HC Deb 25 June 1986 vol 100 cc161-3W
Mr. Bellingham

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he will make a statement about the loss of an Army Gazelle helicopter in the Falkland Islands on 6 June 1982.

Mr. Stanley

I will set out, as fully as is possible at this distance in time, the circumstances surrounding the loss of the Gazelle.

2. On 6 June 1982, night flying conditions were excellent with a clear sky and a prominent moon and a wind speed of some 20 knots. There is no evidence of any restrictions on night flying. The Gazelle was flying from 5 Brigade headquarters, at Darwin, to Pleasant Peak, a distance of some 19 nautical miles. A radio rebroadcast station had been established there the previous day in order to provide a communications link between the headquarters and the 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment which had reached Fitzroy. There were problems with this link, and the Gazelle was taking spares and the officer commanding the Signals Squadron and a technician to investigate. It had been intended that the flight would go on to Fitzroy and then return to Darwin the next day. The helicopter's identification friend or foe (IFF) was switched off because it had been established that at that time the use of this equipment caused interference with other weapons systems critical to the battle. Five Brigade was in contact with the Gazelle until it was shot down, and those at the rebroadcast site saw an explosion and reported it to the headquarters almost immediately. It cannot now be ascertained with certainty whether any unit other than 5 Brigade was aware at that time of the helicopter's flight. At first light a search was mounted and the wreckage found. The two aircrew and two passengers were found to have been killed.

3. On the same day, 6 June, suspicions arose that the helicopter had been shot down by a Sea Dart missile fired from HMS Cardiff; but these suspicions fell well short of certainty, and indeed the situation was confused. The eastward advance of our forces through East Falkland was still in progress at the time, and the initial reaction to the loss of the helicopter was that there could still be Argentinians in the area. An investigation on the ground was unable to determine with finality whether Argentinian action or the missile from HMS Cardiff was responsible. In the circumstances of continuing operations it was decided that a board of inquiry was not required, and the helicopter was reported as lost in action. In view of the doubts about the cause, the commanders at the time understandably took the view that it would be wrong to add to the grief of the relatives by telling them that the Gazelle might have been lost as a result of an error on their own side.

4. After the conflict the investigation into the loss of the Gazelle was continued, and a study of missile fragments found in the wreckage commenced at the Royal Aircraft Establishment Farnborough in 1982. The coincidence of the Sea Dart firing and the Gazelle's loss at the same time and in the same vicinity had been noted, and a Sea Dart missile casing had later been found several hundred yards from the wreckage. However, the scientific tests by RAE in 1982 led to the conclusion that the missile fragments were not from a Sea Dart.

5. Drawing on this work, the Army Air Corps submitted evidence in December 1982 to the Southampton coroner who held the inquest into the death of one of those killed whose body had been repatriated. It was stated that scientific analysis of warhead fragments found in the wreckage indicated that the aircraft had been destroyed by an anti-aircraft missile of a type known to have been in the possession of the enemy. It is now known that this was not correct, and the coroner has been informed accordingly.

6. Since 1982 work has continued on the lessons of the conflict, and this led to the scientific evidence being assessed afresh. A review was carried out by RAE Farnborough in the latter part of 1985 of the findings of the 1982 tests by RAE to which I have referred. The 1985 review, which was completed in November, concluded that there could be no definitive conclusion as to the exact source of the missile fragments recovered from the crash site. This led the Ministry of Defence to conclude in the light of all the available evidence that the Sea Dart missile fired by HMS Cardiff must be adjudged the probable cause of the loss of the helicopter.

7. The question whether the relatives of those killed in the Gazelle should be told of the conclusions drawn from the revised assessment was given very careful consideration. The prime concern was to minimise the additional distress which such news would cause; however it was concluded that they should be informed, and this was done on 23 May.

8. With the benefit of hindsight, and divorced from the pressures of war, it is arguable that the 1982 decision not to hold a formal inquiry into the loss of the Gazelle was mistaken. Regarding the question whether the relatives of those killed should have been told earlier that the helicopter might have been lost through action by our own side, the deep concern of the Ministry of Defence has been not to cause further anguish to relatives until the facts were clear. We are very sorry indeed for any additional distress that the relatives have suffered.

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