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Amid swirling fog, a huge Chinook helicopter smashed into the mountainside at the Mull of Kintyre: All 29 died when Zulu Delta 576 crashed in one of the RAF’s worst peacetime disasters… 30 years on, their families are set to mark the tragedy

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In the swirling evening fog of June 2, 1994, RAF Chinook helicopter ZD576 crashed into a remote mountainside on the Mull of Kintyre, killing all 29 people on board and resulting in one of the Air Force’s worst peacetime disasters.

The aircraft was transporting the elite of the UK’s anti-terrorist intelligence operations in Northern Ireland and as well as bringing heartbreak to their families, the crash set back the cause of peace in Ulster at a stroke.

Thirty years on, as the bereaved families prepare to mark this milestone anniversary, we present in gripping detail, a minute-by-minute account of this enduring tragedy.

The wreckage of the Chinook helicopter crash on the Mull of Kintyre

The wreckage of the Chinook helicopter crash on the Mull of Kintyre

Flight Lieutenants Jonathan Tapper (left) and Richard Cook, the two pilots of the RAF Chinook helicopter

Flight Lieutenants Jonathan Tapper (left) and Richard Cook, the two pilots of the RAF Chinook helicopter

Tuesday, May 31, 1994 – Zulu Delta 576 becomes the first of the upgraded Mark II-type Chinooks to be used in Northern Ireland when it arrives in the province two days before its ill-fated final flight.

Its highly trained four-man RAF crew belong to the elite Special Forces – the two pilots, Flight Lieutenants Jonathan Tapper, 30, and Rick Cook, 28, have thousands of hours of flying experience on Chinooks, while loadmasters Kev Hardie and Graham Forbes are skilled navigators. Hardie saw action in the Gulf War and helped drop the now famous Bravo Two Zero SAS patrol hundreds of miles behind enemy lines.

But the reliability of the Mk IIs, which have been given only a partial certificate of airworthiness, have sparked safety fears among some pilots, with one of ZD576’s engines replaced twice in the weeks leading up to the ill-fated flight. It prompts Cook to double his life insurance payments to £300 a month, and three times in the ten days before the crash he makes his father John, a former Concorde pilot, promise to look after his family in the event of an accident.

Shortly before the crash, Tapper asks permission to keep an extra Mk I on standby because of the Mk II’s ‘limited operational capabilities’. His request is refused.

Wednesday, June 1 The Chinook crew are tasked with transporting 25 anti-terrorism experts – including ten Special Branch RUC officers, nine Army intelligence officers and six Crown servants, five of whom work for MI5 – from RAF Aldergrove, near Belfast, to a security conference at Fort George, near Inverness.

The event is held annually outside Northern Ireland to review the year’s tragedies and assess the prospects of a peace settlement in Ulster.

Mourners at a memorial service in 2004 for the 29 people killed in the RAF Chinook helicopter crash

Mourners at a memorial service in 2004 for the 29 people killed in the RAF Chinook helicopter crash

Flt Lt Tapper plans a low-level route skirting the lighthouse on the southwest edge of the Mull of Kintyre, 42 nautical miles away, then north, hugging the coastline up the Sound of Jura before cutting through the Great Glen.

Thursday, June 2, Morning After a day of routine troop movements, ZD576 returns to RAF Aldergrove to collect its VIP passengers.

The conference is serving as a double retirement celebration weekend for two of the most senior officers on board, assistant chief constable Brian Fitzsimons, the head of RUC Special Branch, and the head of MI5 operations in Northern Ireland, John Deverell.

Some have packed golf clubs along with their top secret files.

5.30pm – The passengers are shown to their seats, arranged in two inward-facing rows along the sides of the aircraft.

The mood is upbeat as they wait for take-off, expecting to reach their accommodation in less than two hours.

Swathes of fog have been building and dissipating in the Irish Sea, while the Kintyre peninsula is swallowed up in low mist and light rain.

The Mull of Kintyre lighthouse has switched on its foghorn.

