An official accusation that two UK Royal Air Force Boeing Chinook transport helicopter pilots caused a fatal accident 17 years ago through gross negligence has at last been retracted, after causing protracted and unnecessary grief to the families of those killed.
Lord Philip's independent legal review of the original negligence judgement - delivered in 1995 - has concluded that there were no grounds for making the accusation, and it has been overturned unconditionally by defence secretary Dr Liam Fox.
On 2 June 1994 the Chinook was carrying 25 senior military and intelligence officials and four crew from RAF Aldergrove in Northern Ireland to near Inverness in Scotland. The flight took place at the height of the "troubles", when the risk of Irish Republican Army terrorist action against military operations was very high.
The Chinook was being flown low over the Irish Sea in limited visibility, and when the steep, rocky slopes of the Mull of Kintyre appeared through the mist, it was too late for the crew to pull up sufficiently to clear the top of a ridge. The original inquiry judged the crash a controlled flight into terrain accident, because it could find no evidence of technical failure. But that verdict was made on forensic grounds only, as the Chinook was fitted with neither data nor voice recorders and the impact point and wreckage were the only evidence.
The crew negligence verdict was not a part of the technical report by the accident investigators, but was appended by two senior officers who reviewed their findings. They clearly had in mind that there was no obvious operational reason for the aircraft to have been flying as low as it was, especially in poor visibility. But it is difficult to imagine what the purpose of their opinion was, even if it was an expert one. The negligence verdict would not serve to raise operational flight safety standards: that is not achieved through punitive deterrence, especially when served on the deceased.
Lord Philip's review is unequivocal that their accusation was neither supported by the known facts or the law. No-one can ever be certain that, for example, a minor technical failure did not distract the pilots and begin a chain of events leading to the impact.
The appended verdict was unjustified and pointless. Let us hope that, with the advent of the UK's new Military Aviation Authority - which has far more autonomy and independence than the old military oversight systems - such a military mindset has been consigned to history.■