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Defence Chiefs Confirm Override Of Command

Sunday 1st Jul 2001

ACT Finance Spokesman Rodney Hide said today that Defence Minister Mark Burton must be held to account for last year ordering a bomb-laden Hercules back to Samoa to pick up a father anxious to be with his critically injured young daughter in Dunedin hospital.

“The Minister defended his actions as 'humanitarian'. But the father got home only a couple of hours earlier than if he had taken a commercial flight. The 14-man crew was subjected to unacceptable risk, Faleolo Airport was endangered, and the Minister broke the law by pressuring a squadron leader to countermand the orders of Defence Headquarters.

“The Defence Chiefs this week confirmed to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee that the chain of command was broken. The Chief of Air Staff told the Committee that in his opinion: "the Ministerial directive had placed undue pressure on the aircraft captain and influenced him to accept heightened risks".

“The Defence Chiefs confirmed they believed the risks to the 14-man crew were unacceptable. They reported to the Committee that the Minister’s office had broken the chain of command and ordered the Squadron Leader directly. The Minister didn’t make a request as required by law – he issued a directive – and he did so, not through the Chief of Defence as required by the law, but directly to a squadron leader.

“The Minister told Parliament subsequently that the Chief of Defence was ‘in transit at the time and uncontactable’. The Chief of Defence told the Committee last week that he was in fact travelling home on the Hutt motorway with his cellphone switched on beside him.

“The Minister has some explaining to do.

“The Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee’s report presented late Friday afternoon makes the following observations:

“The Defence Force chain of command is central to all the functions and responsibilities of the armed services but in this case, and in the words of CAS, ‘[his] aircraft got given a direction that didn’t come through [his] chain of command.’ The best comments that can be made about this sequence of events are the comments offered to us by CAS and CDF: that it is surprising, it is of concern, and it is not normal.

“The Committee’s report makes plain why the Chief of Air Staff and the Chief of Defence were so concerned about this incident on 17 August 2000:

* The crew faced a difficult situation, having to go about an abnormal overweight landing at Faleolo with a cargo of non-fused 8,000 lbs of high explosive bombs on board with a blast safety distance of 445 metres from any other aircraft, inhabited building, or public road.

* Safety controls prohibit the carriage of passengers under combat or emergency conditions where the risk of not carrying the passengers is greater than the danger presented by carrying them with explosives.

* The tired crew faced a difficult night-landing at Whenuapai.

* The crew had worked a total working day of 21.5 hours, 3.5 hours over the limit for a normal maximum crew duty day and 1.5 hours over the limit for ‘critical rescue missions’ and/or ‘operational necessity’ missions under RNZAF flight regulations.

* The operational commander, in full knowledge of the crew, its competencies, the risks and the full context, had determined that the request to carry the passenger should be declined on grounds of unacceptable safety risks.

“The report confirms that Chief of Defence raised several concerns with the Minister. But that he did so verbally, not in writing. The Chief of Defence told the Committee that he does not believe the Minister would take such an action again.

“I don’t think that is good enough. The fact remains that the Minister over-rode the chain of command, broke the law and put lives at risk. He has got some explaining to do – and he needs to be held to account. We simply can’t afford to have politicians ordering aeroplanes around to look good in the public eye and without regard to the consequences," Rodney Hide said.


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