5.42pm The Chinook takes off from RAF Aldergrove with Cook as the operating pilot in the right-hand cockpit seat and Tapper, as non-handling pilot, to his left.

The crew make several routine reports to air traffic control and all seems well.

Within 20 minutes, all 29 people on board will be dead.

5.46pm Air traffic control officer Sinead Swift, 27, receives a final message informing her the helicopter has reached the boundary of Belfast international airport’s controlled airspace and was proceeding on its journey.

The brief routine message ended: ‘Good day.’

5.50pm Witnesses see the Chinook flying very low and making ‘a peculiar noise’ over the village of Carnlough on the Antrim coast.

A search party scours the area where the Chinook helicopter crashed on the Mull of Kintyre killing all 29 onboard

A search party scours the area where the Chinook helicopter crashed on the Mull of Kintyre killing all 29 onboard

Anne Tyler, 40, tells a fatal accident inquiry (FAI) that the twin-rotor craft ‘skimmed tree tops, roof tops [and] chimney pots’ as it left the Irish mainland.

She often hears military helicopters near her house and has a ‘gut feeling’ there is ‘something strange about the noise’ coming from the rotors.

5.55pm A crew member tries to contact the military’s Air Traffic Control at Prestwick in Ayrshire, but the call is not answered and the crew does not repeat the message.

There is no indication that it is an emergency call.

No further radio communications are heard from the aircraft.

5.56pm Out at sea, yachtsman Dr Mark Holbrook is battling with a sail change in blustery winds when the helicopter thunders past less than 400ft above him about two miles south-west of the Mull of Kintyre lighthouse.

‘It was flying very low and very fast, and I thought it was down looking at the sea for something specific,’ the scientific instrument maker recalls.

Through a break in the cloud, he can see the helicopter from about a quarter to half a mile away, its landing gear, markings and flashing light all visible.

He tells the FAI: ‘If you are seeking to establish whether the pilot could see the location of the Mull lighthouse, yes, I believe he could.’

The cloud then swallows the aircraft. Dr Holbrook is the last person to see ZD576 in flight.

5.57pm As they near the Mull of Kintyre, the crew make a conscious decision to change direction which should have taken them safely to the west of the lighthouse but, inexplicably, the Chinook continues straight on towards 1,400ft-high Beinn na Lice – the Mountain of Stone Slab.

The Chinook is travelling at 150 knots, far in excess of its normal cruising speed of 135 knots.

It should never go above 138 knots and at 142 knots, pilots experience ‘eyeball bounce’ when the Chinook shakes so violently that instruments become impossible to read.

At 150 knots, it would have taken all the pilots’ skills and knowledge to control the aircraft and quickly and accurately diagnose why the engine speed is involuntarily increasing.

5.58pm Lighthouse keeper David Murchie hears the distinctive beat of the approaching Chinook’s twin rotors drown out the foghorn but cannot see the aircraft through the ‘dense wall of fog’ that has cut visibility out to sea to less than 20 yards.

He wonders if it is going to land at the lighthouse’s helipad.

Wreckage from the Chinook helicopter which crashed on the Mull of Kintyre killing all 29 on board, including 25 top Northern Ireland security experts

Wreckage from the Chinook helicopter which crashed on the Mull of Kintyre killing all 29 on board, including 25 top Northern Ireland security experts

He cannot see that Flt Lt Cook is frantically pulling the ‘up’ lever to squeeze every last ounce of lift from the stricken aircraft.

Mr Murchie, an amateur pilot, said: ‘I became very concerned because I knew it did not have the altitude to clear the high ground. I heard what sounded like a dull thud followed by a lot of whooshing.’

Then there is silence.

5.59pm The Chinook slews sideways into the mountainside, its right side smashes into the lip of a cliff, shredding the drive shaft and shattering the blades.

Flt Lt Cook is ripped from his seat and hurled out.

A split-second later the floor of the central cargo area shears from the main body. 

The Chinook explodes in a fireball as 500 gallons of aviation fuel sprays like a flaming waterfall across the heathery ridge and into the sea 800ft below.

