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RAF pilot sent jet into 4,000ft plummet by playing with camera, court martial hears

Offending DSLR became 'wedged behind control stick'

An RAF Airbus Voyager tanker-cum-troop transport aircraft. Pic: MoD/Crown copyright
An RAF Voyager similar to the aircraft involved in the incident. Pic: Crown copyright

An RAF pilot sent his military airliner into a dramatic dive after the DSLR camera he was mucking about with became wedged in the aircraft's controls, a court martial heard yesterday.

Flight Lieutenant Andrew Townshend caused his Airbus Voyager – a militarised A330 airliner – to plummet 4,400 feet in 33 seconds during a flight to Afghanistan, Bulford Military Court Centre was told. At one point, the aircraft plunged at a rate of 15,000 feet per minute, according to an interim probe.

Flt Lt Townshend is accused by military prosecutors of two counts of perjury and making a false record, having allegedly lied about the cause of the accident.

The Daily Telegraph reported that the RAF officer is being court-martialled for allegedly making false entries in the Voyager's tech log, a document used for flight crews to log problems for maintainers, after the incident, and for misleading the subsequent service inquiry.

Nigel Lickley QC, prosecuting, said: "The descent was unannounced so passengers experienced weightlessness, they were thrown to the ceiling and thought they were going to die. This all happened while he was alone in the cockpit, the co-pilot managed to get back to his seat and was in fact on the ceiling while trying to gain control with Townshend."

Fourteen of Flt Lt Townshend's passengers, military personnel deploying to Afghanistan, were unable to continue their journey after the Voyager was diverted to the Turkish air force station at Incirlik. Several passengers and crew were pinned to the aircraft's ceiling without warning as a result of the wild dive, with "a significant volume of loose articles, including bags, personal effects, teapots, paper cups and bins... flying around the cabin," according to the service inquiry's report.

Flt Lt Nathan Jones, the co-pilot, suffered a cut to the head, a fractured back, a prolapsed disc and nerve damage, the court martial heard.

All Airbus aircraft have the main flight controller (stick) positioned on a panel to the left of the pilot, rather than between his legs as virtually all other fixed-wing aircraft do. The service inquiry "established conclusive evidence that the pitch-down command was actually the result of an inadvertent physical input to the Captain's side-stick" as a result of Flt Lt Townshend placing his camera immediately behind the stick, "in the space between the side-stick and the Captain's left armrest". Shortly afterwards he moved his seat forward, "forcing the side-stick fully forward and initiating the pitch-down command".

The 49-year-old pilot later deleted photos he had taken with the camera immediately before the incident.

"Flt Lt Townshend was not concentrating while flying and was bored. The camera and side stick have damage to them which is consistent with them coming into contact like they did," said Mr Lickley. "He disputes putting the camera next to him and knowing the camera was in the position it was while jammed. He says it had fallen from a shelf."

Flt Lt Townshend denies the two charges of perjury and of making a false record but admitted negligently performing a duty by allowing his camera to become wedged behind the stick.

The trial continues. ®

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