by Sanjay Suri
(IPS) LONDON --
early British losses in the war on Iraq have shaken morale and confidence in helicopter technology. They also gave new edge to a massive anti-war demonstration Saturday.
The British had expected to walk into Baghdad unopposed and triumphant along with the Americans. Instead, 14 British soldiers and sailors, and five Americans have died in crashes involving three helicopters over a space of two days, two of them British-built Sea Kings, and one Chinook built by the U.S. giant Boeing.
Groups of people have been placing flowers at the Royal Navy air base where the sailors who died had been based. Prince Charles' brother the Duke of York, who was a Sea King pilot during the Falklands war, led a remembrance ceremony for the dead sailors.
Leaders are under pressure as critics point to records that the aircraft soldiers were sent up in aircraft that have posed known risks. The aircraft seemed also to have been pushed beyond their limits.
The crashes have been described as accidents, but there is concern and also some embarrassment that the real enemy so far has either been operational failures or technology.
Besides the helicopters that crashed, an MH-53 helicopter used by U.S. special forces and an Apache helicopter have crash-landed. The crew were safe in these two cases. But the MH-53 had to be destroyed after it went down in Iraq.
Both the Chinook helicopter which crashed Friday and the British-built Sea King helicopters that collided fatally Saturday have been widely criticized as unsafe following earlier crashes.
Only last month a Sea King helicopter crashed on to the deck of the Canadian destroyer HMCS Iroquois. The ship was headed for the Gulf but had to be replaced.
The helicopter was believed to have suffered engine failure as it tried to take off from the ship's deck. It came crashing down and rolled over to a side.
The Canadian military has for long been asking the government to replace the aging fleet of Sea Kings. The helicopters are 40 years old, and require about 30 hours of maintenance for every hour in the air.
Defense critics said the Sea Kings should have been replaced years ago. "This is more than an accident, it invites ridicule, "said Conservative Leader Joe Clark.
Even more serious questions hang over the Chinook. Twenty-nine people were killed when a Chinook crashed in 1994. Another Chinook had crashed earlier in 1989.
In the latest crash a Chinook carrying four U.S. and eight British personnel was seen suddenly to drop out of the sky and crash down.
The helicopter built by Boeing that crashed in 1994 was carrying senior officers involved in security in Northern Ireland. A controversy has raged over that accident ever since after the Ministry of Defense blamed the pilots.
On February 6 last year a House of Lords committee report found that there is doubt about the cause of the crash because of the possibility of a technical malfunction.
The Lords report said the fault could have been a jam of the pilot's controls or a sudden engine surge caused by the Chinook's safety-critical full authority digital engine control (Fadec) system.
A British spokesman tried to play down the new fears over helicopters. "Circumstances are such that accidents of this type can happen," he said. "It's a great tragedy. Certainly there must have been extenuating circumstances and our investigators are into the process of trying to establish the facts.
"There is a lot of air activity. However, we do have very careful plans and procedures to ensure we have separation of all of the aircraft being used. Sadly last night something was not quite right and we are looking to find out what that was as quickly as possible."
These losses led to renewed demands for an end to war at a massive rally in London. The rally did not match the million-strong rally of Feb. 15, but protesters are now opposing the war with more force on the ground that it is also a great danger to British men and women.
"Bring Our Lads Home," protesters shouted as they once more marched past Downing Street. "Tony Blair You Have British Blood on Your Hands," one group shouted. Demonstrators held up banners like "Tony Blair, war criminal".
"Blair has placed our troops in danger," said Chris Collins from the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), one of the organizers of the rally Saturday along with Stop the War Coalition and the Muslim Association of Britain.
"There has been such eagerness over this war that the lives of troops have been endangered by putting them into aircraft of doubtful record, and then operating them beyond their capacity," Collins said.
March 23, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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