Yet the blazing wreck stays airborne cartwheeling up the mountain, the 51ft rear rotor blade scything chunks out of the remains of the aircraft’s mangled body.

It flips over and flies upside down, the blades gouging into the hillside, before skidding and breaking in two.

6pm Tourist Russell Ellacott, 35, and a friend are walking down the lighthouse road when the track behind them is consumed by flaming debris and top-secret documents caught in the wind.

‘There was smoke and things flying up in the air and landing all around us,’ he says. He likens it to ‘a firework display’ amid the wrenching of tortured metal.

‘The helicopter seemed to crash on the ridge we had just walked from,’ he adds.

The pair run back up the road to be confronted by a harrowing vision: ‘We tried to see if there was anything we could do to help but the smoke was too bad. About 100 yards later we came into a clearing and found a body.’

The wreckage of the Chinook Helicopter which crashed on the Mull of Kintyre killing all 29 on board

The wreckage of the Chinook Helicopter which crashed on the Mull of Kintyre killing all 29 on board

6.02pm Mr Murchie, 56, a former Glasgow policeman, calls to his wife, Margaret, to phone the emergency services then starts uphill on foot as the head keeper, Hector Lamont, 59, arrives back with the lighthouse Land Rover from a shopping trip with his wife, Helen, in nearby Campbeltown.

The two keepers take the vehicle up the hillside road but find their way blocked by aircraft debris, and the intense heat and thick smoke from the wreckage.

Mr Murchie gets out and walks into the debris field to offer help but can find no sign of life.

6.04pm Mrs Murchie’s 999 call is picked up, triggering a rescue operation.

Locals from the nearby village of Southend and workers from Carskiey Estate where the aircraft came down race over to help, while the first professionals on scene are a paramedic and a local doctor.

6.12pm Police alert the air-sea rescue centre at RAF Pitreavie, Fife, which despatches a Royal Navy helicopter from HMS Gannet at Prestwick, Ayrshire, and a Nimrod from RAF Kinloss to act as an aerial control centre due to the hilly terrain.

A second naval helicopter from Prestwick collects a medical team from Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital, while a helicopter from RAF Lossiemouth picks up the mountain rescue team from RAF Kinloss and another helicopter flies in from RAF Boulmer in Northumberland.

Campbeltown lifeboat is launched to check near the lighthouse for any survivors in the sea, while fire engines from Strathclyde Fire Brigade and RAF Machrihanish speed down to the Mull of Kintyre to assist.

All their efforts will prove in vain.

A scene from the Chinook helicopter crash which killed 29 people

A scene from the Chinook helicopter crash which killed 29 people 

6.30pm The first police teams and local coastguard volunteers are on the ground just as David Soudan, manager of Carskiey Estate for 30 years, arrives with his son.

‘It was horrific,’ he recalls, ‘there was a lot of smoke and mist, and visibility was never any better than 50 yards. Still, you could see debris strewn from the road to the crash, and further up towards the wreckage the bodies were scattered.’

7pm The mists lift and the sun briefly breaks through to reveal a picture of devastation. ‘It was just like a battlefield. A lot of the bodies were badly burned, with the heather all ablaze,’ says John MacMillan, a member of the auxiliary coastguard for 35 years.

Beyond the immediate horror of the blazing wreckage, a parallel security operation is gathering pace as an air-exclusion zone is imposed and police roadblocks seal off the crash site and officers prepare to turn back hundreds of journalists and TV crews descending on the Mull of Kintyre.

7.45pm Rescue has turned to recovery and medical teams start to leave the scene knowing there is nothing for them to do.

Ambulance crews are soon told to return to base and hospitals put on alert are also stood down. Pathologists conducting the post-mortem examinations will confirm that all 29 victims had died almost instantaneously, some so badly burned they have to be identified from dental records.

Some rescuers will suffer prolonged trauma from what they have witnessed.

Friday, June 3, Midday – Behind the police cordon, crash investigators are picking their way among the crumpled rotor blades, searching for clues.

