More than eight years after the mysterious helicopter crash on the Mull of Kintyre, the Ministry of Defence cover-up continues. Their official line remains that, since no evidence of mechanical failure has emerged, the blame must be pinned on two experienced and conscientious pilots. This verdict has produced the inevitable outrage among family and colleagues of the dead crewmen. The problem for the authorities is that any admission of mechanical problems might bring to the surface the possibility of sabotage.
Malcolm Rifkind, then Defence Secretary, in June 1995 announced the findings of the official inquiry into the crash:
After an exhaustive inquiry into all the circumstances, the possibilities of major technical or structural failure, hostile action, or electro-magnetic interference with navigation equipment, were eliminated as possible causes. On all the evidence, it was concluded that the cause of the accident was that the two pilots had wrongly continued to fly towards the Mull of Kintyre, below a safe altitude in unsuitable weather conditions.
Both pilots, Flight Lt. Richard Cook, 30, and Flight Lt. Jonathan Tapper, 28, were experienced veterans who had been trained to fly in all-weather conditions in the Mull of Kintyre area. They had exemplary records. Tapper had a total of 3165 military flying hours. Cook, assumed to have been at the controls, had logged 2867 hours.
Ministry of Defence spin-doctors have quietly briefed politicians that the pilots were known for their ‘recklessness’. But why should reckless men be given control of expensive weaponry and made responsible for the lives of so many highly trained personnel?
Visibility was good, if not excellent. It is true that the top of the Mull, where they crashed, was shrouded in mist but they were not planning to fly over it. A yachtsman, Mark Holbrook, had a good view of the Chinook flying below cloud as it approached the Mull lighthouse, glinting in the sunlight. At that point, which would be 1.75 kilometres before impact, Tapper switched direction, using a new waypoint (the lighthouse was the first), heading towards Corran, about 90 miles away. This would entail a slight left turn around the Mull, still at a low level. But the turn was not made. Chinook ZD576 crashed into the hillside.
When the waypoint was changed, the crew lost position information with regard to the Mull of Kintyre. No one can explain, however, why the aircraft did not follow its planned course. According to the report of the crash investigation, the computer on board showed ‘small lateral displacements to the right of their expected track’ which ‘may have led the crew to believe that they were further to the west of the Mull of Kintyre than was actually the case.’
What had caused these directional displacements? Earlier in the day, Tapper had asked for one of the navigation computers, a Racal RNS 252 Super Tans, to be checked, because of ‘unusual G.P.S. satellite tracking data.’ G.P.S. is the Global Positioning System made possible by the increasing number of satellites around the earth, mostly launched by the United States and used for military purposes. Flight Lt. Tapper was an expert on the Racal system and had gone to Racal Avionic, the manufacturers, the previous month, May 1994, because of the unusual readings. The system was replaced three times that month, but no fault was found.
Computer Weekly magazine have focused attention on another technical mystery. The Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) is a computerised engine control system, which was fitted to the R.A.F.’s Chinooks in the early 1990s. Computer Weekly discovered several unexplained incidents concerning this system, which may cause engine overspeed if its speed detection sensors make a mistake. In one such incident, in 1989, the fault code displayed by FADEC was E5. The same code was found on one of the computers of ZD576 by crash investigators. Armed Forces Minister John Reid later asserted that this code had been stored in the computer memory from an earlier flight and could have no bearing on the crash. However, other information he gave to the House of Commons Defence Committee has been shown to be ‘inaccurate.’
By an extraordinary coincidence, the M.o.D. military testing establishment suspended tests on an upgraded version of Chinook on June 1st. 1994, the day before the doomed flight, following a series of FADEC-related malfunctions. On June 3rd. an internal memo described FADEC as ‘unverifiable and therefore unsuited for its intended purpose.’ In the two months of April and May 1994 leading up to its destruction, ZD576 had itself experienced five FADEC-related incidents. This cluster of software ‘bugs’ would have been unique to the R.A.F., as they have a different FADEC to that used by other countries.
The Ministry of Defence regards none of these software problems as significant. The official MOD line remains that two dedicated, experienced pilots carelessly flew their aircraft into a mountain. The Scottish Sheriff, Sir Stephen Young, who conducted the Fatal Accident Inquiry (obligatory in Scotland after such an incident) disagreed. He ruled that there was no proof the pilots were to blame.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the secret inquiry was the peremptory way in which (publicly, at least) sabotage was dismissed as a possible cause. It was surprising, given the fact that on board ZD576 were, in addition to four R.A.F. crewmen (themselves a ‘legitimate’ I.R.A. target), twenty-five of the most dedicated and implacable enemies of Republican terrorism. The deaths were acknowledged by the then Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, as ‘a severe blow to efforts to combat terrorism.’ Senior security officials described the deaths as a ‘very, very, significant setback.’ And, crucially, most of these men and women believed that the I.R.A. could, and should, be defeated militarily.
There is evidence that some of those who died believed that they were to be briefed on a possible mass round-up of the I.R.A. if talks with the terrorists, ongoing at the time, were to break down. It is now clear that the British and American governments were actually preparing to make massive concessions to the Republicans in the expectation of a cease-fire.
