HC Deb 20 March 1945 vol 409 cc640-6
The Secretary of State for Air (Sir Archibald Sinclair)

As the House knows, the hon. and gallant Member for North Bristol (Captain Bernays) and the hon. Gentleman the junior Member for Antrim (Mr. Dermot Campbell), in company with other Members, were on a visit recently to our Forces in Italy. The two hon. Members took off on the morning of 23rd January, on a flight from Rome to Brindisi, in an Expediter aircraft. The other hon. Members left Rome in another Expediter aircraft, three minutes later. The second aircraft encountered a severe snowstorm near its destination, and the pilot decided to turn back, and made a precautionary landing at Bari. Nothing has since been seen or heard of the first aircraft. An extensive search over all the land routes and out to sea, along the stretch of coast over which the missing aircraft might have flown, has been unfruitful. It was the intention to provide a Dakota for the whole party, but none was available on the day of the flight. Expediters, however, are frequently used for conveying important passengers. The Commander in-Chief regards the Expediter as well suited for communication flights, such as that from Rome to Brindisi. The type has been used by the R.A.F. in the Mediterranean and Middle East Commands for some months. It is also used for communication purposes by the R.A.F. and the United States Army Air Force in other Commands and in other theatres of war. It is extensively used in North America. The crews of both the Expediters concerned had had previous experience not only of flying this type in Italy, but also of special flights with important passengers. Both aircraft carried radio equipment, and both were provided with dinghies and parachutes.

A court of inquiry has been held. I have discussed the findings in detail with the Commander-in-Chief. The most likely cause of loss is that the pilot tried to press on in the face of the storm, instead of turning back, as the pilot of the second aircraft did, and that t le aircraft crashed into the sea. It would be easy to say that the pilot had committed an error of judgment, but we do not know for certain that the loss occurred in this way; even if it did, the bad weather may have closed in so suddenly that the plot had no chance of avoiding it, The House will wish to know if the weather briefing given to the pilot was adequate. It was; but the weather at this time of the year in the Mediterranean often changes with great suddenness, and cannot always be accurately predicted. In the opinion of the Commander-in-Chief, the weather briefing given to the pilot was of a nature to justify the flight, although alternative arrangements had been made for the party to go by road if need be. In investigating the procedure which was followed for arranging this flight, a number of mistakes came to light, of which I think I should frankly inform the House, although, in the opinion of the Commander-in-Chief, none of them directly caused the loss of the aircraft.

First, it is laid down that, when important passengers are carried, special precautions must be taken. One of these precautions is that advance notice of the flight must be given to all concerned. In particular, the aircraft's call sign and route must be sent out by the airfield of departure. If this had been done, the regional flying control organisation might have been able to get in touch with the aircraft in flight, and, if necessary, diverted it to another destination. Secondly, the regulations require that, in the case of important flights, pilots and crews must arrive at the airfield of departure at least one hour before the aircraft is due to take off. In this instance, the pilot arrived late, but there is evidence that he may have been delayed through causes beyond his control. Thirdly, baggage was stowed in the cabin of the aircraft, but no ballast was put into the nose compartment, and there is just a possibility that, in conditions of bad visibility and turbulence, this may have made it more difficult to control the aircraft. Each of these things was, primarily, the responsibility of the pilot, but we shall never hear his side of the story. It would be very unfair to assume that he was to blame.

Nor was the Commander-in-Chief content to leave responsibility there. He considered that the arrangements for the supervision of the flight should have been more strict. He has fixed responsibility and has taken action accordingly. The instructions about safety precautions which have been issued within the Command are plain, but all concerned are being reminded that, when important passengers are being carried, more than the usual precautions must be taken to avoid risk, particularly in cases of flights which are not of operational urgency. I have given the facts as fully and frankly as possible. I am, of course, responsible to this House for everything which occurred, and I can only express my deep sorrow at this most distressing fatality.

Sir Huģh O'Neill

May I ask my right hon. Friend, in view of his statement that the Expediter machine was perfectly suitable for this purpose, if that machine had got proper de-icing equipment, and, with regard to its radio equipment, was this sufficient to send messages back to the starting point?

Sir A. Sinclair

Yes, Sir. Its radio equipment is quite adequate. As regards the other part of my right hon. Friend's Question, there are various forms of deicing equipment. I could not say without notice exactly what de-icing equipment this aircraft has got. I can say, however, quite confidently, that in that respect, and in all other respects, the machine is, in the opinion of the Commander-in-Chief, fully equipped for flights of this kind. It is a very popular aircraft.

Rear-Admiral Sir Murray Sueter

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman if the pilot had any flying experience of the weather likely to be met with, because Mediterranean weather can be some of the worst in the world?

Sir A. Sinclair

Yes, Sir. He had done a full operational tour in the Mediterranean, and had also, as I have said, practical experience of communications flights.

Mr. McGovern

May I ask whether, in cases of this kind where hon. Members have lost their lives, and leave dependants, there is any financial provision?

