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By David Guyatt

Nestled between the Firth of Lorn and Mull Sound on the south-west coast of Scotland, the Mull of Kintyre is habitat to an abundance of wildlife - including rock star Paul McCartney, who has a house there.  It is also home to a very secretive military installation that houses, amongst others, highly trained US Special Forces Navy commandos known as SEALS.

 At about 5.30 p.m. on 2 June 1994, a British army Chinook helicopter, bearing the designation Zulu Delta 576, took off from RAF Aldergrove, Northern Ireland, under the tightest possible security blanket.  The Chinook, painted a matt "black on black," signified it was one of the aircraft used by elite special forces on a variety of secretive missions.  Bristling machine guns that poked out of firing ports, the aircraft also sported an elaborate web of aerials protruding along the length of one side.

 The 25 passengers aboard were some of the most senior members of Britain's intelligence community, including MI5, Army Intelligence, the SAS and senior figures in the RUC's Special Branch.  They were heading towards Inverness, Scotland, to attend an annual "Security Conference" in the company of the Home Secretary.  As soon as the Chinook was airborne, the passenger list was "shredded" for security reasons.

 Leaving Northern Ireland airspace, the pilot, 28-year-old Jonathan Tapper, contacted Prestwick Air Traffic Control centre by radio to announce his flight: "Scottish military.  Good afternoon.  This is Foxtrot 4 Juliet 40."  Prestwick didn't respond.  It was to be the last message transmitted by Zulu Delta 576. 

 Mark Holbrook, a civilian was sailing three miles off the Mull when he saw the Chinook, flying low - between 200-400 feet - moving quite fast in a steady line.  The helicopter appeared to have no problems as it passed within a quarter of a mile of his dinghy.  Holbrook noted it was heading towards the mass of clouds and mist that obscured the top of the Mull from sight.

 A few minutes later, at about 6 p.m., the helicopter crashed into the Mull of Kintyre and was torn into a thousand pieces.  The initial impact ruptured the aircraft's fuel tanks spreading aviation fuel in its wake.  The fuel immediately ignited causing a raging inferno.  According to Russell Ellacott, an on the spot witness, it was like "a firework display coming up through the mist."

 Hector Lamont, a local lighthouse-man was driving Ellacott in his car down the local coast road towards the lighthouse station.  He heard the rotors of the helicopter seaward of their position and was worried it was too low and might crash in the thick mist.  Seconds later it did, flipping over their car in a giant cartwheel, before coming to rest above and behind them, high up on the craggy Mull.  Both men raced to the crash site, as the fires flickered out, only to discover wreckage and bodies spread in all directions.  There were no survivors. 

 The crash caused panic and consternation in Whitehall.  The Home Secretary, who was, by now, flying towards Inverness for the security conference decided to turn back.  In Whitehall, suspicions that the IRA was responsible were topmost in the minds of many.  A military "cordon sanitaire" was placed around the wreckage and military accident experts converged on the spot.

 At about 7.20 p.m. that evening, Flight Lt. Rick Cook's wife, Sarah was watching TV waiting for Eastenders to begin.  Suddenly, newsreader, Michael Burke, flashed on the screen announcing that a military helicopter had crashed on the Mull of Kintyre.  Sarah knew it was her husbands aircraft and intuitively realised he was dead.

 It took over a year for the Ministry of Defence to announce the conclusion of their inquiry.  Rick Cook's father, John, together with his daughter in law, Sarah, were invited to RAF Odiham - home base to the 30 strong fleet of Chinooks - in late June 1995, to hear the findings.  John Cook, a former RAF pilot, commercial pilot and Concorde test pilot was in little doubt that a verdict of "pilot error" would be announced.  This, he knew, actually meant - once translated from official jargon - that no cause for the crash could be found.  In plain language, "pilot error" simply meant an open verdict.

 A wing commander handed him a copy of a Press Release due for release at Noon.  Cook was astonished to read the conclusion stating both pilots were guilty of "gross negligence," the worst possible charge a pilot can face.  He asked the wing commander "why?"  The RAF officer gave him a copy of the 43-page military accident inquiry report to read.  As he read this he realised there was no evidence to support the conclusion.  In fact, the president of the board of inquiry, Wing Commander Andy Pulford, was "unwilling, based on the available evidence, to criticise either of the two pilots for 'human failings.'"  

