HC Deb 29 October 1952 vol 505 cc2065-76

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Kaberry.]

10.9 p.m.

Dr. Reginald Bennett (Gosport and Fareham)

I am raising an appropriate subject with which to conclude a day which has been devoted to aviation, namely, that of flying boats. I have a personal conviction about this matter which makes me glad to bring it up. It is a matter which is not susceptible to party differences on any basis whatever, but I have a feeling that the future development of our country's aviation is in danger of being to some extent vitiated by the failure to develop the flying boat, which I regard as a weapon and a vehicle of the future.

I am happy to say that since I raised this subject last, which was 18 months ago on a Whitsun Adjournment many opinions have been brought forward to support the few words I said then. In the Brancker Memorial Lecture, last February, that great seaman and airman, Sir Frederick Bowhill, said he thought that the long-distance transport plane must become larger, and that this would accentuate the runway problem at airports and favour the employment of flying boats.

Sir Harry Garner, chief scientist to the Department whose Parliamentary Secretary is going to be kind enough to reply to me tonight, said recently that it was his opinion that the flying boat would play a great part in the civil aviation of the future and that he saw in it a formidable competitor to the land plane for long-distance transport.

The flying boat holds the secret of the future for large transport aircraft, and I seek to put forward a few arguments to justify that opinion. On a previous occasion I alleged that the aircraft of the future would become ever bigger. The then Under-Secretary of State for Air replied that he did not agree that aircraft would get bigger. He said: As a matter of fact, it looks as if the pendulum has gone the other way and that they will get smaller. It is the Comet and not the Brabazon which looks like succeeding in civil aviation, and if one is talking of fighters, the tendency is to smaller aircraft."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th May, 1951; Vol. 487, c. 2405.] Those who saw the Farnborough Air Show this year will find those remarks about fighter aircraft somewhat mistaken. Some of the planes have already proved him wrong. In commercial aviation, progress is inevitably towards larger aircraft. Just as the big ships of yesterday are the ordinary ships of today, so I am sure that the biggest aircraft we can think of now will become a matter of course in the near future.

Why this progress in size should take place is surely a matter of the performance which size makes possible, performance being a complex of range, speed and propulsion, and of structure and aerodynamics, and in this case the hydro-dynamics, of the machine. In recent weeks there has been a great contribution to the country's knowledge in the address delivered to the British Association, at Belfast by Mr. Henry Knowler, on 8th September last.

Perhaps the first big requirement of aircraft is range, whether the aircraft is military or civil. The goal of everybody in that respect is surely to be able to accomplish the London-New York stage in one hop with a good margin. That is 5,150 miles, allowing not only for head-winds but for keeping fuel in reserve in case of diversions. The only aircraft we have that approaches that performance is the astonishing Britannia, which is one of the great successes of this year. It will do the 5,000 miles run, but it only does it at a speed of 350 miles per honr. Speeds will have to be higher. The Comet does about 500 miles an hour, and this must be regarded as the minimum for future aircraft.

Experts who have worked it out seem to consider that a speed of Mach number 0.83 to 0.85 is likely to be the fastest below the sonic barrier which permits flights. This aircraft will have to be driven by jets. The piston engine is now the paddle-wheel of aviation, but the pure jet is a very wasteful appliance because it burns up too much fuel too fast.

The turbo-prop engine is at a disadvantage because of tip-speed trouble at the speeds required. It will probably be a new form of engine, such as the bypass, whose existence has only just been adumbrated, which is likely to do the job. With this kind of range, and with the kind of speed and propulsion we need, it has been worked out that the minimum size of aircraft with a reasonable payload of, say, 150 passengers would be 150 tons, certainly no less.

In these large sizes I believe that the problems of aircraft change in their relative significance. On the one hand we have in the land aircraft the great structural handicap of the undercarriage, that vast contraption which is only useful for a few seconds at each end of the trip, although vitally useful at those times. And they get ever bigger, ever heavier, with all the strengthening points needed in the airframe for their attachment, and all the gear and jacks, and so on, that make them work, apart altogether from considerations of the possibility of failure.

On the other hand, we have the sea ship, the flying boat, which has the handicap of its queer shape and the step which is necessary from a hydro-dynamic point of view and, hitherto, the very high, narrow hull needed to keep the propellors out of the spray. A great deal of work has been done both in this country and in America in this direction. Researches on the step have given us some new things greatly to the advantage of the flying boat. I have walked around under the hull of the Princess and I found the step there to be a metallic ribbon of about 1 in. deep, but sufficient to interrupt the passage of water under the hull, and it sets up much less drag than the step on the older fashioned flying boats.

