TWO separate investigations began yesterday into why a #30m Nimrod

surveillance aircraft ditched in flames in the Moray Firth.

The aircraft was only half an hour into a test flight, its first

following six months of major servicing and maintenance at RAF Kinloss,

when the seven-man crew was forced to ditch in the sea because of

serious engine fires.

Eyewitnesses reported seeing flames trailing from its starboard

engines within minutes of it taking off from Kinloss.

There were immediate fears for the lives of the seven crew members but

the Nimrod's captain, Flight Lieutenant Art Stacey, made a controlled

landing in the sea, ensuring that the crew members could be winched off

by helicopter without serious injury.

Two investigations were launched by an RAF board of inquiry and the

Air Accident Investigation Branch of the Civil Aviation Authority.

There was great praise for the captain's skill, which allowed what was

described as a textbook rescue. Kinloss Squadron Leader John Horrocks

said: ''I think he did exceptionally well getting it down in one piece.

It was a fine piece of aircraft handling.''

Group Captain Bob Joseph, the base's commanding officer, said they had

been fortunate such an experienced pilot had been in charge and that the

sea had been like a millpond.

He had visited Flt Lt Stacey at Gray's Hopital in Elgin, where he and

another crew member had been taken because they had been complaining of

back pains.

''They are perfectly all right. Flt Lt Stacey did an outstanding job

today, without a shadow of a doubt, to save the lives of his crew. He is

in good shape, laughing and joking, and the rest of the crew are

similarly in good shape.''

The RAF categorically denied reports suggesting that there had been a

fire on the same aircraft earlier in the week.

The Nimrod, from 51st Squadron RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire, is

understood to be one of only three specifically designed for electronic


Its electronic equipment had been removed before going to Kinloss for

servicing but its specially modified airframe will be a serious loss to

the RAF.

Group Captain Joseph said he did not talk to the pilot in detail about

what had happened but he understood that Flt Lt Stacey had been trying

to come back to RAF Lossiemouth for an emergency landing.

The Nimrod had taken off at 10.53am on what was planned to be a three

or four-hour test flight. At 11.22, the crew sent a distress signal and

at 11.26, had completed a controlled landing at sea, three miles north

of Lossiemouth.

A Sea King helicopter from RAF Lossiemouth, which was already airborne

in the area and knew of the Nimrod's difficulties, arrived on the scene

at 11.32 and all seven crew were winched to safety. Buckie and

Invergordon lifeboats had also been launched.

The helicopter pilot spoke of his horror as he watched the burning

aircraft plunge into the sea after hearing the calm voice of the pilot

give the chilling standard final call of an aircraft in trouble over the

sea: ''Ditching, ditching, ditching.''

Squadron Leader Bob Somerville was on a training exercise over the

Moray Firth when air traffic control alerted him of the distress signal

from the aircraft.

He said: ''The Nimrod was 13 miles north-east of Lossiemouth and I was

about 20 miles west of the Nimrod. The Nimrod pilot said he was

diverting to Lossiemouth and I adjusted my course to head for there as

well. It took me five minutes to get him in sight and we were flying

roughly towards each other.

''I was about three miles away and I could see the flames streaming

from the aircraft. There was quite a glow. The pilot then gave the

standard ditching call.

''He was very cool and calm and obviously in control of his aircraft.

I saw it plunge into the water at about 145mph, landing tail first. It

was a remarkable piece of flying by him. I was alongside in two


He added: ''The aircraft was floating nicely on the surface, and the

crew were already in their survival dinghy. They paddled away from the

aircraft and we picked them up. They didn't say much, just that they

were relieved that they were safe. Two of them had minor back injuries

and, after dropping the other five at Lossiemouth, I took them to

hospital in Elgin.''

His winchman, Sergeant Nick Lambert, suffered burns to his hands after

being splashed by burning fuel.

Mr Robert Newlands, an offshore worker who saw the aircraft coming

down from his home in Lossiemouth and viewed the drama through his

telescope, said: ''Flames seemed to be coming out of the wing and then

it just landed on the water. They obviously knew what they were doing

when they landed it.

''There was a helicopter there almost straight away, a grey Sea King,

followed shortly afterwards by a yellow Sea King. People came out the

top and liferafts were launched. They were off in minutes.

''The plane stayed afloat for about 10 minutes and then just went


Squadron Leader Horrocks said he was aware that there was an

eyewitness account which suggested the two starboard engines had gone on

fire but he could not confirm it. He said it was possible to fly a

Nimrod on just two engines in one wing but that would depend on the

other damage suffered.

The Nimrod weighed between 50 and 60 tonnes and he estimated it was

now lying in about 100ft of water. Every effort would now be made to

salvage the aircraft.

* A crewman on a naval reserve buoytender was killed yesterday in an

accident off South Uist in the Western Isles.

It is understood the civilian crewman was crushed between two massive

metal buoys on the deck of the Royal Maritime Auxilliary Service vessel,

the Salmaster.

The coastguard helicopter, based at Stornoway on Lewis, was scrambled.

The helicopter picked up a doctor at Benbecula on the way. He was

lowered on to the vessel with the winchman.

The 150ft vessel, which services buoys and other navigation markers,

was at Loch Carnan, north-west of South Uist.

The crewman was pronounced dead immediately. He had been found by his

crewmates crushed between the heavy metal buoys which are more than 12ft


The helicopter took the body to Western Isles Hospital in Stornoway.

Police from Benbecula last night were making arrangements to go to the

Salmaster, which was still at anchor in Loch Carnan, to interview the


A Royal Navy spokesman said no statement would be made until the dead

man's relatives had been informed.