Thursday, July 14, 2011

A decade-and-a-half of institutional pigheadedness at the MoD

Many years ago, Sir John Day and Sir William Wratten, the two RAF Reviewing Officers who found the deceased pilots of the Mull of Kintyre crash guilty of gross negligence, appeared before a House of Lords committee that was inquiring into the affair. Barely had the chairman managed to finish uttering his first question before Day and Wratten's astonishing arrogance was on full display. The question was irrelevant, they insisted, because it was about safety issues relating to the Chinook fleet, which had nothing to do with their rationale for finding the pilots guilty. All that mattered was that the pilots had been flying dangerously low in their approach to the Mull of Kintyre - no-one need trouble themselves with any details beyond that. And if anyone took issue with that proposition, it was because they lacked the Reviewing Officers' immense expertise.

The irony, of course, as yesterday's report makes abundantly clear, is that there was a key factor that the Reviewing Officers themselves should never have looked beyond, that should have utterly precluded them from finding the pilots guilty, and that was only set aside because of their own lack of expertise in the relevant area. That factor was the incredibly high standard of proof required to find deceased pilots guilty of gross negligence, ie. "absolutely no doubt whatsoever". You only need to look at the difference between that and the standard criminal test of "beyond reasonable doubt" to understand the implications - even an "unreasonable doubt" may be sufficient reason to acquit. OK, perhaps not the possibility that the aircraft was hijacked by pixies, but just about any other conceivable doubt you might care to raise. As it happens, the report lists so many potential grounds for doubt that the Reviewing Officers chose to ignore that it's hard to see how even the "beyond reasonable doubt" test could be said to have been satisfied.

The real disgrace, though, is not the original verdict, but the way that the MoD have pig-headedly attempted to defend it to the death over the last decade-and-a-half, in spite of the obvious flaws in the Reviewing Officers' reasoning. It's also been incredibly telling that every single Defence Secretary (and indeed every junior Defence minister) over that period has "gone native" and obediently defended the verdict, rather than engaging their own brain cells and examining the issues objectively. The worst offender (unsurprisingly) was John Reid, that obsequious loyalist to "the British way" and venerable British institutions like the MoD, who we learned on Channel 4 News acted like a petulant "two-year-old" when two aviation experts had the audacity to raise concerns with him - he apparently sat in his chair with his finger to his mouth, refusing to acknowledge or engage with anything that was being said.

Given her known views about Mr Reid, it's a rather delicious irony that Helen Liddell, of all people, sat on the panel that finally cleared the pilots, and savaged the MoD's conduct over the years.


  1. The management level in government departments seem to be prepared to go to any lengths to protect themselves. The families of these two men have had to dedicate much of their lives over the past 16 years, to clearing their kins' names.

    The frightening thing is that many families would not have had the ability or the money to take on the MoD.

    Given that the two pilots have been cleared, can we now expect that the people who were responsible will face charges?

    Interesting piece on Mrs Liddell, James. I imagine that it would be very difficult, nigh impossible, to like John Reid. I would particularly agree with the "patronising" part. He seemed to think that his PhD (thesis on the slave trade) gave him the right to talk down to everyone on every subject.

  2. I'm relieved to hear he isn't a medical doctor, Tris, his bedside manner doesn't bear thinking about!

  3. James, this is a comment I originally put on Sub-rosa's blog but I've also included a link to an article which appeared in the Herald in December 2000. In it a Flt Lt MacKenzie also claims that the Chinook was en route to Machrihanish not Inverness although he states that the reason it was so low was to avoid the radar coverage from Prestwick. The destination and reason for the flight have become sucked into a security world where nothing is quite what it seems and where the reputation of the pilots has become secondary to the need to hide information from the public.

    Around the time of the crash there were reports in the Private Eye that British intelligence from various services in Northern Ireland were meeting with American intelligence in Machrihanish in order to minimise the chances of the meetings becoming known in Northern Ireland. Machrihanish is closer to Prestwick international airport than it is to Belfast and is just a short flight away for both Northern Ireland security personnel coming from Belfast and Americans flying in from the States.

    If the chinook was flying to Machrihanish from Belfast everything makes sense. Look at a map and you'll see the Kintyre peninsula points almost directly at Belfast where the flight originated. The questioning and uncertainty about why they flew so so low and why they made no contact about aircraft problems only applies if they were heading for Inverness not Machrihanish. If they were heading for Machrihanish then there is no reason to question their height or lack of distress calls. The problem everyone has is trying to explain why experienced pilots with valuable passengers were flying so low on the way to Inverness.

    If the pilots were flying in poor visibility with no radar trusting their navigation systems the obvious and safe route was to fly up the west coast of Kintyre keeping in visual contact with the sea surface and then make a dog leg east and come in low and slow over the low-lying west facing beach in front of Machrihanish. That part of the coast is flat and level and leads directly to the Machrihanish airfield. In poor visibility the pilots would have kept low to keep visual contact with the sea surface and to identify the coast when they came in over the beach.

    What I am almost sure happened is that the navigation system failed and placed the pilots too far east and they hit the Mull of Kintyre instead of flying to the west of it. It was equipment failure not pilot error.

    Flying at less than 5,000 feet across Scotland in bad visibility with no radar is suicidal when many of Scotland's mountains rise well above 4,000 feet. The only reason that has been offered is that they had engine problems but this is complicated by the fact they made no distress calls.

    The only explanations for the low height of the aircraft are:

    1. The pilots were playing silly buggers by flying at a low level as they approached the Scottish coast and playing a game of dodge the mountain which they lost.

    2. They were on their way to Machrihanish in poor visibility which explains why they were so low and in visual contact with the sea surface and also explains why they made no distress calls because they had no engine problems. A failure in their navigation system flew them into the Mull.

    The whole mess has been caused by the MOD claiming the helicopter was flying to Inverness. Once they'd made the initial lie they couldn't change it. No-one flies low in a helicopter through mountains in poor visibility and with no radar with a cargo of extremely valuable passengers. The reason the helicopter was low was that it was on the way to the airbase in Machrihanish.

  4. Thanks for that, Doug. I think the issue you've just raised highlights the vital importance of the most basic point - the pilots should never have been found guilty of gross negligence without first being given the opportunity to answer the question "why were you flying so low?". The fact that they weren't in a position to explain themselves on that point is precisely why the "absolutely no doubt whatsoever" test was in place - and yet it was flagrantly disregarded.