On the anniversary of the worst RAF crash in peacetime, new evidence has been brought to light which could finally solve the mystery of what sent the UK’s top intelligence officers to their deaths over Scotland in 1994

TWENTY-SEVEN years ago this week the cream of British intelligence was wiped out when a Chinook helicopter crashed into a hillside on the Mull of Kintyre.

Onboard were a four-man Special Forces crew and 25 passengers, all UK intelligence officers tasked with fighting the Troubles in Northern Ireland. They were from MI5, the British Army and police Special Branch. It was the worst RAF disaster in peacetime.

The military eventually ruled that the two dead pilots were to blame, and found them guilty of gross negligence. However, as more evidence emerged over the years that there were problems with the Chinook, a 2011 independent review cleared the crewmen of fault.

Since then, the cause of the disaster has remained a mystery. If the pilots weren’t to blame, then what did cause the deaths of 29 people on the Mull of Kintyre on June 2, 1994?

RUC Special Branch Detective Superintendent Ian Phoenix was onboard the doomed Chinook. A former paratrooper, he was head of the Northern Ireland Police Counter Surveillance Unit and central to the fight against terrorism in Ulster.

Phoenix’s family has spent years demanding answers from the Ministry of Defence. His wife Susan is 72 and still works as a doctor of psychology, providing counselling to military veterans suffering from PTSD. His son Niven, 48, is a former RAF pilot who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Susan and Niven believe a former MoD aviation expert, David Hill, has uncovered a likely cause of the Chinook crash. Hill has unearthed evidence that electrical equipment, including phones and laptops, were onboard the helicopter, and the Chinook’s controls were susceptible to electrical interference.

Hill has brought out a new book this week citing the theory, called Inconvenient Truth, written with former RAF Air Commodore John Blakeley. The Phoenix family hold the MoD responsible for the Chinook deaths and are now planning a civil action for corporate manslaughter. They are currently looking for a good lawyer to represent them, they say.

Hill was a senior avionics programme manager for the MoD and an expert in helicopters. He wrote a previous book detailing how the Chinook pilots were cleared of culpability for the Mull of Kintyre disaster.

New evidence

His new findings have uncovered that there were devices such as phones onboard which posed a glaring safety risk. An Air Accident Investigation Board investigator told Hill that they recalled “seeing a collection [of] personal devices picked up from around the site, mostly cameras and phones”.

Official documents say investigators at the scene “found the remains of portable telephones and computers in the aircraft wreckage”. The phones were quickly removed from the crash site.

Susan Phoenix also recalls her husband Ian travelling with a mobile phone – which in the mid-1990s was “shaped like a brick”, she says. Phoenix also travelled with a computer. Most of those onboard are thought to have been travelling with one type of electronic device or another.

Electrical interference

HILL has discovered that in 1996 an amendment was issued in relation to what is called the “Release to Service” document for the Chinook – that’s the piece of paper which effectively says an aircraft is suitable to fly.

The amendment noted that “electronic equipment such as video cameras and laptop computers are potential sources of significant electro-magnetic interference (particularly from the monitor screens) and may interfere with Automatic Flight Control Systems, engine/fuel control units, radar altimeter, navigation and communications equipment, including the intercom and UHF radios”.

In 2011, the MoD denied the existence of this document to Susan Phoenix, she says, and later claimed, according to her, that she had been “inadvertently misled”. Susan feels she was “deliberately lied to”.

Importantly, in the wake of the crash, the military ruled out electro-magnetic interference as a possible cause. Official documents note it was concluded “that electro-magnetic interference was not a factor”. Nine months prior to the crash, however, an internal MoD document stated that the Chinook’s software was “positively dangerous”. One note by a senior engineering officer says “deficiencies” in the software meant pilot control of engines couldn’t be assured. Other documents show warnings and recommendations were ignored. One note written on the day of the crash said it was “imperative” that the “RAF should cease operations”.

A hazard analysis identified engine software as “safety critical” and said “any malfunctions or design errors could have catastrophic effects”. It was also noted that “21 category one and 153 category two anomalies have been revealed”. The report, written nine months before the Mull of Kintyre disaster, also notes: “The density of deficiencies is so high that the software is unintelligible … Pilot’s control of the engine(s) through FADEC (engine control computer system) cannot be assured”.

