Fresh call to save Chinook disaster records

The Church of Scotland has issued a fresh call on the Ministry of Defence not to destroy records relating to a RAF helicopter disaster 25 years ago.

The General Assembly unanimously backed a motion calling for all documents relating to the Chinook helicopter crash on the Mull of Kintyre on June 2, 1994 to be “kept in a safe place and not deleted”.

Chinook Cairn
The memorial cairn in memory of the 29 people who died in the helicopter crash on the Mull of Kintyre. Wikimedia Commons

A total of 29 people died after the aircraft, which was on its way from RAF Aldergrove near Belfast to Inverness, crashed in a ball of flames.

Very Rev Dr Alan McDonald told the General Assembly that the Ministry of Defence had confirmed that records closed in 1995 and 1996 “will be reviewed for release or alternative disposal this year”.

The pilots, Flt Lts Jonathan Tapper and Richard Cook, were accused of gross negligence over the crash.

In 2003, the General Assembly called on the Ministry of Defence to "revisit" the tragedy while Jonathan Tapper’s father, Michael, watched from the public gallery.

Dr McDonald, who was convener of the Church and Nation committee at the time, said the families of the victims felt "encouraged and supported" after the Kirk took up their case.

A fresh review was ordered and in 2011 found that the pilots should not have been blamed and the earlier ruling was set aside.

But David Hill, a retired MOD helicopter engineer and Dr Susan Phoenix, whose husband RUC Det Supt Ian Phoenix was killed, recently said the review had no remit to inquire into the actual cause of the crash.

Very Rev Dr Alan McDonald

Dr McDonald, who lives in Cromarty in the Highlands, told the General Assembly that the response from the church on Mull of Kintyre and nationally was “much, much appreciated” by the families.

“It is widely recognised that this friendship and wider pastoral care has continued over the past 25 year,” he added.

“It has helped to offer strength and encouragement, no more so when the General Assembly of 2003 unanimously approved a deliverance supporting the families.

“Family members were present on that occasion and were so grateful that the Church had heard their voices at a time when they thought they had been forgotten by everyone.

“As we approach the 25th anniversary, I am sure those families would want to know that we still keep them in our thoughts and prayers.

“The Ministry of Defence is reviewing the records of the accident on the Mull of Kintyre, whether they should be retained or deleted.

“The families are once more feeling very vulnerable and their voices are being ignored again.

“Because of everything that has happened to them over the years, the families simply do not want these records to be deleted.

“Their preference is that the records are kept in a safe place where they can be easily assessed from now on.”

Dr McDonald, who was Moderator in 2006-07 and used to lead St Leonard’s Parish Church in St Andrews in Fife, said family members have expressed a hope that the Church of Scotland will “once again” speak out for them.

“They believe that we will do this because the Church of Scotland was there on the Mull of Kintyre when the families could not be there,” he added.

Constant companion

Dr Alison Elliot, the first female Moderator of the General Assembly, spoke out in support for the call.

She took part in a memorial service on Mull of Kintyre in 2004 to mark the 10th anniversary of the crash.

Dr Elliot said there was still a question mark over the circumstances of the accident that has never been satisfactorily resolved.

She said it is a “constant companion” for the victim’s families.

Dr Elliot said: “For their sake and ours too, it is important to preserve the records that we have.”

Rev Dr Richard Frazer, convener of the Church and Society Council, said members “whole heartedly” support the call.

Recalled the General Assembly debate in 2003, he said: “There was an enormous amount of pressure by the Ministry of Defence at the time, suggesting that our persistence in pursuing the truth of this was only extending and exacerbating the grief of families.

“The way in which the Church has stood by these families is a cause to be proud and grateful.”