 Bemused and not a little angry, John Cook told the wing commander there was no evidence to support the findings and again asked "why?"  The wing commander simply said "read on."  At the end of the report, a note was included written by Air Vice Marshall J.R. Day, Air Officer Commanding No. 1 Group.  In this, AVM Day had personally determined the pilots had been guilty of gross negligence.  Air Chief Marshall, Sir William Wratton, endorsed this conclusion. 

 Both senior officers were, in fact, contravening RAF standing regulations that state finding of "negligence" must be supported by evidence, and the report clearly demonstrated no such evidence existed.  It was apparent the inquiry, supposed to be professional and aloof, had become political.  As far as John Cook was concerned this was a declaration of war and he determined not to rest until his sons sullied reputation was restored.  In time, facts would emerge that showered a series of grave doubts on the inquiry conclusion and how it had been handled.

 If there was any fortune for the families of this tragic event, it was that the Chinook had crashed in Scotland and was subject to Scottish law.  This is widely known to be impartial and less prone to political pressure from Whitehall.  As a matter of routine, a "Fatal Accident Inquiry" - equivalent to a judicial inquest - was established in a courtroom on the outskirts of Glasgow, under the able guidance of Sheriff ( a Scottish judge), Sir Stephen Young.  This inquest would allow the families barristers to cross-examine the RAF and introduce additional relevant evidence.  Concerned at having to undergo this hearing they could not control, the RAF let it be known that they doubted a civil judge could "master such a technical brief."

 After taking evidence, Sheriff, Sir Stephen Young concluded he could not determine what had caused the accident.  He disagreed with the conclusion reached by Chairman of the RAF Board of Inquiry, believing there was no evidence whatsoever to support the finding of gross negligence.  In the light of this, it was expected the RAF would modify their finding to bring it into line with the lawful conclusion of the Sheriff.  But, the RAF did not feel compelled to do this, leading many observers to deduce that other vital factors actually lay behind the crash and that the two pilots had been "scapegoated."  

 It would take another three years before a number of intriguing facts emerged that were to cast an entirely new light on the circumstances of the crash.  These were first aired in June 1998 by Channel Four's top documentary programme "Cutting Edge."  The programme, made by independent film makers Palladin Pictures, called The Last Flight of Zulu Delta 576, producer David Harrison, focuses on a computer software suite called FADEQ that controlled the Chinook's engines.

 Moreover, just three weeks before the crash, ZD 576 suffered a "serious failing of the control system.  These were summarised by the RAF Board of Inquiry "The Chinook Mk 11 had experienced a number of unforeseen malfunctions mainly associated with engine control system, un-demanded engine shutdown, engine run-up, spurious engine fail captions and misleading cockpit indications."

 Former Rolls Royce Aviation Engineer, Malcolm Perks was recruited by the MOD in 1994, as an expert consultant to investigate problems with the Chinook FADEQ system that dated back to 1989.  Perks discovered that work contracted out to an American contractor, Textron Lycoming, was unsatisfactory.  Perks said of the company "They were not doing the job they were paid to do," and included software "faults" that should never have been present.  The MOD were infuriated by these faults that put at risk the planned upgrade for the MK11, and sued Boeing, the aircraft manufacturer and Textron Lycoming.  Boeing later settled out of court, but Textron Lycoming went to arbitration.  Perks presented the MOD case, winning $3 million in damages.  Despite his clear knowledge and expertise on the Chinook's FADEQ system, Perks was never brought into the RAD Board of Inquiry.

 Meanwhile, the MOD contracted a company of computer software specialists, EDS Scicon, to independently assess FADEQ's computer codes.  Unable to analyse more than 20% of the codes, EDS never-the-less discovered almost 250 "anaomalies."

 Another expert, then a serving Squadron Leader in the RAF, was the legendary Robert Burke, the Chinook test pilot at RAF Odiham.  He had put the Chinook through every conceivable manoeuvre over the years and survived.  After leaving the RAF, he was free to speak and revealed that the main flaw of the Chinook Mk11, was the FADEQ software system and its lack of effective control over the engines.  He had personally experienced a terrifying example of this, when a Chinook he was piloting suddenly ran-up the engines to maximum and commenced to gain altitude at a dizzying pace.