As to the hull, now that we do not have propellers the hull can be very much lower and it can be much rounder. We can now have what is known as a blended wing type of construction where the wings grow out level with the fuselage rather like the parasol of the Catalina flying boat. We have now new proportions, and all of us are deeply indebted for the article in "Air Pictorial" recently, which showed much of the research which America is doing on this. With the new proportions we can have a hull whose length is 12½ times the beam instead of only six times the beam, as was hitherto thought necessary. This will allow us to get a more slender aircraft, cheaper and easier to build and lighter and easier to drive.

The aggregate of all this is that whereas the undercarriage is becoming an increasing incubus and reaching about 12 per cent. of the weight of the aircraft, the relative give-away of a flying boat's hull is decreasing and is now getting down to about 10 per cent. So that the curves of inefficiency cross, and once we reach a certain size, it is the flying boat which will be mechanically more efficient. I do not think anybody will attempt to deny that now.

Of course, the paramount consideration in this matter of large aircraft is also the matter of terminals. In the last Adjournment debate I was fortunate enough to initiate, I said that runways had become half as thick, half as wide, and half as long again in the few years which had then elapsed since the war. That means some three and a half times as much concrete. So what would have cost in 1945, £2½ million must cost, in 1950, £9 million. And they are becoming ever larger. There is one of unheard of proportions being put down in Los Angeles at this moment.

It is a solemn thought that at Heathrow there will be more than five square miles of concrete by the time it is finished, and that the maintenance of that land, over and above the landing fees received, will be £2.8 million a year—and this at a time when 500 or 600 ordinary sized farms a year are being swallowed up for the expansion of factories and houses and runways.

This country can scarcely afford to give up that enormous quantity of space. Here we have the problems which have been referred to today, the traffic densities, the necessity for alternate airports, and so on. The difficulty, for instance, is that in these high speed jet aircraft, such as the Comet flying to Singapore, there are perhaps 12 aerodromes on the route at which it can land, whereas the flying boat on the same route can have at least 24 organised bases at which it can land should it so require.

Another point is that the water base for aircraft allows plenty of space for overrunning, and for low flat approaches in thick weather. It also gives safety in forced landings; the recent accident at Rome might well have not happened, or there would not have been any damage, if the machine concerned had been a flying boat. There is also the question of noise which was the subject of an Adjournment debate last night. I feel that, all in all, the problem of runways in this country is becoming quite intolerable. I am aware that the advents of the Delta wing, in which I must confess a certain interest, and of the bypass engine give rise to a certain pause in the inevitable progress towards longer and bigger runways.

There are other points in the question of operating these boats. It has often been said that it is an expensive thing to keep up a whole chain of small bases especially for boats. But a big boat has a long range and the cost per mile drops steadily as the range increases. Let us take the example of our neighbour, France, where they are now operating six-engined Latécòere flying boats from Bordeaux to Saigon with one stop at Bahrein. We might ask now to be allowed to share those facilities rather than to take the whole cost of making new ones for ourselves.

In the military and strategic field the problems of transport are, of course, those of civil transport. I am prepared to agree with the former Under-Secretary of State for Air that there is nothing that the Sunderland can do that the Shackleton could not do as well. But for Transport Command, for our reserve fleet of merchant aircraft, and for the Corporations' fleets in time of war the arguments for the flying boat hold very strongly. In military circumstances there would be no need for repairing runways, no immobilisation of aircraft through damage to runways, and no need to build new ones in forward operation areas. Moreover, the problem of dispersal is easily solved.

As long ago as 1947 that far-sighted and imaginative man, Mr. Seversky, started pushing this particular point as one for the future and I think he is proving right. I would ask my hon. Friend, in this connection, to tell me what happened to the project of the four-engined turbo-prop flying boat which the former Secretary of State for Air assured me in a Question on 9th May, Col. 1924 of HANSARD, was forthcoming for the Air Force. Has that lapsed, and can my hon. Friend give me any indication whether any new requirement is in contemplation?

The point we have to reckon with finally as a structural matter is that we are not so far from the days of nuclear power. Nuclear aircraft will need very heavy reactors with very heavy screening, it may be 100 tons for an aircraft. That means the landing weight of the aircraft is the same as the take-off weight which is unheard of and only contemplated on water-landing hitherto. The boat must be at least 250 tons to carry it. The Americans are known to be putting into production two prototypes, by Convair and Boeing, and we must not be left behind.

I submit that we have ports from which we could operate. The Langstone harbour scheme is not perhaps now in the realm of practical possibility being too small, too narrow and shallow. Besides, Portsmouth is an obstacle and, also, the Navy would not stand for it anyway. In the Solent we have a system of runways which is quite permanent and can scarcely be damaged and, in the West Solent, which is 12 miles long, we have a runway which is little used and always "into wind," to my personal knowledge. There are plenty of alternative landings around our coast, the approaches are flat, and over run is a simple matter.

