Thursday, December 17, 2009

RAF officers investigated over Nimrod crash

Richard Norton-Taylor

Two senior RAF officers criticised in a devastating report into the crash of an Nimrod aircraft over Afghanistan with the loss of all 14 people on board are being investigated by military police, Bob Ainsworth, the defence secretary, said today.

He also announced that a new Military Aviation Authority would regulate, independently audit and monitor all military aviation activity, and said a review was under way into the way the MoD drew up contracts with arms companies.

Ainsworth was responding to a report in October by Charles Haddon-Cave QC, who referred to systemic and "lamentable" failings by the MoD, Britain's biggest arms company, BAE Systems and the privatised defence research company Qinetiq. He said the crash of the ageing Nimrod – involving the biggest single loss of life of British service personnel since the Falklands war – could have been avoided if those in charge of ensuring the safety of RAF aircraft had been more responsible.

Haddon-Cave, an aviation expert, said safety had become secondary to cost at the MoD. He described the Nimrod's production as "a story of incompetence, complacency and cynicism".

The two officers being investigated by the RAF police are Air Commodore George Baber and Wing Commander Michael Eagles. They have not been suspended but Ainsworth told MPs that neither man currently held any safety-related position.

Baber led the integrated project team responsible for a safety review of RAF Nimrods from 2001-05. Haddon-Cave accused him of a "fundamental failure of leadership" in drawing up the "safety case". His performance "fell well below the standard that might be expected of someone in his position at the time". Haddon-Cave described Baber's "personal failure to take reasonable care" and "to make safety his first priority".

Eagles was criticised for failing to perform his role and exercise proper supervision in managing production of the Nimrod's safety review. He failed "to give adequate priority, care and personal attention to the … task. He failed properly to utilise the resources available to him within the Nimrod [project] to ensure the airworthiness of the Nimrod fleet."

Haddon-Cave's report said design flaws played a "crucial part" in the loss of the Nimrod, from the fitting in 1969 of the hot air piping whose design is believed to have caused the crash on 2 September 2006, to the fitting of air-to-air refuelling changes in 1989 which increased the risk of a fire. The report said BAE Systems "deliberately did not disclose to its customer the scale of the hazards". The new Military Aviation Authority would ensure that the MoD and its industry partners were operating to "the highest safety standards", Ainsworth said.

Haddon-Cave referred to severe financial pressures and "deep organisational trauma" within the MoD between 1998 and 2006. Ainsworth said today that there would be reforms to the "bureaucratic" way safety concerns were handled, and an audit of all current cases that would be completed "in the next couple of weeks". He also said he had a "personal commitment" to improving safety of military aviation and apologised "for the part my department played in failing to prevent [the Nimrod accident]".


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