14 February 2006


By Jeremy Armstrong

AN RAF Eurofighter crashes in flames imperilling a 20billion defence project already branded a "waste of money".

The front wheel of the 50million jet, known as the Typhoon, failed to drop down on landing because of a disastrous computer glitch. A vital manual over-ride also failed to work.

Our exclusive pictures show smoke and sparks pouring from the plane's engine and undercarriage as it careers down the runway for hundreds of yards with an emergency parachute flying out the back.

The pilot and co-pilot escaped unscathed. But the accident highlighted problems threatening the future of a jinxed programme on which 14,000 British jobs depend.

The 1,500mph plane is years overdue. Development costs have more than tripled. Yet only two months before the jet comes into service, failures with its on-board computer system are continuing to compromise safety for crews.

An insider declared: "This plane has cost billions to develop, is years late and they still can't get it right. These problems have been going on for years."

Another source said: "There are horrendous problems. The computer system is a mess and nothing seems to work properly. Some of the pilots don't feel the Typhoon is safe. It's simple as that."

Our pictures were taken as the stricken Typhoon came into land at RAF Coningsby, Lincs, on January 16.

Our source said: "The crew used the computer in the usual way as they came in. But the front wheel wouldn't come down. Nor did it with the manual over-ride for use in emergencies.

"The pilots were so far down on landing they had to use the emergency parachute.

"The back end and undercarriage went up in flames. Fire crews put down foam which prevented further fire and the whole thing going up. But what if that had happened in battle?"

The Mirror has learned that the Typhoon's on-board computer has featured in a series of "operational issues" recorded in the computerised logbook kept by pilots, engineers and technicians over the past few months.

Missiles did not fit the plane. Language problems between the four countries funding the project - Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain (France threw a hissy fit and dropped out of the project as it wanted to control the entire project despite wanting less planes than Britain and Germany) - have added to expensive delays.

Our source said: "When the missiles arrived they wouldn't sit properly on board.

"There have also been real problems with the Italian engineers involved. There are obvious language difficulties. Different countries coming together to build one plane hasn't worked."

Britain has 144 Typhoons on order with the first due to come into service with the launch of a new squadron at the beginning of April.

Tony Blair has triumphantly hailed the fighter as the "cornerstone" of Britain's air defence. Two new aircraft carriers ordered by the Navy are each due to carry 36 Typhoons.

But former Tory Defence Secretary John Nott said recently that his decision to give the scheme the go-ahead in the early 80s was "my biggest mistake". He said: "It's a complete waste of money."

In 2004 a leaked report by MoD evaluators Qinetiq said safety problems put the jet at risk of an irrecoverable loss of control in flight.

Problems were so serious the aircraft should not fly in cloud or perform "dynamic" manoeuvres used in aerial combat unless it carried a safety pilot.

The document also said there was an "unquan-tifiable" risk that computer problems could cause a catastrophic failure of the aircraft.

Qinetiq identified three key issues which made the Typhoon "unacceptable for release to service".

A key system designed to alert the pilot when the aircraft is going too slowly was inadequate, leading to risk of loss of control.

Pilot flight-information displays frequently failed with the risk of crew losing all flight reference data at a critical stage.

"Corruption" of the aircraft's flight-control computer system meant it could suddenly switch from "inflight" to "ground" mode while in the air.

This would be "immediately catastrophic", almost certainly meaning the pilot would crash.

Test pilots said: "This fault cannot be mitigated. It is therefore recommended as essential that the causes of this fault are investigated, understood, and, if necessary, rectified before release to service."

The MoD said last night: "We confirm that an RAF Typhoon landed with its nose wheel raised.

"It would be wrong to speculate on the cause of the crash before the matter has been investigated.

"The crew made a textbook recovery and the rest of the Typhoon fleet has not been grounded. Indeed, the jet has exceeded RAF expectations."

jeremy.armstrong@mirror.co.uk (external - login to view)


THE four-nation Eurofighter was first mapped out in 1983, with the aircraft due to enter service in 1992 at an estimated cost of 6billion.

Margaret Thatcher's government backed the plan under pressure from the aerospace industry.

But technical problems and international rows delayed the jet's launch until 2000, then 2006.

Meanwhile, the cost has soared to 20billion, more than 600million over the most recent budget. RAF chiefs insist that the sophisticated jet can "out-dogfight" any international rivals. Critics say it was designed to fight an enemy who no longer exists " the Soviet Union.

They also claim the development of air-to-air missiles have rendered the Typhoon obsolete.

Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain were due to take delivery of another 90 Eurofighters. But Germany has said the cost is hard to justify.