Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Monday 10/02/03A drama is unfolding, and nobody's noticed. The longest court martial in the history of the RAF is being held in Helensburgh, 20 miles north-west of Glasgow.

Monday 10/02/03
A drama is unfolding, and nobody's noticed. The longest court martial in the history of the RAF is being held in Helensburgh, 20 miles north-west of Glasgow. In the dock is Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Williams, a military air traffic controller, who is charged with steering two USAF F15s on a training exercise into the ground. Both pilots died instantly. There have been various enquiries, of course, and the RAF has decided to prosecute. The facts of the matter are disputed, and that's an understatement. The weather was bad and the pilots were practising low-level flying: a dangerous business at the best of times. The prosecution say that Williams broke the rules, yet describe a sequence of events that various eyewitness accounts deny. But you can make your own mind up -- for the first time in UK history, as far as I'm aware, a court martial is being written up day-by-day online, on the Pprune aviation bulletin board. I've talked about Pprune before. It's an exemplary online community, with pilots and other aviation professionals from around the world able to gather in anonymity, if they choose, to discuss matters dear to their hearts. In the case of the Helensburgh court martial, friends of the defendant are posting a nightly report -- and the community of air traffic controllers are watching avidly. It's also a place where they can express their support for Williams: it's impossible not to be moved by the intensity and obvious sincerity of everyone involved. The whole business is so dramatic, and the implications so far ranging -- is the senior management of the RAF incompetent? What are the limitations of liability for air traffic controllers? -- to make it compulsive reading, even before you consider that the deaths of two pilots and the future of a serviceman are involved. The fact that this is all unfolding in way that anyone can follow, especially in the context of the authoritarian mysteries of courts martial, makes this a story and a half. So why has the media, at least outside Scotland, ignored it? It's not as if the RAF is out of the news at the moment, nor that in the wake of the controversial Chinook affair (also covered in detail on Pprune) there are no questions about what goes on at the top of the service. It's a mystery. But we don't need no stinking mass-media coverage: we can bypass it all and go straight to the source. Click here to go to the Pprune forum.