Leaders: Unanswered questions haunt Clutha tragedy

Black box technology must be introduced to avoid a repeat of dark clouds of uncertainty hanging over Glasgow crash victims' families. Picture: Robert Perry
Black box technology must be introduced to avoid a repeat of dark clouds of uncertainty hanging over Glasgow crash victims' families. Picture: Robert Perry
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THE DAY which those affected by the tragic police helicopter crash into Glasgow’s Clutha bar almost two years ago had been waiting for has been and gone – and the victims’ grieving relatives are no further on.

A briefing carried out by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) ahead of the official publication of their final report into the tragedy threw up more questions than it gave answers.

The meeting with the AAIB on Wednesday night left families of the ten victims of the incident none the wiser, having faced a technically-focused briefing which they undoubtedly found quite difficult to listen to.

Some have expressed anger at the lack of information available to them, others have accepted that the AAIB has done its best, but are unable to provide them with more.

It is possible that the final report may make things clearer, but for now, relatives are still unsure what happened, having been told of some uncertainty surrounding fuel switches which should have been on, but were off when crash investigators examined the helicopter.

However, no information was given to them about the rate of descent into the building, or its altitude when the problems occurred.

One issue which has been raised by the families of the victims is whether helicopters – like aeroplanes – should carry black box recorders which would give crash investigators far more information than is currently available. Some black boxes monitor technical parameters, which allows experts to work out exactly when and why an aircraft began a descent – while others incorporate a voice recorder which preserves the sounds in the cockpit, including the conversation between the pilots or occupants of the helicopter.

Some helicopters – estimated to be not much more than one in 20 – already operate black box technology. But the vast majority do not.

Legally, only commercial aircraft above a certain weight are required to be fitted with the technology, meaning police helicopters like the one which crashed into the Clutha bar are among those exempt.

Introducing regulations which require all helicopters to have a black box seems to be a sensible suggestion which is hard to argue with. Indeed, it has been an issue which has seen some movement in recent times, with aviation manufacturer Airbus pledging last year that it would roll out black boxes to its entire helicopter fleet.

In recent years, it has not been unknown for helicopters to fall out of the sky – in August 2013, a helicopter crashed in the North Sea killing four oil rig workers in the fifth serious incident involving Super Pumas in as many years.

And while the installation of a black box would make no difference to the outcome of any accident, it would provide some comfort to those whose loved ones die in such a tragedy to know exactly what happened – and invaluable information to investigators who could use such intelligence to help prevent similar events from occurring.

Installing such equipment in every helicopter currently in operation may be expensive, but in the circumstances, this is a cost which cannot and should not be avoided. Indeed, it is something which should have been done before now.

Council tax can’t be frozen in time

Enough is enough, Edinburgh Council has said. Eight long years of a council tax freeze – a vote winner in some places for the SNP administration – has left it unable to function. It needs taxes to rise and is to ask the Scottish Government to allow it to do so.

The Scottish Government, which has helped fund the freeze by providing an extra £70 million each year – included in the local government finance settlement – would argue that its pledge, while also a popular policy, has held councils to account over their spending.

The trouble is that eight years later, council budgets have gone past breaking point. Services have been cut back and withdrawn to help make ends meet, and thousands of council workers are facing losing their jobs.

Edinburgh Council has admitted that it has assumed in its budget projections that the tax will begin to rise, by 3 per cent a year, from 2017 – or it will be forced to make even more cuts. This after it has already struggled to balance its books and after it announced it needs to chop 2,000 staff, a number which has not yet been achieved through voluntary redundancy, leaving workers facing the prospect of compulsory redundancy.

And it is not alone. North Lanarkshire Council also said yesterday that it will have to cut 1,095 full-time posts in a bid to save £68.3m over the next two financial years.

The pledge to freeze council tax might have worked for the Scottish Government, but if this is the consequence, then it has gone on too long. Politicians either need to give councils the ability to raise the revenue they need to maintain services, or reveal the “fairer” new system which it would propose to replace the council tax. The government might well fear an electoral backlash for raising the council tax, but at this rate, there is a backlash coming anyway.