The text of Mr Major’s article on the Mull of Kintyre crash, published in The Times on 13th May 2004.
Some events are etched in the memory and return again and again, often unexpectedly. Early on the evening of 2nd June 1994, I remember being told of reports that a Chinook Mark 2 helicopter, ZD576, was believed to have crashed on the Mull of Kintyre. Soon afterwards, the crash was confirmed as was, a little later, the number of victims and their identities. Many of the 25 dead were significant figures in intelligence and security. It was, as Air Chief Marshal Sir William Wratten noted “the largest peacetime tragedy the RAF had suffered”.
All this is ten years ago but, as I was Prime Minister at the time, the horror of the incident has never left me. From time to time the issue has resurfaced and, I think, for a good and valid reason: immediately after the accident, the RAF convened a Board of Inquiry and its findings were controversial.
Under the existing rules of such Inquiries, negligence by the crew piloting the helicopter could only be found “in cases where there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever”. The Inquiry convened speedily and took oral and written statements as well as detailed evidence from the Air Accident Investigation Branch. Their verdict was delivered in February 1995. They concluded that the “most probable” cause of the accident was an “inappropriate rate of climb over the Mull” but that no evidence existed that either pilot – both of whom died in the crash – was negligent. This seems to me to be a fair judgement. Indeed, I do not see how any other conclusion could be justified since, if the cause could only “probably” be determined, then there were no grounds for a verdict of negligence which necessarily required proof of pilot error. The cause could have been something quite different and beyond any pilot control.
When, as is the customary procedure, the findings were reviewed, a more senior officer disagreed that an inappropriate rate of climb was the cause of the crash. He believed that this was pure conjecture. Nor did he accept that the pilots were negligent.
But this was not a universal view. In the final part of the Board of Inquiry process, an overview by two senior Air Vice Marshals accepted the Investigation Board’s conclusion as to the probable cause of the crash but did find both pilots grossly negligent. Although there is no doubt these senior officers acted in good faith, it is not difficult to imagine the distress such an outcome must have caused to the families of the pilots and – no doubt – those of other victims as well.
The matter did not lie there. In 1996 a Fatal Accident Inquiry was held at the Sheriff’s Court, Paisley, that took detailed evidence over sixteen days. The Sheriff, too, concluded that it was not possible to be certain of the cause of the crash, nor that it had been caused by an inappropriate rate of climb. Once more, upon this verdict, no blame could properly be attributed to the crew.
A report by the House of Commons Defence Committee considered wider implications of the crash – but not the cause. However, in evidence the then Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Dr John Reid MP, set out the MOD’s justification for the negligence finding. A subsequent Public Accounts Committee Report examined the finding of negligence, found it unjustified and recommended that it should be set aside. The reason for this recommendation by the PAC was that it had serious doubts about the quality of the helicopter’s upgrade, its technical abilities and its software. However, the Committee’s powerful case, and its conclusion that “it is impossible to prove gross negligence”, was refuted by the Government, and the Board of Inquiry verdict of gross negligence was upheld.
Prior to the Government’s response, the House of Lords too – after considerable manoeuvring – had set up a Select Committee of five Members to consider the crash. They decided to limit their Inquiry specifically to the justification for the verdict and took evidence from the members of the Investigating Board, experienced Chinook pilots, other experts and the parents of the deceased pilots.
The Lords Select Committee unearthed new evidence about unforeseen malfunctions in the helicopters, about the weather conditions which suggested the pilots would have seen the land mass (the contrary was believed at the initial Inquiry) and about simulations of the behaviour of the helicopter: all of these developments cast doubt on earlier assumptions and were not available to the Air Marshals when the original verdict of gross negligence was reached.
In light of the additional information, the Select Committee found unanimously that the standard of proof necessary to sustain a verdict of gross negligence could not be justified.
We may never know what truly caused this tragedy. It follows therefore, that there is no justification for blaming pilot error. To let posterity do so would be a harsh verdict that is not justified upon the evidence and is cruel in its impact upon the families of the pilots who perished. Soon, the tenth anniversary of this crash will be upon us: it is time to set aside the original verdict and bring comfort to the memory of the pilots and remove the burden that has lain too long upon their reputations and their families’ peace of mind.
We owe justice to the dead. I am not persuaded they have had it.