THE relatives of the two pilots accused of gross negligence in the 1994 Mull of Kintyre Chinook helicopter crash have spoken of their relief after a House of Lords inquiry effectively cleared the men of any blame for the tragedy.
The families of Flight Lieutenants Rick Cook, 30, who lived in Church Crookham, and Jonathan Tapper, 28, were pleased with the conclusion of their eight-year battle for justice.
Flt Lt Cook's father John, a retired RAF fighter ace and Concorde pilot who lives in Gally Hill Road, Church Crookham, cheered when he learned of the unanimous decision by a committee of law lords.
He said: "It has been a long, hard fight. After seven-and-three-quarter years I am looking forward for time to close these wounds."
The lords decided the airmen had been wrongly blamed for the crash in which 29 people, including 25 of Britain's most senior intelligence officers, were killed.
The investigation, by a five-strong Select Committee of peers, concluded that the RAF was "not justified" in saying pilot error was the cause.
By the afternoon of February 6 defence chiefs were still refusing to officially accept the inquiry's finding or issue an apology, insisting no new evidence had come up.
But John Cook said: "I will not rest until Tony Blair makes a decision to overturn the RAF's verdict on our sons, who are no longer here to defend their good names."
Flt Lt Tapper's father Mike added: "The only people who now maintain our sons were guilty are the MoD. They were wrong and it is time they admitted it."
John Cook also hit out at what he called the "Ministry of Deceit": "They have not the slightest shred of evidence to support the accusations."
Hampshire North-East MP James Arbuthnot also urged the MoD to accept the findings.
He said: "Yet again an independent inquiry, this time from the highest body in the land, has exonerated the pilots.
"The House of Lords Select Committee has held not only that there was doubt about whether the pilots were negligent, but also that it was impossible to determine even the likely cause of the accident.
"They have gone much further than I dared hope.
"What is at stake now is not the reputation of the pilots — they have been cleared — but the credibility of the Ministry of Defence.
"It is now up to them to accept that the Board of Inquiry came to the wrong conclusion.
"They need to accept that we do not know what caused the crash and we probably never will."
The new Mark II Chinook — call-sign Zulu Delta 576 — hit a 1,400ft peak on its way to a secret summit near Inverness.
All on board, including members of MI5, British Army Intelligence and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, were killed.
But pilots were said to be concerned about the Mark II's airworthiness and whether it was ready to fly.
When John Cook gave evidence to the committee last year, he told the Fleet News: "Three times in ten days before the crash Rick asked me to look after Sara (his wife) and Eleanor (his young daughter) in the event of an accident."
Doubts were later raised about the reliability of computer equipment used to help fly the aircraft.
The late Rick Cook is pictured in front of a Mark II Chinook.