The I.R.A. bombs in the heart of London’s financial district in 1992 and 1993 had sent shock waves as far as New York’s Wall Street. Such attacks endanger the stability of the international banking system. The huge cost, approaching ‘2 billion, of insurance claims shook Lloyds and other large insurers. Now the U.S. administration took a direct hand in the conflict. Already sympathetic to the Irish republican cause, it insisted that secret talks initiated in 1990 between Her Majesty’s government and the I.R.A. should move quickly towards a ‘solution.’ In September 1993 a U.S. delegation led by former Congressman Bruce Morrison (a close confidant of President Clinton and a republican sympathiser) met Gerry Adams to prepare for crucial face-to-face talks, which took place in January 1994. Adams flew to New York and was treated like royalty. On his return he confidently claimed the support of the Clinton administration.
We may never know what guarantees or gestures of faith were made by Clinton to persuade the I.R.A. to suspend their economic warfare. It is a measure of the I.R.A.’s strong negotiating position that they were able to bomb Canary Wharf with impunity to punish John Major’s subsequent procrastination. We have seen that Clinton was ruthless enough to bomb an easy target like Sudan to divert attention from his extra-marital affairs. Is it conceivable that 25 of the I.R.A.’s toughest opponents were murdered as part of a deal to bring the terrorists on board the ‘peace process’? Of course it is unthinkable that the British intelligence services would sacrifice their own colleagues, but the Americans might feel no such sentimentality. The C.I.A. has a well-documented history of political assassination going back to its earliest days.
The Americans have full knowledge of R.A.F. movements. Indeed, a U.S. naval unit based at R.A.F. Macrihanish has taken part in C.I.A. operations.
Aircraft sabotage is no new phenomenon, but is increasing in frequency. Documents discovered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa have implicated both M.I.5 and the C.I.A. in the killing of UN chief Dag Hammerskjold in a plane crash in 1961. More recently Mozambique President Samora Machel was killed when his plane was apparently diverted along a false flight path over South African territory in 1986. Although the South African investigators blamed – you’ve guessed it – pilot error, electronic interference with the flight path is the most likely scenario. And there is every chance that the operation, not a particularly sophisticated one, was carried out by a former Rhodesian working for South African Special Forces. In September last year, a Jumbo jet approaching Heathrow lurched to one side and dropped sharply because passengers were playing electronic games and using laptop computers. These interfered with the autopilot. It was claimed that the crash of a Thai Airways jet, killing 101 people, might have been caused by mobile phones interfering with instruments. What can occur accidentally can surely be deliberately induced.
Considering the sophistication of the electronics and software found on a combat aircraft such as the Chinook Mk. 2, even more worrying possibilities apply. For some years it has been rumoured that software can be modified in warplanes so that a self-destruct mechanism can be activated in the event of the aircraft (or other military hardware) falling into enemy hands, or being sold to a country, which later becomes hostile. This has been suggested as a reason for the early collapse of the Iraqi forces during the Gulf War. It does not sound far-fetched to most software engineers today; in ten years time it will no doubt be taken for granted.
While we may never learn what happened to Chinook ZD576 in its last few minutes on the Mull of Kintyre on June 2nd. 1994, we do know that the beneficiaries were the I.R.A. and those seeking to deal with them. As the Dublin periodical The Phoenix wrote (July 1, 1994):
The Provos believe that the influence of the gung-ho men who died in the chopper may be replaced by that of bureaucrats from the Foreign Office and Secret Service (MI6) officers…. who have consistently been more flexible and less inclined to seek a new round of warfare.
On August 31st. 1994, just three months after the Chinook strayed off course into disaster, the I.R.A. declared a cease-fire.
1992 Two London explosions cause an estimated 800 million in insurance damage claims. (The total in Northern Ireland 1969-1992 was 615 million)
1993 April Bishopgate / Nat West Tower bombing costs an estimated 1000 million.
1993 June The first Intelligence conference at R.A.F. Macrihanish, including a Chinook flight from Aldergrove, as in 1994, passes without incident.
1993 September U.S. delegation led by Bruce Morrison meets Gerry Adams.
1993 November Mk. 2 Chinook cleared for operational service with the R.A.F.
1994 January Adams visits New York. On return claims the support of the Clinton administration.
1994 April Chinook ZD576 in the U.S. for servicing and refitting.
1994 April / May ZD576 experiences several unexplained software problems.
1994 June 1st. M.o.D. military testing establishment suspends flight trials of an upgraded Chinook after a series of FADEC-related malfunctions.
1994 June 2nd. 5.42pm ZD576 takes off from R.A.F. Aldergrove en route to R.A.F. Macrihanish.
1994 June 2nd. 5.55pm ZD576 is seen near Mull of Kintyre lighthouse in good visibility. Pilot radios change of waypoint.
1994 June 2nd. 6.00pm ZD576 crashes.
1994 August 31st. I.R.A. announces a cease-fire
Jack Holland & Susan Phoenix – Phoenix – Policing The Shadows, (1996)
The Phoenix magazine 17/6/94, 1/7/94
M.o.D. Press Release 15/6/95
Irish News, Belfast Telegraph 3/6/98
Guardian 27/5/99, 28/5/99.
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The writer is the Publisher of Ulster Watchman Magazine. He contributed above book review to Media Monitors Network (MMN) from the United Kingdom.