The Phoenix family and Hill, the avionics expert and investigator, say that proof of mobile phones onboard, coupled with proof that electronic devices could cause interference to flight control systems, taken together with evidence that the Chinook was not airworthy, comprise compelling new evidence that the MoD has a case to


History of problems

THERE was also a history of technical problems with the Chinook which crashed. On delivery in April 1994, an engine had to be replaced. A warning was sent to other Chinook units. On May 17, 1994, the same engine was replaced again. On May 25, 1994, a serious incident indicated problems with another engine. Two days before the crash, two other Chinooks were withdrawn by the RAF.

The Chinook FADEC system – Full Authority Digital Engine Control – had caused problems since 1989. Tests on Chinooks found FADEC software to be “unsuitable for its purpose”. In June 1994, Chinook test pilots had refused to fly until systems were improved.

Ian Phoenix’s son Niven says that the families of the Mull of Kintyre crash victims have endured “moral injury which compounds our physical loss”.

As a pilot himself, Niven says it’s obvious that electronic devices could interfere with aviation equipment. Only recently, a test pilot friend spoke to him about handheld devices interfering with “the altimeter of a Chinook”.

“When they turned the device on, the altimeter started moving up and down even though they were on the ground with the engine shut down. The altimeter is a vital piece of equipment, it’s a pilot’s basic instrument.”

He added: “Mobile devices are a

well-documented safety issue.”


THE Phoenix family believes key evidence has been suppressed in order to protect the MoD from blame for the crash. “When you’ve got 29 people dead because they smashed into a hillside in Scotland, you have to get answers – even if that takes 27 years,” Niven said.

As a pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan, Niven says he was aware first hand of how dangerous RAF aircraft could be for pilots to fly. He claimed that when he flew C-130 Hercules aircraft there wasn’t enough armour plating, and he and other pilots put “coils of chain underneath our seats to protect our asses – literally – from small arms fire”.

“Lack of safety management,” he said, “is endemic in the military. There’s a cultural dysfunction. Individual pilots were being asked to make up for system failures –whenever you do that in aviation you’re going to end up with dead bodies.”

The crashed Chinkook “should never have been in the air,” he says. “The aircraft was unairworthy. The testing wasn’t done correctly. Those two pilots were set up to fail. They were put in a terrible position.”

Niven says he wants to ensure the MoD is forced to improve safety so no more lives are lost.

Military arrogance

HIS mother Susan says: “I find the military arrogance intolerable. There’s been back-covering all along. It’s all about the old boys’ network closing ranks, and the MoD protecting itself time and again. The case has been one long round of lies and obstruction. It feels like the MoD thinks ‘if we keep the families at bay long enough, then they’ll just die off’. It’s been such a long time, that’s starting to happen.”

The MoD, she says, treated the crew and passengers onboard the Chinook as if “they were expendable. They seem to have thought it was cheaper to let people die than to fix equipment. They were happy to persecute those two pilots after they died to protect themselves.”

Reopening the case

BOTH Niven and Susan believe “it’s highly possible that electronic equipment could have interfered with the engine control systems”. They both want the case reopened. “We need more than the pilots cleared. We need to know what really happened,” they say.

Niven adds that “a police investigation might be a good idea as there may well be a case of corporate manslaughter to answer here”. His mother agrees. Susan is now searching for a good lawyer to take the case on for the family. “There’s a feeling of being impotent which comes over you after 27 years,” she adds, “but we aren’t going to give up fighting.”

Both Niven and Susan have seen their lives shaped immeasurably by their loss. Niven, now a commercial pilot, has set up a company called Kura Human Factors which works to protect pilot safety. “Dad’s whole ethos was about protecting life. That’s what I’m trying to do,” he says. “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without the loss of my dad.”

Susan still works as a psychologist with former military personnel dealing with mental health problems. “Ian would expect us to keep on and do what we’re doing,” she says.

Both Niven and Susan say the work of former MoD expert David Hill has been of paramount importance to their fight for justice. As an aviation expert, Hill says it was clear to him from the start that the truth wasn’t being told about the Mull of Kintyre crash. He felt he had to offer his expertise to the families, and has been investigating the disaster for years now.

Terrible burden

HILL, who grew up in Scotland, worked on Chinooks and Sea Kings with the MoD for years. He was a specialist, with high-security clearance, in electrical avionics and an expert in helicopter instruments, managing major development programmes for the armed forces. He has now passed his archive of material to the authorities on behalf of relatives of the dead like the Phoenix family in the hope that a new investigation will be launched. Hill has given material to the police, the prosecution service and the MoD.

