The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): In addition to my oral statement to the House today, I am taking this opportunity to provide the House with further details of the findings of the Royal Air Force board of inquiry into the tragic crash of the RAF Nimrod XV230.
On 2 September 2006, Nimrod XV230 took off from its deployed operating base at 0913 GMT, en route to Southern Afghanistan. It was on an essential operational flight in support of Coalition forces. At 1111:33, approximately 90 seconds after receiving 22,000 lbs of fuel from a Tristar tanker, the crew experienced almost simultaneous bomb bay fire and elevator bay smoke warnings. Smoke was observed in the cabin coming from both the elevator and aileron bays. Shortly afterwards, the aircraft depressurised. The crew commenced emergency drills immediately and at 1114:10 transmitted a MAYDAY alert and turned to head for Kandahar airfield. At 1116:54, the aircraft was observed by a Harrier GR7 pilot, apparently in a controlled descent, with flames emitting from the starboard wing root and starboard aft fuselage. Members of a Canadian Army unit also observed the aircraft as it passed to the south of their position. At 1117:39, the Harrier GR7 pilot reported that the aircraft had exploded and he observed wreckage striking the ground. The crash site was approximately 14 nautical miles west of Kandahar airfield, some 400 metres north-west of the village of Farhellah.
A combat search and rescue team deployed to the crash site at 1207 and confirmed that there were no survivors. At 1257, the Canadian unit which had observed the aircraft’s final descent arrived and secured the crash site. At 1430, they were reinforced by a 22 man patrol from 34 Squadron RAF Regiment. The crash site lay in a depression, surrounded by higher ground containing housing and, as such, was not easy to defend. The crew’s bodies, personal effects and classified items were recovered as a priority.
The following morning the Canadian unit was withdrawn to support other Coalition forces engaged in fighting with the Taliban, at which point several hundred locals began to enter the site. The security situation began to deteriorate rapidly and at 0910 the RAF regiment patrol was withdrawn by air. The majority of the wreckage was removed within a short period of time, probably by local nationals.
A board of inquiry (BOI) was convened to investigate the crash with an experienced ex-Nimrod Wing Commander nominated as its president, supported by two squadron leaders from the Nimrod force headquarters at RAF Kinloss. The board members were not able to visit the crash site due to the security situation in the area and had to rely on evidence collected by the units who initially secured the crash site and interviews with key witnesses. Crucially, the accident data recorder and a badly damaged section of the mission tape (containing crew intercom recordings and position information) were recovered. This allowed the inquiry team to reconstruct as far as possible the events leading up to the crash.
The board, using a combination of evidence collected in theatre and expert analysis, concluded that, as air-to-air refuelling drew to a close, fuel escaped. This was either as a result of the action of a pressure-relief device in the main fuel tank, leading to an overflow of fuel during air to air refuelling, or from a leak in a fuel coupling within the fuel system This fuel moved rearwards, either internally or along the outside of the fuselage. It was then ignited following contact with an element of the aircraft’s hot air system. The fuel probably gained access to the pipe at a gap between two types of insulation. The subsequent fire penetrated the pressure hull, causing the aircraft to depressurise and also probably began to weaken the starboard wing. The aircraft’s hydraulic systems probably failed in the latter stages of the incident as a result