Monday, 8 November 2010

The Death of David Kelly - PQ about the helicopter

Doubts have been raised in comments on earlier posts about the evidence given to Hutton about the helicopter used in the search for Dr. David Kelly.

I reproduce below a Written Answer to a Parliamentary Question in 2006 by Norman Baker MP. The original is here:

Helicopter Searches

Norman Baker: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence (1) on how many occasions a helicopter from RAF Benson was used to assist a police search for a missing person in each of the last five years; [74199]

(2) if he will identify the helicopter from RAF Benson used to search for Dr. David Kelly on 18 July 2003; whether the helicopter in question was equipped with (a) an infra-red camera and (b) heat-seeking equipment; how long the helicopter was in the air; what areas it covered in its search; and if he will make a statement; [74200]

(3) how many (a) military, (b) civilian and (c) other personnel from (i) the United Kingdom, (ii) the United States and (iii) other nations were based at RAF Benson on 17 July 2003. [74201]

Mr. Ingram: No RAF helicopters from RAF Benson have been used to assist police searches for missing persons in the last five years.

No RAF helicopters from RAF Benson were used in the search for Dr. David Kelly on 18 July 2003. However, I understand that a Chiltern Air Support Unit police helicopter which is based at RAF Benson was on standby but not used. I am informed that a police helicopter from the Chiltern Air Support Unit based at Luton was used in the search.

Details of the personnel based at RAF Benson on the 17 July 2003 were as follows:
Number of personnel

RAF personnel


Army personnel


Navy personnel


MOD civilian personnel


Non-MOD (contractors)



2 (exchange aircrew from Canada and the United States)

Notice that the answer cleverly sidesteps the questions about what times the helicopter was in the air, what area(s) it searched and whether or not it carried heat-seeking equipment.

Answers to Parliamentary Questions are, all too frequently, slippery!

And, it seems, ACC Page was not telling the truth when he stated that it came from RAF Benson, in his oral testimony to Hutton on the morning of Wednesday 3rd September 2003 on Page 20:

1 Q. So who had been responsible for calling out the police
2 helicopter?
3 A. Sergeant Morris.
4 Q. Where is that helicopter based? We have heard it came
5 from RAF Benson, is that right?
6 A. That is correct, that is where it is based.
7 Q. How many police officers were involved in the search?
8 A. At that particular time half a dozen.
9 LORD HUTTON: Just so that it is clear, I think what you
10 said, Mr Page, this was a police helicopter?
11 A. It was a police helicopter, my Lord, yes.

ACC Page echoes an error in Janice Kelly's testimony on the morning of Monday 1st September 2003, see Page 52:

13 A. Yes, it is referred up and the search begins. The
14 Thames Valley helicopter had gone off duty by that time
15 so they had to wait for the Benson helicopter to come
16 across.
17 Q. That is RAF Benson, is it?

Yet, further evidence that the testimony given to Hutton was unreliable, it seems.

When testimony is littered with numerous errors of fact, of which this is a minor example, it becomes increasingly clear that the Hutton Inquiry was, at best, substandard.


  1. We are all very familiar with the TVP Tactical Support Major Incident Policy Book: Operation 'Mason'.
    The Chiltern Air Support Unit comes under the Thames Valley Police Tactical Support.
    As you see, two helicopters are shared with other forces the other being based not at Luton, but RAF Henlow, also in Bedfordshire. Perhaps the Benson machine was out of commission during Operation Mason?

  2. PS
    Of course, the above relates to the present, not 2003.

  3. Would a Sergeant from the local police station be responsible for calling out a search helicopter?
    I have no idea.

  4. Felix,

    The Kelly disappearance was not a normal disappearance.

    So, it's plausible, that a Police sergeant would act in ways which are unusual for such a short time after someone disappeared.

  5. I think the important issue with the helicopter is not where it came from or even what time it arrived, but at what time it was stood down, and why? No matter happened whilst it was in the air I would have total faith in the crew to do their very best to find the missing person. Any suggestions that they failed to use their infra-red cameras etc is just nonsense.
    However it does seem very strange to me that sometime before it got light (about4.00am in mid July) and over 5 hours before the body was found the helicopter was sent away.
    Remember we are talking mid July and the fields over which they were searching were mostly arable crops yet to be harvested.
    I dont think someone wanted that helicopter about once it got light.

  6. Frank

    Agree entirely about the flight crew - brilliant professionals always.

    Norman Baker had the question answered in Parliament with written answers (2006).
    5.10am was the stand down time. (just as ACC Page was about to call a search meeting at Abingdon). From the first flight data, the helicopter would have been able to fly at least until at least 5.45 am , assuming the 1.25 hrs flight is the maximum between refuelling (I assume a "FULL TANK" at the first 2.50am flight which may have included a flight from Luton (or Henlow).
    From this table dawn c 4.30am ,sunrise c 5.15am approx BST mid July in Oxford.
    Do you know how long a police helicopter can fly between re-fuelling?

  7. Felix,
    I have already done this exercise a couple of years ago, I will have to dig out my notes! From what I can remember I used the information from Hansard as to when the flights started and finished and I used information off the internet to find out what type of helicopter was used, what speed that helicopter was capable of and also what the duty cycle was.
    To the best of my memory this was what happened:
    1. The helicopter used was a Eurocopter 155. It was stationed at Luton Airport. (The one at Benson went off duty earlier that night and base they now use at RAF Henlow was not open in 2003).
    2. Luton is about 47miles from Longworth and although this type of helicopter has a top speed of just over 150mph they don’t normally travel at much over 100mph. The flight started as you say at 2.50am. at Luton. Allowing for take off etc. it would take about 1/2hour to get to Longworth arriving therefore at about 3.20am.
    3. It then started searching.
    4. It was then sent back to RAF Benson where it re-fueled.
    5. It then returned to Luton.
    I will check my notes, but I am pretty certain it had ceased searching for DK well before 5.30am. The helicopter would have left Luton full of fuel. The duty cycle for a Eurocopter 155 was I think over 7 hours. Re-fueling at RAF Benson would be standard procedure as RAF Benson was much closer to Longworth than Luton.

  8. Ffrank,

    A very interesting observation about the time that the helicopter search was stood down.