Norfolk pilot cleared of blame for Chinook disaster
After 17 years of injustice, a Norfolk pilot was last night cleared of causing the worst peacetime disaster in the RAF's history.
Flt Lt Jonathan Tapper was one of two airmen blamed for the catastrophic crash of a Chinook helicopter on the Mull of Kintyre in 1994, killing all 29 people on board.
Some of the nation's leading counter-terrorism experts perished in the accident, along with the crew.
An initial RAF inquiry ruled that both Flt Lt Tapper and his co-pilot, Flt Lt Richard Cook were guilty of 'negligence to a gross degree' for flying too low and too fast.
But yesterday, defence secretary Liam Fox told the House of Commons he had accepted the findings of an independent review, chaired by retired judge Lord Philip, which unanimously found there was insufficient evidence to support a conclusion of negligence.
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Mr Fox offered a public apology on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, and said discussions about possible compensation would be held at a later date.
Campaigners including Flt Lt Tapper's father Mike, who lives in Burnham Thorpe near Wells, have always maintained that faults with the Mk2 aircraft could have caused the crash.
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Mr Tapper, whose wife Hazel died before seeing justice done for her son, said: 'This, today, is closure.
'The important part was (Hazel) had Parkinson's disease but never gave up the fight to clear Jonathan's name.
'First of all, the original decision was extremely suspect, but the whole bureaucracy of the RAF and the MoD has a lot to answer for. I think it was easier to blame the dead than the living. It was a wooden-headed decision which permeated the whole system, and it cannot be allowed to happen again.'
Mr Fox told MPs that the review was set up following continued criticism of the official conclusion of negligence, as well as 'my own fear that an injustice had been done'.
'The review concludes that this finding should be set aside,' he said. 'I hope that this will bring some comfort to the families of the pilots and I would like to apologise on behalf of the MoD for the sorrow which was caused to them by this finding.
'I hope that the conclusion of this review and the action I have taken in response to it will bring an end to this chapter by removing this stain on the reputations of the two pilots.'
North West Norfolk MP Henry Bellingham, who has campaigned on behalf of the Tapper family, said: 'Both pilots were incredibly professional and the original finding was a dreadful injustice, and one that their families were quite rightly determined to fight. This really is a day when justice has been done, and I am very pleased that the secretary of state and his ministers have listened to us.'
Mr Fox said the report did not purport to identify the reason for the crash, nor did it give any support to the suggestion of technical failure of the aircraft. He conceded that the exact cause of the disaster may never be known. But he said it was his intention that the review would 'draw a line' under the investigation to prevent further anguish for the families of those lost in the accident.
The initial RAF board of inquiry was led by two air marshals – Sir William Wratten and Sir John Day.
Mr Fox said the now-retired officers had acted in good faith and were in no doubt that their findings were correct.
But he said legal advice offered to them had subsequently been found to be incorrect, while the doubts expressed by other 'competent persons' were enough to overturn the original ruling. Lawyers representing the pilots' families said a finding of gross negligence could only be made against deceased air crew 'in cases where there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever'.
The report also revealed Flt Lt Tapper had expressed concerns that he felt 'unprepared to fly the aircraft.'
Mr Fox, quoting from Lord Philip's report, said: 'We were told that Flt Lt Tapper telephoned his deputy flight commander on the evening before the delivery of ZD 576 to Northern Ireland expressing concern that some time had passed since his conversion training. He felt unprepared to fly the aircraft.
'He had attempted to persuade the tasking authority to spread the load between more than one aircraft, but his request had been refused.'