Alastair Dalton: Independence of AAIB must be respected

THE final report into what caused the Clutha helicopter crash is expected shortly – and with it the end of a painstaking 18-month expert investigation.
The Clutha helicopter crash happened in November 2013. Picture: PAThe Clutha helicopter crash happened in November 2013. Picture: PA
The Clutha helicopter crash happened in November 2013. Picture: PA

After several interim reports, the UK Department for Transport’s air accidents investigation branch (AAIB) will give its verdict on why the Police Scotland helicopter fell on to the packed Glasgow bar, killing ten people.

The disaster may have happened back in November 2013, but helicopter crash investigations are often lengthy and complicated affairs – especially when the aircraft had no “black box”, as in this case.

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The Clutha investigation is taking no longer than previous investigations where pinpointing the cause is not obvious or easy.

The one into the 2009 North Sea helicopter crash which killed 16 people also took 18 months to be published.

The AAIB commands widespread respect, and is described by the Royal Academy of Engineering as having a “worldwide reputation for excellence”.

However, the apparent impatience shown by some leading politicians about the time the Clutha investigation has taken either suggests a lack of understanding of the complexity of the work, or a populist chant designed to boost their poll ratings.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon signalled her dissatisfaction in a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron last December.

Ms Sturgeon also criticised the AAIB’s refusal to pass information to the Crown Office, which she said “risks delay in any decision about criminal proceedings and the holding of a fatal accident inquiry, which I am sure you will agree is an unsatisfactory position”.

She asked Mr Cameron to “do all you can to ensure AAIB progress their investigation as quickly as possible”.

However, this has not been the only interference by the Scottish Government in AAIB investigations.

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In June, the Lord Advocate won the right for the Crown Office and Police Scotland to gain access to black box data from a helicopter which crashed off Shetland in August 2013, killing four of those on board.

The information would be used to help decide whether anyone should be prosecuted.

Significantly for those who think the Clutha investigation has taken too long, this one hasn’t concluded either.

However, the process has been halted until at least December by the British Airline Pilots Association lodging an appeal against the attempt to “short-circuit” the AAIB’s work.

The Scottish Government has said the AAIB would continue if Scotland became independent. They should respect its independence too.