Sir A. Sinclair

I would like notice of that Question. It has not arisen in this case.

Sir John Wardlaw-Milne

May I ask if the House is to understand from the Minister's statement that, once the aircraft had left the starting-point on its journey, it was unable to communicate by radio with anywhere except the starting point?

Sir A. Sinclair

No, Sir. It was able to communicate by radio, but the point that I have submitted was that, if the necessary warning had been given, it might have been possible for the station at the other end to take the initiative, if the weather suddenly closed in there, and get in touch in good time with the aircraft.

Sir J. Wardlaw-Milne

Did the station at the other end know about the flight?

Sir A. Sinclair

They apparently had the information about the flight but not as to the time of starting.

Mr. Bowles

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman how many hours or weeks had the pilot of this particular aircraft been on a conversion course? Secondly, may I ask him a question on something that I think has surprised a certain number of hon. Members? The right hon. Gentleman put emphasis on the question of very important passengers. Surely, it ought to be possible for Transport Command to see that every possible precaution is taken in the case of every single flight?

Sir A. Sinclair

I am sorry if my statement erred in putting too much emphasis on the precautions taken for very important passengers. I would like to make it quite clear that every possible precaution is taken to ensure the safety of all aircraft when they are flying, but the special precautions which are taken for very important persons entail the use of signal communications which would not be, and could not be, made available in the case of every flight.

Mr. Bowles

The right hon. Gentleman has not answered the first part of my question. How long had the pilot been on a conversion flight?

Sir A. Sinclair

I cannot say, but he had made several communications flights, including, I think, three with V.I.P.'s.

Sir Oliver Simmonds

May I ask whether the crew of the missing aircraft indicated by any means whatever that, in the course of the flight, any abnormal conditions had been met with?

Sir A. Sinclair

No, Sir, mid I do not think there were any until they met the storm. As I explained in my statement, the weather was extremely good until they got quite close to their destination.

Dr. Haden Guest

Does the Minister's statement mean that, as regards the possibility of communicating, the ground staff who were, presumably, responsible for sending notice of the route, had neglected their duty and had not done so; that, if they had done so, it would have been possible for the people at the other end to notify the aircraft not to proceed and that, therefore, the accident would not have occurred? If that is so, are the ground staff to be held responsible for the deaths that occurred?

Sir A. Sinclair

No, Sir. It was the responsibility, as I have said, of the pilot to have these warnings sent. It is not true—and it is the opinion of the Commander-in-Chief that it would not be true —to say that this failure was the cause of the accident. I do not know how quickly this storm developed over the destination. I would make it quite clear that I have been extremely frank with the House and I have told the House things which I think they ought to know, but which, in the opinion of the Commander-in-Chief, are not really the direct cause of the accident at all,

Sir H. O'Neill

The right hon. Gentleman said that the Commander-in-Chief was going to take action, in regard to the precautions which should be taken and which were not taken. What action is he taking?

Sir A. Sinclair

I think the action involves a certain officer, and I do not think it would be right for me to mention his name in public.

Captain Peter Macdonald

Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that, in future, no aircraft is to be allowed to leave for its destination without, beforehand, notifying the station to which it is proceeding, particularly in the Mediterranean area, where the weather conditions may become very bad?

Mr. Edģar Granville

On that point, can the Minister make it clear whether the pilot, before he started this flight, had in his possession the fullest information with regard to the weather reports which were available at the station; and has lie now made it clear to the Royal Air Force that the responsibility on whether a flight should be made or not rests entirely with the pilot and not with the Commanding Officer of the station?

Sir A. Sinclair

On the second point, I should state that slightly differently. The primary responsibility rests with the pilot. No pilot would be asked to undertake the journey when he judged that the conditions were not right for it, except, of course, a journey which he was ordered to undertake for operational reasons. But the station commander has the right to overrule the pilot's judgment and say, if the pilot is going on a flight and is prepared to undertake it, that he thinks the risk is too great. It is the station commander's final responsibility, or the officer to whom he delegates this duty, to allow the aircraft to leave the station.

Mr. Gallacher

I want to be clear on one point. Was there not a possibility that, if the pilot sent a message to the station to which he was flying, it would be picked up by the Germans?

Sir A. Sinclair

All that, of course, would have to be taken into account. It would not apply in this case, because it was some distance away from the station.

Colonel Greenwell

May I ask whether orders are given to pilots that, in conditions of this sort, they should come back; and can the right hon. Gentleman also tell us what reserve of petrol was carried to guard against the possibility of incidents of this kind occurring?

Sir A. Sinclair

On the second point, the reserve of petrol was very ample. I cannot charge my memory with the exact quantity, but I can assure my hon. and gallant Friend it was very ample. On the first point, I am afraid that such an order could not possibly be given. It is impossible to define all the varied circumstances that may arise in the course of a flight. It must be left to the judgment of the pilot.