of Lords inquiry into the blaming of two dead pilots for the crash of a Chinook helicopter on the Mull of Kintyre in June 1994.
Her support was unexpected because it went against the military establishment, particularly chiefs within the RAF and MoD who were convinced that the pilots of Chinook ZD576 caused a crash which killed 25 senior anti-terrorist officers working in Northern Ireland and four crew.
In a finding that the pilots were grossly negligent, two air marshals argued that flight lieutenants Rick Cook and Jonathan Tapper had flown a serviceable Chinook Mk2 helicopter into the landmass of the Mull of Kintyre in bad weather.
But the fathers of Cook and Tapper argued there were doubts over the cause of the crash. There were no black boxes and much of the helicopter was destroyed in a fireball. A campaign to have the finding set aside gained support among senior Parliamentarians, in part because of concerns over the airworthiness of the helicopter.
A day before the crash, trials pilots had ceased flying the Chinook Mk2 because of unanswered questions over a newly-fitted software-controlled “Fadec” system which controlled fuel to the Chinook’s two jet engines.
Rick Cook and Jonathan Tapper had both expressed concerns to colleagues about the Fadec. The system had caused engines to surge or run down unexpectedly without leaving a trace of its unpredictable behaviour, despite internal fault self-diagnoses. EDS (now HP) had abandoned a review of the Fadec software because there were so many anomalies.
In the House of Lords on 30 April 2001 peers debated for more than two hours a motion to set up an inquiry of their own into the crash. Dozens of peers opposed the motion, saying that a committee of the House of Lords would not be technically competent to question the findings of two air marshals.
Indeed a Liaison Committee of the House of Lords recommended that peers refuse to set up an inquiry. Some peers said it could set an unfortunate precedent: peers could then start questioning the findings of other boards of inquiry such as the one into the King’s Cross fire.
But Lord Chalfont, a tenacious campaigner for the Cook and Tapper families, put a motion that asked peers to reject the recommendations of the Liaison Committee. He called for the House of Lords to appoint a committee of five members to “consider the justification for the finding of those reviewing the conclusions of the RAF board of inquiry that both pilots of the Chinook helicopter ZD576 which crashed on the Mull of Kintyre on 2nd June 1994 were negligent”.
Lord Craig, who spoke against setting up an inquiry, said during the debate, “This is a tough call: to meet the interests of the deceased pilots and their families, or to meet the interests of the service. I feel duty bound to support the interest of the service.
“It is inappropriate to set up an inquiry into the professional judgment of the Air Marshals. At the end of the day, it is their professional judgment on which we must rely, not only in this sad case but on so much else that they do in their capacity as senior officers of the Armed Forces.”
But Lord Chalfont argued that if the House of Lords voted against an inquiry it could destroy any chance of justice for the two pilots.
In the vote, Baroness Thatcher was among 132 peers who supported Lord Chalfont’s motion for an inquiry – 106 voted against.
Speaking after the vote Lord Chalfont said, “I had support from all sides of the House. Mrs Thatcher supported and congratulated me on the result. She is really on our side.”
It’s not for me to judge the decisions Margaret Thatcher made in her career other than to say that her support for Lord Chalfont’s campaign for a House of Lords inquiry over the Chinook crash was brave, timely and welcome.
Her support might have been an important influence on some in the Conservative Party, including David Cameron. Several years after the House of Lords inquiry – which called the finding of gross negligence against Flt Lts Cook and Tapper to be set aside – Cameron promised that if his party won power it would to set up a judge-led inquiry into the crash.
Cameron kept to his promise and in 2011 the then Defence Secretary Liam Fox apologised to the Cook and Tapper families. An independent review under retired judge Lord Philip had spent nine months looking at the evidence and decided that the finding of gross negligence should be set aside.
Fox told the House of Commons that he had written to the relatives of the pilots to apologise for the distress caused to them by the RAF’s original findings that they were guilty of “gross negligence”.
The controversy goes on. Some former RAF officers and military specialists want to know why operational pilots were expected to fly the Chinook MK2, of the type that crashed on the Mull, at a time when the Mk2 was not considered airworthy by the RAF’s own safety experts.