“When the pilots were cleared it was obvious that if they weren’t to blame, then who was?” Hill says. The initial finding that the pilots were guilty was a “terrible burden for their families to carry”, he adds.

Once the pilots were cleared, however, Hill says, “the straightforward thing to do was to reopen the investigation to find out who or what was responsible for the crash. That didn’t happen.”

With the pilots cleared, Hill adds: “The MoD should have taken the opportunity to say ‘yes, we erred’.”

As there’s no settled explanation yet for what happened to the Chinook, says Hill, “the cause of death of the victims must be established – that’s a legal requirement”. The public was “grossly misled” and “evidence suppressed”, he claims.

“Common sense says this new evidence must be assessed,” Hill continues. “If this information had been made public 27 years ago, families wouldn’t have endured such heartache. If this was a murder inquiry and somebody had been found guilty and then cleared, the country would expect the inquiry to reopen.

“If the pilots were found grossly negligent in the past, we need to know who is grossly negligent now … Clearly, there are questions to be answered by individuals who have fallen short of the standards required.”

‘It was never airworthy’

HILL says he’s taken aback by what he describes as the “sheer scale of the suppression of evidence”. He says that the computer software onboard the Chinook was “dangerous”. The aircraft, he says, “was never airworthy”. It is also now clear, he says, that the MoD became aware that electronic devices could interfere with Chinook systems.

Hill says that the MoD should admit that it “misled” the families of victims and the public about what happened on the Mull of Kintyre. “They should say that in hindsight what we did is wrong and we misled by omission.”

Hill’s investigation shows that after the electronic devices were collected at the scene of the disaster, phones and laptops were removed by military authorities but there is no further information about what happened to them or what testing was done.

“It’s hard not to suspect that there’s been a conscious decision not to release any information regarding these devices,” he says.

“It’s important to note that the families were misled about these devices. They were told that such devices were benign. We know now they are not. Such devices could have caused the crash. That’s the heart of this story.”

The fact that the devices were removed is not in and of itself problematic, he says. It makes sense to secure electronic equipment owned by intelligence officers fighting terrorism in Northern Ireland. If such devices got into the wrong hands then security could be compromised and lives put at risk.

What is important is the silence surrounding evidence that the phones could have caused a system malfunction on the Chinook, Hill says. “Without this information the families have been constantly at a disadvantage,” he adds.

A sense of cover-up

AFTER the crash, Hill says, if it had been made clear that devices like phones were onboard, and could have caused systems to malfunction, “that would have changed the outcome of the initial inquiry one imagines”.

He adds: “We know the aircraft wasn’t safe. We know there were devices onboard. We know the devices could interfere with aircraft systems. None of this was made public. It all needs reinvestigated officially.

“Historically, the cause of the crash has never been established. This new evidence points towards a possible cause of the crash. The MoD has not been forthcoming with the truth.

“There’s a sense of cover-up about this. The issue of electronic devices adds weight to a series of other evidence which points to a technical failure.”

Hill believes that the cause of the crash was what is known as an “undemanded flight control movement” – where an aircraft is subjected to sudden motion which hasn’t been caused by a pilot.

“What could cause such a sudden movement? Without the matter of the electronic devices, there’s a very narrow range of things that could cause this to happen. If this information had been known at the time of the initial inquiries then the MoD would have been under pressure,” Hill says.

“There would have been such a political furore that the pilots would have had to be cleared.”

With the Chinook known to have prior “multiple system problems”, says Hill, “there’s evidence of what I would call ‘cascading electrical failure’, where problems in the electrical system were causing problem after problem”.

The disaster, he believes, was caused by this “cumulative effect” of system failures possibly triggered by an electrical device such as a phone or computer onboard.

All proceeds from Hill’s book will go to charity, he says.

What the MoD says

THE MoD told The Herald on Sunday: “The Mull of Kintyre was a tragic accident and our thoughts and sympathies remain with the families, friends and colleagues of all those who died.

“In 2010, the Mull of Kintyre independent review was carried out and the findings were fully accepted. The review did not find new evidence to suggest mechanical failure, and no safety issues with the Chinook Mark 2 were raised in the report.”

The MoD added that it “takes the safety of all personnel extremely seriously”, and that “to ensure our equipment operates at the highest standards we put safety right at the heart of our procurement activities”.