§ 74. Mr. Montague
asked the Under-Secretary of State for Air whether, as the result of examination of the reports of courts of inquiry held on the accidents which took place in connection with Empire Air Day displays this year, he has any further statement to make?
§ Lieut.-Colonel Muirhead
The idea of Empire Air Day is that the public should be enabled to see the Royal Air Force at its everyday work. As many stations as possible—this year it was 53—are opened to the public on payment of a small charge for admission. At each station a programme of flying is arranged. All items of flying in the programmes are such as can be regarded as a part of normal training, and an instruction to this effect is issued to all stations. All flying in the Royal Air Force, whether on Empire Air Day or any other day, is governed by King's Regulations and Air Council Instructions which lay down the safety precautions which are always to be observed. Under King's Regulations and Air Council Instructions aerobatics are forbidden to be carried out below 2,000 feet, except with the prior approval of an Air Officer Commanding, and even when this approval is given a definite minimum height is always to be stipulated. It has been the practice for discretion frequently to be exercised in this respect by Air Officers Commanding both at the Royal Air Force Display and on Empire Air Day, but special care is always taken, both at displays and at other times, to see that where discretion is exercised the pilots in question are 3096 adequately experienced. In May last five out of 13 Air Officers Commanding gave special authority for aerobatics below 2,000 feet. King's Regulations and Air Council Instructions also state that a spin must be completed at a height of not less than 2,000 feet, and Air Officers Commanding possess no authority to permit a departure from this regulation.
In addition to these normal safety regulations the Air Council, on this occasion, issued the following instruction:Station Commanders are to submit their proposed programmes of flying to their Group Headquarters for approval, particularly in respect of safety arrangements.There were, however, I regret to say, two accidents in rehearsals on 28th May in which four lives were lost and three accidents in displays on 29th May, also involving the loss of four lives. As a full oral account of the facts as regards each of these accidents would involve a lengthy statement, I will, with the permission of the House, circulate the detailed particulars in the OFFICIAL REPORT. I should, however, inform the House that the Air Council think it right to state, firstly, that they can find no evidence that programmes failed to conform to the general rule that they should consist only of such exercises as pilots would carry out in their regular course of duty and training; secondly, that they can find no evidence of any case of a pilot being instructed to perform an exercise for which he was not competent; thirdly, that no accident was due to any deviation from regulations which had been authorised by the competent authority; and, fourthly, that as evidence suggesting the disregard of flying regulations has been brought to their notice in connection with certain of these accidents, they are taking all possible steps to ensure universal compliance in the future. On this latter point, however, my Noble Friend would wish me to say this. While it is clearly wrong that safety regulations should be transgressed without sufficient justification, and a strict observance is requisite, it will be appreciated that breaches of the regulations involving risk may arise out of the over-keenness and courage of those concerned.
§ Mr. Montague
May I ask whether inquiry was made as to a breach of the regulations due to over-keenness, and also whether the type of aerobatics which 3097 were undertaken was within the discretion of the commanding officer? May I ask also whether these accidents happened apart from the regulations?
§ Lieut.-Colonel Muirhead
As regards the first supplementary, that is covered by my reply that as evidence suggesting a disregard of the regulations in certain of these accidents has been brought to our notice, we are taking all possible steps to secure compliance with the regulations in the future.
§ Mr. Montague
That is not my point. My point is that one of the regulations gives discretion to the commanding officer with regard to certain limits of height. Was that discretion exercised? Was an inquiry made as to how this discretion was exercised by the commanding officer and whether, in fact, aerobatics were done at an exceedingly low level or not?
§ Lieut.-Colonel Muirhead
Five out of 13 deviations from the regulations were authorised by the proper authorities. In none of the cases where such deviation was authorised did any accident take place. Evidence was given in the course of the inquiry that there was a suggestion in other cases that the flying regulations were not carried out, and we are looking into those matters. In none of the cases where deviation was properly authorised did any accident take place.
