A vital 39 seconds could have been gained for the pilots of two RAF aircraft to take avoiding action before their jets collided over the Moray Firth.
That was one of the main findings in a Military Aviation Authority (MAA) investigation into the fatal crash of two XV Squadron Tornado’s two years ago this week.
Investigators said collisions between military aircraft were a “common occurrence” in the early years of fast jet aviation, with an average of two instances a year through the 1980’s.
While these were dramatically reduced through a programme of improvement in procedures, a 1990 report into a collision between and RAF Tornado GR1 and an RAF Jaguar GR1A had concluded “purpose built electronic collision warning equipment will be evaluated and developed by the RAF over the next few years”.
However, a catalogue of failures by the Ministry of Defence meant that no such system was ever fitted to the Tornado fleet – despite its requirement being enshrined in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review which called for “a new collision warning system for the Tornado GR4 to enter service early in the next century”.
The lack of a collision warning system was one of the most damning of 17 failures outlined in the report into the crash that took the lives of two student pilots, Flight Lieutenant’s Adam Saunders and Hywel Poole, and weapons system instructor Squadron Leader Samuel Bailey.
The MAA report into the crash was published on Monday – over six months after it had been concluded.
In the report investigators revealed for the first time that Squadron Leader Bailey, a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, had developed a fear of flying – but despite telling medical staff and colleagues of that was repeatedly passed fit for instructor duties.
Air Marshall Richard Garwood, the director-general of the MAA, strongly criticised the “inadequate handling” of Squadron Leader Bailey’s condition. In the report he cited an accident in 2009 when the collision of an RAF aircraft and a glider over Oxfordshire had led to the death of an air cadet and his instructor.
Air Marshall Garwood said: “It is disappointing that, in this case, lessons appear not to have been learned from the 2009 accident and once again we find ourselves with a crew member directly involved in an accident whose fitness to fly was questionable – but continued to do so due to gaps in the interrelationship between medical and flying executive staffs.”
Of the reports 17 main findings it was the lack of a collision warning system that has drawn the greatest criticism in the direction of defence ministers.
The MAA report found that had such a warning system been in place both pilots would have had an extra 39 seconds in which to take emergency avoidance action after finding themselves flying just off the Caithness coast at exactly the same height during their individual training missions.
That finding prompted local MP Angus Robertson to comment: “This report is extremely distressing for the families involved and damning for the MoD.
“It finds the collision warning system would have prevented this tragic accident – a system which has been tested and recommended for the Tornado for over 20 years.
“It catalogues unacceptable delays, poor decision making and communication. There is now an overwhelming public interest case for a Fatal Accident Inquiry.
“It is scandalous that the MoD committed to a Tornado collision warning system in 1998, bizarrely cancelled it 12 years later, then changed its mind – but it was all far too late to potentially avert the fatal crash in 2012.
“This makes the tragic event of July 2012 even more distressing. The report highlights the delays of installing the system were financially driven. This is utterly unacceptable and a breach of the duty of care we rightly expect the MoD to provide and our service personnel to have.
“It is imperative that all lessons are learnt from the Tornado collision.
“I agree that the position of the MoD not to install these systems on current and future fast jets in unsuitable. The recommendation to install a system now is obviously welcome, but far far too late and the recommendation for the Secretary of State to hold a review into the procurement is not enough. It is clear that there needs to be a Fatal Accident Inquiry.”
In a statement to parliament defence minister Anna Soubry said: “The recommendations from the report have either been addressed or are in the process of being addressed.
“Our deepest sympathies remain with the families of those who lost their lives in this tragic accident.”