The crash of an RAF Chinook Mk2 helicopter on the Mull of Kintyre on 2 June 1994, killing all 29 on board, is again in the news. Controversy continues to surround the verdict of the internal RAF Board of Inquiry conducted at the time. The RAF claimed that the Chinook had been serviceable and airworthy, and that its two experienced pilots were responsible and had been guilty of gross negligence. This outcome was convenient for the RAF, whatever the truth of the matter. But some new documents obtained recently by the BBC raise serious leadership questions, which we comment on below.
The so-called ‘new evidence’ consists of internal correspondence 9 months before the crash. It described the new ‘Fadec’ engine-control software as “positively dangerous” and said “pilots’ control of the engines cannot be assured”. Officials at Boscombe Down, the RAF’s aircraft testing centre, tried to have the Chinook fleet grounded over severe safety concerns with the software. But MoD officials gave the fatal flight permission to proceed. RAF officials today point out that this so-called ‘new’ evidence is old; it was known about at the time of the Inquiry.
Malcolm Rifkind, who was then Secretary of State for Defence, claims that he was not told about this evidence at the time. When the officials were questioned years later they acknowledged the problem with the software but had ruled it out as a possible cause of the crash and had therefore not brought it to the attention of ministers or the wider public. They stated that the documents were available to the Board of Inquiry but were not contained in its report, leaving some confusion over whether members of the Inquiry may have chosen not to consider them.
The way Rifkind describes it, the MoD officials’ communication process denied him and other junior ministers the opportunity to properly consider and question whether the software may have offered a possible explanation for the accident. Rifkind firmly believes that the Inquiry verdict is now in doubt and should be withdrawn on the basis that we simply don’t know whether or not the pilots were negligent.
A second new point to emerge is that when the chief accident investigator was looking into the cause of the crash, knowing that he himself lacked expertise in helicopters, he asked for help from the Chinook’s chief test pilot Squadron Leader Robert Burke. Burke began an unofficial trial to reproduce the control positions before the crash. He then received an order to stop his investigation and not talk about the accident to anyone, officially or unofficially. Burke expected to be called before the Inquiry to offer his expert view, but was not asked to appear. He was given no reasons for these decisions, but added “I’m a serviceman and I accept orders”.
At the time the Chinook was several years late in coming into service. The Army was subjecting the MoD to embarrassing pressure over this. The RAF was keen to demonstrate its confidence in the Chinook to the Army, and laid on this ‘showcase flight’, in the words of Burke. “As a result of the RAF’s assurances, the Northern Ireland office and the Army put on board the most valuable possible group of passengers it could, which was the heads of the security services in Northern Ireland, and it all went horribly wrong”. This passenger complement was a political and needlessly risky strategy, without considering the ‘shadow’ nature of the motives and rivalries between the services. One can easily see how a finding of pilot error was expedient and face saving.
In the intervening years, three further non-RAF inquiries have found the evidence inconclusive. Subsequent Secretaries of State for Defence have re-examined the evidence and have chosen not to reopen the case or modify the verdict. The RAF and MoD have refused to change their mind. But experience from Rifkind onwards raises questions about politicians’ willingness or powerlessness to challenge MoD officials’ opinions on the evidence and the process.
The above description shows the dysfunctional nature of old-fashioned hierarchical power and associated attitudes. It is horribly reminiscent of the Challenger Shuttle disaster in 1986. When I was Head of Management Training in British Airways, a long time ago, I recall frequent discussions about whether it was necessary or useful for managers to offer an explanation behind their decisions. Some believed that to do so undermined their authority, which should not be questioned. The question was asked: was it therefore sufficient for the manager simply to tell the recipient what the decision was and have it obeyed?
No doubt some of this old-fashioned thinking remains. But, by and large, things have moved on considerably since then. These are less deferential times. Nowadays, the talk is of distributed leadership, participation, relationships, challenge, critical followership. So, for how much longer can it be argued that older military officials who are permanently away from front-line theatres of war should be able to remain so firmly attached to their hierarchical and deferential model when it is patently no longer fit for purpose?
Younger MoD officials are faced with a question that needs to become more conscious: ‘What do you want to use your leadership for?’ Each is faced with a degree of personal choice of focus (notwithstanding the weight of the culture). That choice lies between a role that is political, defensive, inter-service competitive, manipulative, bureaucratic and tradition-maintaining. Alternatively, they may use their role to be reforming, collaborative, open, which entails risk-taking with their career.
There is a saying: ‘Never let a crisis go to waste’. Is a reopening of the Chinook Inquiry such an opportunity?