There is no flight data recorder or cockpit voice recorder to aid their probe as neither was fitted to ZD576.

Later, police will place every piece of debris into evidence bags, while stray possessions, including a golf club and a toilet bag, are taken away separately.

Senior officers deny rumours that MI5 and special branch officers have also arrived to search for sensitive documents scattered over the square mile of the crash site.

A vast aircraft hangar at Machrihanish air base is now a temporary mortuary and the centre of the accident investigation.

Within its corrugated walls, behind high-security fences, experts start to pore over the debris removed from the crash site.

Saturday, June 4 Armed Forces minister Jeremy Handley inspects the remains of ZD576 which carried the cream of Northern Ireland’s anti-terrorist intelligentsia to their deaths.

His presence hammers home the massive security implications of the tragedy on this remote outpost.

The names of the dead are revealed Apart from the four crew, they number six MI5 officers, including Mr Deverell, 57; Stephen Rickard, 35; Michael Maltby, 57; John Haynes, 58; Martin Dalton, 37; and Anne James, 42; along with nine military personnel: Col Chris Biles, 41; Lt-Col Richard Gregory-Smith, 42; Lt-Col John Tobias, 41; Lt-Col George Victor Williams, 49; Major Richard Allen, 34; Major Christopher Dockerty, 33; Major Antony Hornby, 38; Major Roy Pugh, 37; and Major Gary Paul Sparks, 33.

Pictured: A Chinook helicopter on exercise

Pictured: A Chinook helicopter on exercise

Pictured: A Chinook Helicopter which pilots became wary of after the crash

Pictured: A Chinook Helicopter which pilots became wary of after the crash 

The RUC team led by Mr Fitzsimons, 52, included Det Ch Sup Dessie Conroy, 55; Det Ch Sup Maurice Neilly, 45; Det Sup Phil Davidson, 45; Det Sup Bob Foster, 41; Det Sup Billy Gwilliam, 50; Det Sup Ian Phoenix, 51; Det Ch Insp Denis Bunting, 39; Det Insp Stephen Davidson, 39; and Det Insp Kevin Magee, 44.

Sunday, September 18 Around 300 people gather on Beinn na Lice amid bitter winds for a memorial service to dedicate a stone cairn to the memory of the victims of the disaster. Among the mourners are Stella Rimington, head of MI5, RUC Chief Constable Sir Hugh Annesley, and the Army General officer commanding for Northern Ireland, Lieutenant General Sir Roger Wheeler.

Rev Andy McMullon, chaplain at RAF Aldergrove, tells them: ‘Looking forward in faith from this scarred hillside where the heather will soon burst into new life, we pray for all who face the task of rebuilding shattered lives.’

Aftermath In 1995, an RAF board of inquiry rules it is impossible to establish the exact cause of the accident but, to the horror of grieving families, the ruling is overturned by two senior reviewing officers, who find the pilots guilty of ‘gross negligence’ for flying too fast and too low in thick fog.

That finding proves highly controversial, given the history of technical problems linked to the Chinook Mk IIs in general and ZD576 in particular, which was retrofitted with a computerised engine control system known as FADEC, which controls the aircraft’s speed at all times and cannot be overridden by the pilot.

The following year, a fatal accident inquiry held at Paisley Sheriff Court rules the cause of the crash is ‘inconclusive’, and several subsequent inquiries, including an independent review in 2011, find the pilots should not have been blamed and accepts that the RAF falsely declared compliance with regulations in relation to the aircraft’s authority to fly.

The families eventually receive compensation totalling millions of pounds from the Ministry of Defence, yet the case continues to make waves following recent MoD decisions to lock away files relating to the accident for 100 years and not organise any official memorial service to mark the 30th anniversary.

Local minister Reverend Steven Sass, who is arranging a church-led ceremony taking in the memorial cairn, says: ‘I understand that some of the families feel upset about the lack of an official military-led memorial service, but we hope that the church can offer the comfort, respect and recognition that is deserved.’



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