By Tony Collins
A day before people go to the polls to elect a new government is, perhaps, a good time to remember a momentous achievement of the old one.
It’s rare in any government for politicians to override the settled wishes and views of senior public officials.
In “Yes Minister” Sir Humphrey usually gets his way over his minister – which many politicians say reflects reality.
But in 2011 the defence secretary Liam Fox did something remarkable: he went against the fervent wishes of an officialdom that had, since 1996, persuaded prime ministers and successive defence ministers that two pilots, beyond any doubt, had caused the deaths of 25 top intelligence and security officers who were on board a Chinook helicopter, ZD576, that crashed on the Mull of Kintyre on 2 June 1994.
All 29 were killed in the crash including two pilots Flight Lieutenants Rick Cook and Jonathan Tapper and senior crewmen, Malm Graham Forbes, and Sgt Kevin Hardie.
It was under a Conservative government that two RAF air marshals found that Cook and Tapper caused the crash and were grossly negligent. The defence secretary at the time, Malcolm Rifkind, agreed with the decision to blame the pilots.
Later he changed his mind and said officials had given him incomplete information. He was unaware of the history of problems with a new “Fadec” fuel-control system fitted to the Chinook Mark 2 – the helicopter type that crashed on the Mull of Kintyre.
The safety-critical Fadec [full authority digital engine control] system was controlled entirely by error-ridden software that controlled the flow of fuel to the Chinook’s two jet engines.
The system was so unreliable that a day before the crash, test pilots had stopped flying Chinooks fitted with the new Fadec. The system caused engines to behave unpredictably – at times surging or running down without leaving a trace of any fault.
At the time of the crash there were internal disagreements within the RAF over the seriousness of the Fadec-related problems. A senior RAF software engineering specialist wrote in 1993 that the Fadec had an undocumented feature in the processor that was “positively dangerous”.
When Chinook ZD576 crashed there were no black boxes, no eyewitnesses, and no survivors to say what happened in the last minutes and seconds. It is not known for certain whether the pilots were in control.
One of the air marshals who found the pilots grossly negligent drew his conclusions, in part, from data obtained from the crashed Chinook by the manufacturer of an RNS252 navigation system. The air marshal described the RNS252 as a “black box”.
Data obtained from the RNS252 was not independently verified; it’s unusual in any civil air accident investigation to draw conclusions on the cause of a crash from a system that has not been independently proven to be accurate.
None of this was known to the Conservative government when it announced to Parliament in 1994 that the gross negligence of the two pilots caused the crash.
The then prime minister John Major later changed his mind about the pilots being to blame. He wrote in The Times in May 2004:
“We may never know what truly caused this tragedy. It follows, therefore, that there is no justification for blaming pilot error… We owe justice to the dead. I am not persuaded that they have had it.”
RAF rules at the time of the crash were that dead pilots could not be found grossly negligent unless there was “absolutely no doubt whatsoever” about the cause of an accident.
The doubts of Major, Rifkind and James Arbuthnot , a Conservative defence minister, deepened as the years went by and more evidence of the Chinook Mark 2’s technical problems came to light.
Arbuthnot, in particular, campaigned vigorously for the pilots’ names to be cleared, as did many other MPs and peers.
But nobody could persuade a succession of Labour defence ministers that the pilots might not have been to blame. Tony Blair, when prime minister, wrote twice to the families of the dead pilots repeating the MoD and RAF line that there was no new evidence to justify a reopening of the inquiry into the crash. Defence secretaries John Reid, Geoff Hoon, George Robertson, Bob Ainsworth, John Hutton and Des Browne took the same position.
The MoD even set up a small team to answer many questions from MPs and peers – and the families of the pilots – about the crash investigation, the Fadec system, and other technical shortcomings that raised questions about the airworthiness of the Chinook Mark 2. The team’s official retort was that there was no new evidence to justify a new inquiry.
But it was the MoD, RAF and their ministers who were judge and jury on what represented new evidence – and they dismissed as irrelevant every leaked internal RAF software engineering memo on the poor state of the Chinook Mark 2.
In opposition some conservatives said they would hold a new inquiry into the crash if they came to power. Cameron was among them. Liberal-Democrats wanted also wanted a new inquiry, particularly the ardent campaigner Menzies Campbell.
Labour MPs and peers also campaigned for a new inquiry particularly the peer Martin O’Neill. Crossbench peer Lord Chalfont led a Parliamentary group that campaigned on behalf of the Cook and Tapper families.
Families of some of the VIPs who died in the crash supported the campaign.
When the coalition was formed, Cameron and Clegg did what they’d promised and set up a new inquiry, led by a retired judge Lord Philip
His report recommended that the finding of gross negligence be set aside; and he and his privy counsellors had strong criticisms, not of the air marshals who had made their finding in good faith, but of officialdom. Lord Philip’s report said:
“Since 1995 the Ministry of Defence has continued resolutely to defend the finding of gross negligence and to rebuff all public and private representations that the finding should be reconsidered even when the representations included cogent arguments based on a sound understanding of the effect of the relevant Regulations.
“We find it extremely regrettable that the Department [MoD] should have taken such an intransigent stance on the basis of an inadequate understanding of the RAF’s own Regulations in a matter which involved the reputation of men who died on active service.”
The Philips report did not, and could not, set aside the finding of the air marshals. Whether right or wrong, the finding had a firm legal status. There was no right of appeal. How could the finding be set aside?
Then came the coalition’s arguably most important machinery-of-government decision: Liam Fox convened a special meeting of the Defence Council. Chaired by the defence secretary, the Defence Council provides the formal legal basis for the conduct of defence in the UK through a range of powers.
It comprises the chief of defence staff and senior service officers and senior officials who head the armed services and the MoD’s major corporate functions.
How the Defence Council came to its vote to set aside the finding of the air marshals is not known. There are rumours one or two of its members were replaced before the vote.
John Cook, the father of Rick, did not live to see his son’s reputation restored. John Cook died in 2005. A former British Airways Concorde pilot, he had been concerned about the lack of black boxes on the crashed Chinook. He was also concerned about the air marshals’ partial reliance, in drawing their conclusions, on the manufacturer’s data derived from the RNS252. On John Cook’s death, the campaign for justice was taken up by his other son Chris.
Mike Tapper, the father of Jonathan, began the campaign to his the pilots’ names a few days after the crash when it appeared that some officials were suggesting to the media that the likely cause was pilot error.
In fact the cause – or causes – of the crash will never be known. Much of the helicopter was destroyed in the fire that followed impact. It might have been caused by pilot error. It might have been the result of technical malfunctions, or combination of human and technical factors. What’s certain is that there is doubt over the cause.
Liam Fox and his coalition colleagues have proved that when public officials are wrong – and even when, in their misconceptions, they have persuaded two prime ministers and successive defence secretaries to adopt their arguments – that those misconceptions can be overturned if the political will is strong enough.
Many political decisions of the coalition government will soon be forgotten. But correcting a grievous and long-standing miscarriage of justice against two Special Forces pilots who could not speak for themselves will never be forgotten.
It will never be forgotten by the campaigners who are too numerous to mention; and it will never not be forgotten by the children of the two pilots.