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28 May 2014, 18:17
The mother of a teenage air cadet from Reading killed on a training flight alongside an instructor who was suffering from a serious medical condition has called for improvements in medical check-ups.
Julia Rice's son Nicholas, 15, was taking part in an air experience flight with Flight Lieutenant Mike Blee, 62, when the RAF training plane collided with a glider, before nose-diving to the ground in Drayton, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, in June 2009.
Both passengers in the light aircraft were killed in the accident while the glider pilot parachuted to safety.
After instructing specialist Armed Forces lawyers at MPH Solicitors and receiving a settlement from the Ministry of Defence (MoD), Mrs Rice called for confirmation that improvements had been made to medical check-ups.
At an inquest in 2012, a jury found that there were a series of failures by the RAF which contributed to Nicholas's death, including Mr Blee's pre-existing condition which left his spine so brittle that a leading medical expert said it could snap at any moment causing instant death.
The condition, ankylosing spondylitis (AS), also restricted the pilot's head and neck movement, making it difficult for him to look around the aircraft while flying, the inquest heard.
Following an admission of liability by the MoD for Nicholas's death, MPH Solicitors, part of the Irwin Mitchell group, secured an undisclosed settlement for the family.
But lawyers and Nicholas's mother Julia hit out at their treatment at the hands of the Armed Forces.
Geraldine McCool, a partner and head of the armed forces team at MPH Solicitors and Irwin Mitchell, said the failures were totally unacceptable and that Mrs Rice, from Reading, Berkshire, was disappointed at her treatment when the MoD raised a technical argument on time limits that is untested in the courts in order to say that the claim could not be brought.
Ms McCool said: "To allow someone to fly with a 50% reduction in the rotation of his head, along with the risk of spine fracture from a high impact collision, was quite simply reckless.
"Had the pilot not had this condition then even after impact he could have made attempts to recover from the nosedive but unfortunately the crash was found to have been unsurvivable because it is likely that the pilot was killed instantly at the point of collision.
"The collision was otherwise survivable which has been one of the most difficult features for Julia.''
She added that in March this year, a Fitness to Practice Panel of the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service had considered the evidence given at the inquest and concluded that the behaviour of the doctor who had deemed Mr Blee as fit to fly constituted serious misconduct.
Mrs Rice, who was at home when she was told Nicholas had been killed, said her son had dreamt of becoming an aeronautical engineer and following in the footsteps of his grandfather and great uncle who were both in the RAF.
Describing the teenager as kind, generous and extremely well liked, she continued: "As parents we tried to help him pursue his passions and that one of them ultimately took his life leaves me distraught.
"Without him it doesn't matter what success I achieve in my life, nor how happy I manage to be, it will only ever be second best.
"I agreed that Nicholas could fly in the complete understanding that the RAF knew what they were doing and would take care of him, otherwise I would never have signed any documents.
"My belief now is that the RAF failed my son and cost him his life.''
Mrs Rice said her own father had suffered from AS and that had she known her son was flying with someone with such severe difficulties she would never have allowed it.
She also accused the MoD of a "total lack of care'' and said she was astounded by the obstacles which had been placed in her path as she tried to uncover the truth.
She said: "Nothing will ever bring Nicholas back but hopefully now lessons will be learnt to prevent any further suffering for others.''
An MoD spokesman said action had been taken, including ensuring that all medical risks are identified and shared, and that all RAF tutor aircraft are fitted with a collision warning system.
He also said there had been improved notification of flights to the civil aviation community, improved pre-flight safety briefings and the introduction of an abandonment trainer at all Air Experience Flight locations.
He added: "Our thoughts remain with the families and friends of Nicholas Rice and Flight Lieutenant Blee who died in the tragic incident.
"Safety is of paramount importance to us but no flying is without risk.
"A service inquiry into the incident identified a number of factors in the incident and lessons to be learned to ensure we can to prevent such incidents from happening again.
"The RAF has taken extensive action to ensure that Air Experience Flying remains safe, including implementing 16 of the 18 recommendations from the service inquiry.''