 Meanwhile, test pilots at the MOD's top security airfield, Boscombe Down had pointedly refused to fly the Mk 11 considering it too unsafe.  The day following the fatal crash, the Electronic Assessment Unit at Boscombe Down had sent a memo to the MOD.  This listed their continuing problems with FADEQ.  The memo stated the system was "unverifiable and, therefore, unsuited for its intended purpose."  Asked to fly the aircraft back to its base at RAF Odiham, the Boscombe pilots refused.  Instead, Squadron Leader was dispatched by car to fly the machine back to Odiham.

 Despite these numerous facts, the MOD maintain that the Chinook Mk 11's FADEQ system was "irrelevant" to the crash of Zulu Delta 576.  Such was the extent of this blinkered view that none of the foregoing memo's or expert testimony on the system was submitted by the RAF or MOD to the Scottish Inquest.

 The passenger mystery

 One further mystery surrounding Zulu Delta 576 remains to this day.  This centres on the 25 passengers, all high level security and intelligence personnel.  It is against "standing orders" for such a large number of VIP's to travel in one single aircraft, precisely because of the possibility of sabotage or a fatal accident.  Quite why this occurred remains a mystery that the Ministry of Defence does not feel compelled to make public.  This fact continues to agitate a number of investigators who consider the breach of security protocol sufficiently curious to warrant an honest answer.

 Sabotage and the transponder?

 Within days of the crash, a number of former and serving Special Forces, including former SAS personnel, were questioning the possibility of sabotage to Zulu Delta 576.  Firstly, they considered it curious that the Mull houses a secretive military facility that is home to a unit of US Navy SEALS, a top-grade Commando force associated with "black operations," including assassination.  Concern also focused on the aircraft transponder situated on the Mull.  This electronic signal pulses out, among other vital information, details of height.  It can easily be altered by the turn of a screwdriver - and then reset again, leaving no trace of foul play.  However, despite intense investigation no corroboration of these consideration emerged.

 The flight map: further evidence of FADEQ faults?

 Flight Lieutenant Rick Cook's flight map shows that the planned route of Zulu Delta 576 was to head towards the Mull.  However, it wasn't planned to over-fly the Island but, instead, turn left on the approach, and travel northwards.  It would later dogleg to the right as it headed across Scotland for Inverness, its ultimate destination.  Meanwhile, the Chinook Mk2 had experienced terrifying power surges, known as engine "run-ups" that suddenly catapult the helicopter forwards.  More than any other evidence, the flight map suggests the Chinook might have experienced such a problem.  Forced to fly at low altitude, a sudden surge like this would have left the crew powerless to regain control.

 Double jeopardy, the problem of altitude 

The Mk 2 Chinook was known to suffer from serious limitations as far as "icing" was concerned.  These faults meant the aircraft was unable to safely fly at high altitude, the normal operational "envelope" for flights carrying passengers.  According to the testimony of Captain Ralph Kohn, a former senior inspector for the Civil Aviation Authority, this inhibition contributed to the crash as the pilot's would have flown above the "minimum safe altitude."  It is, therefore, believed more than a bit cynical of the MOD to criticise the pilots in the Inquiry report, for "wrongly" flying "below a safe altitude," something they were ordered to do both for reasons of safety and security.

 The Chinook, the workhorse of the US Army

 Made by Boeing Aircraft Corporation of America, the Chinook is regarded as the US Army's "work-horse."   The aircraft came to prominence during the Vietnam war where it flew countless thousands of missions and established a reputation as "battle-proven."  In more recent years, it served in the Gulf, during Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm where it participated in the largest ever helicopter assault in history.  This took place on 24 February 1991, the day the "ground war" commenced.  Today, there are over 1,000 Chinooks operational across the world.  The Special Forces variant of this aircraft bristles with machine guns air to air missiles and electronic counter-measures.  With a large "airlift" capacity it can carry 50 troops or a combination of field artillery howitzers and/or tracked vehicles


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