Following are the particulars:Odiham Accident (two airmen killed), 28th May, 1937.Four Audax aircraft of No. 4 Squadron were to take off in V formation and, when in the air, to assume diamond formation. On a signal from the leader they were to assume "echelon right" in which the leader and the right hand aircraft retained their position, the rear aircraft of the diamond moved to third on the right, and, when this pilot had taken up his new position, the left aircraft of the diamond moved across to right rear. Each aircraft would then be at the same height, and behind and to the right of the one in front of it. The flight would then be in the correct formation preparatory to a dive on the aerodrome, a perfectly normal procedure for an Army Co-operation Squadron and one which involved no aerobatics. Several rehearsals were carried out by the same pilots, each of whom was conversant with the movements involved and thoroughly experienced in flying these aircraft.On 28th May the exercise proceeded normally until the change of formation from 3098 diamond to echelon right. The first part of the change was successful, but the left hand aircraft of the diamond, in moving to its new position, came dangerously close to No. 3 in the echelon. In endeavouring to get clear, it collided with No. 3 at 5,000 feet. The two aircraft locked, separated and began to spin. Both pilots were wearing pilot type parachutes, but the two passengers, though wearing the harness, had their parachute packs detached. This was a contravention of King's Regulations, which require parachute packs to be kept attached by all occupants of an aircraft except when the wearing of them would hamper the efficient execution of duty. In this case the airmen were not called upon to act in any capacity other than passengers, and had no duties to perform which necessitated detaching the packs.Regarding the spin of each aircraft subsequent to the collision, in one case the airman, in attempting to attach his parachute to his harness lost it overboard, and was killed by jumping or being thrown out of the aircraft. In the other case the airman remained in the aircraft and was killed in the crash. The two pilots, after making every effort to right their respective aircraft, abandoned them at the last minute consistent with safety and landed uninjured.
Martlesham Accident (one officer and one airman killed), 28th May, 1937.A flight of three aircraft was detailed to participate in a display at Hanworth. The flying officer detailed to lead the flight submitted a programme on 27th May to his commanding officer who approved. This programme consisted of formation flying, followed by individual aerobatics which were to finish up with a spin by the leader, on the conclusion of which the other aircraft were to rejoin formation. No deviation from King's Regulations was authorised.The exercise involved nothing abnormal, and the flying officer in command of the flight was an experienced and accomplished pilot of these aircraft. During a rehearsal at Martlesham on the evening of 28th May, he commenced aerobatics after formation practice. After completing a loop and a roll he began to spin from an altitude of about 1,200 feet and hit the ground still spinning.
Farnborough Accident (one officer and one airman killed), 29th May, 1937.In accordance with orders issued by the officer commanding the squadron and approved by the station commander, three aircraft were to fly over the aerodrome at about 2,000 feet and then come under blank fire from an A.A. battery. One aircraft was to appear disabled, break formation and dive away.At each of the rehearsals the pilot of this aircraft executed a deliberate spin instead of a dive. This spin was not in the programme but was executed, with the approval of the officer commanding the squadron, from a height of about 2,000 feet, and at the dress rehearsal the pilot spun from this height for two or three turns.3099A contravention of King's Regulations, paragraph 717 (3), which states that spins will not be continued below 2,000 feet, was therefore necessarily involved. On 29th May, the pilot spun to about 1,200 feet, recovered, at once went into a spin in the opposite direction, and was unable to pull out of the resultant dive.The pilot was fully competent in the handling of Audax aircraft, and had done a large proportion of his total of over 300 hours flying in that type.
Waddington Accident (one officer killed), 29th May, 1937.A squadron leader from No. 2 Flying Training School, Digby, was lent to Waddington to give a display of individual aerobatics in a Fury single-seater aircraft, a type not in normal use at Waddington. Several rehearsals were carried out successfully at a minimum height of some 2,500 feet. On the 29th May, the officer in the course of his display began a slow roll at a height of some 500 feet. This was contrary to King's Regulations from which no deviation had been authorised. When in an inverted position the aircraft commenced the second half of a loop and dived into the ground. It is a matter of conjecture whether the pilot misjudged his height or lost control of his aircraft.Although this officer had only completed some six or seven hours flying on Fury aircraft he was a highly experienced pilot with well over 3,000 hours flying to his credit.
Old Sarum Accident (one officer killed), 29th May, 1937.3100No. 16 Squadron were to carry out squadron drill at a height of about 2,000 feet followed by a dive on a ground target on the aerodrome by one flight of the formation. The exercise was simple air drill, involving a climbing turn at its conclusion. This event had been rehearsed without incident on the morning of 29th May. One pilot, in accordance with his part in the programme, pulled
out of his dive and went into a steep climbing turn. This continued over the vertical the aircraft then diving into the ground. As his aircraft had plenty of speed it is not known why he attempted to recover from the vertical climb by diving, as opposed to executing the latter half of a slow roll. He had completed about three-quarters of his 500 hours total flying on Audax aircraft.