British forces underestimated Manpads threat to helicopter operations in Iraq, say accident investigators

A UK Royal Navy helicopter shot down over the Iraqi city of Basra last year was struck by a single surface-to-air missile launched from the weapon's maximum engagement range, according to a Board of Inquiry report published last week. Five British personnel died when the AgustaWestland Lynx AH7 exploded in mid-air after a high-speed missile hit the aircraft's rear electrical bay.

The report into the 6 May 2006 crash of the 847 Naval Air Squadron aircraft also reveals that intelligence available to British helicopter crews did not suggest the presence of man-portable air-defence systems (Manpads). "The known intelligence picture at the time of the crash stated that the main threat was from small arms fire attack," it says. Intelligence summaries made by the UK's Joint Helicopter Force (Iraq) in the weeks before the loss "showed no change to the perceived threat to their assets", it adds.

Operating from Basra Air Station, Lynx XZ614 was making a reconnaissance flight for JHF(I)'s incoming force commander when it was struck around 15min into its sortie. The aircraft was flying at an undisclosed "medium level" and an estimated ground speed of up to 60kt (110km/h), according to the Board of Inquiry. Witnesses reported seeing a white smoke trail rising from the ground before the explosion, which partially severed the aircraft's tail pylon and caused it to fall to the ground. No Mayday call was issued by the pilots, and the board says: "The extreme violence of the aircraft explosion, fire and subsequent high g near-vertical impact resulted in this crash being considered unsurvivable.

"The main cause of the crash was a hostile Manpads attack," it says, adding that the distance was probably "at the extreme range" of the likely system involved. Details on the performance of the helicopter's defensive aids system have been withheld, and the Board of Inquiry says: "Ultimately, it may prove impossible to identify conclusively the status of all critical aircraft systems."

Armed forces minister Adam Ingram says the Ministry of Defence has taken action to implement all seven recommendations made by the board, although details on several of these have not been made public. However, a key suggestion is that the UK should procure a fully crashworthy flight data recorder or cockpit voice recorder for all military aircraft. "Had a fully crashworthy FDR/CVR been fitted, feedback to theatre command could have been provided within days rather than weeks," the report says.

While the UK has not subsequently lost an aircraft in Basra, a senior navy source reveals that the small arms threat remains a very real and frequent one, with 30 British helicopters having been hit over the city within the last year.

Source: Flight International