Therefore, I ask my hon. Friend if he will give some assurance that our well-known "know how" in flying operation and development and the men used to it are not going to be wasted. The time has come, as I remarked 18 months ago, when both in the civil and military field only Governments can intervene and secure research. May I have an assurance that research and development are being undertaken? Can we be assured that the vital engines of the Princesses, without which they cannot fly, are forthcoming as an investment not merely for the present but vital to the future; and that someone—private company or Cor- poration, I do not mind who—will operate them?

I believe that a private company and the B.O.A.C. are both willing to undertake operational tests on them. All I ask is that in the brilliant 1960s, which teem with possibilities for aviation, we-should not lose the lead we have captured so gallantly in the 1950s.

10.28 p.m.

Group Captain C. A. B. Wilcock (Derby, North)

I am sure all of us in this House are grateful to the hon. Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett) for raising this interesting subject tonight. He is quite right; from the moment that the economist proved—as he did at one time—that the flying boat was an uneconomical proposition, the development of the flying boat has languished. But there were and are other issues besides financial ones; historical geographical and even psychological reasons—very good reasons indeed—why we should always watch very closely and encourage this development of the flying boat.

It is, of course, asking too much to, expect aircraft constructors with the very full order books they now have of land aircraft, to pay very much interest in the construction of flying boats or the introduction of new types of flying boats, but I suggest that ship builders should now very seriously think of this matter of the production of flying boats. I think they would be very wise indeed to have over the desk of every ship builder in this country the fact that last year more people came to this country across the sea by air than by ship.

It may be that very shortly, although there has been a sellers' market for the last six years, saturation point will be reached in the matter of ship construction. I want, and we all want, the ship builders, with their great experience of hull construction and their valuable technical personnel, now to start interesting themselves in this matter of flying boats.

I did not hear the hon. Member make-reference to the possibility of a flying base near the London area; if he did so, I did not catch it. It would be of interest to know what has happened to the suggestion that there should be a flying base on the Thames not far from London. It was put forward as an alternative to the Solent because the Navy in their stupidity thought that Gosport or anywhere in the vicinity of Portsmouth should not be used as a flying base. I think they were out-of-date and I hope that they will have another think about that.

The hon. Member was right in saying that there must be a limit to the question of landing strips and the material used and the increasing width and length of them, and so on. Undoubtedly, in nearly every part of the world, and certainly throughout the Dominions and the British Empire, good flying boat bases could be constructed and kept clear at a very reasonable cost—a cost which will not compare anything like with the present cost of runways.

A large number of people in this country do like and will always like to travel by flying boat. The sea does not change like the land contours and that is quite a consideration from the point of view of safety. When one flies over the sea, one does not fly into mountains or anything else. This is a pertinent thought.

The last point I should like to make in this very quick speech relates to density of air traffic. The hon. Member for Gosport and Fareham mentioned it and it is a very important point indeed. No matter what efficiency we have in air control, no matter how many landing strips there are, we still have the problem of density of air traffic and it is a very serious one. If we had flying boats bringing certain traffic up the Thames, we would have gone some way to meet that problem in so far as London is concerned.

I was glad to hear the name of the great Sir Frederick Bowhill mentioned in this debate. The Minister should consult him and also Mr. B. Aikman who runs Aquila Airways, the only flying boat concern in this country, an ex-Wing Commander of the Air Force, and a brilliant man. They could give advice on this problem of the future of the flying boat which is of concern to us all.

10.31 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply (Mr. A. R. W. Low)

I am sorry to intervene at this moment, but I do not think that I have very long and I should like to treat the two speeches which we have just heard with the proper consideration that is their due. I am very glad that the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Derby. North (Group Captain Wilcock) joined in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett) is, of course, well known for his interest in this subject. As he told us, he raised it about 18 months ago. He has given us an interesting speech again this evening, and I can assure him that we find his remarks most interesting and valuable and I will take full account of what the hon. and gallant Member for Derby, North said as well.

I can congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport and Fareham on a certain pertinacity in dealing with the subject of flying boats. I think he shares that with another gallant Gentleman outside the House who also shares his name. I think that he knows to whom I am referring.

Mr. Ralph Morley (Southampton, Hitchin) rose——

Mr. Low

I really must ask the hon. Member to be good enough to let me get on. I should like to deal with the first of the changes which have taken place in the past 18 months. The first is that the first Princess, engined with Proteus II has flown. During this period the Government decided that work on the other two Princesses had to be postponed for the time being until the coupled Proteus III engines are available. The House knows that this project has cost about £7½ million so far. The programme of flight testing for the first Princess will cost a further £250,000.

General research goes on, but, apart from general research, Government development work on flying boats is at present concentrated on the Princess project. We have not been asked to start on any other project, such as the Sunderland replacement, which was the subject of a Parliamentary Question last year and which my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport and Fareham mentioned.

I know that the possibility of a flying boat being required for this purpose is not excluded by the Air Council, but other factors have to be considered of which the most obvious are cost and the conflicting demands on the available research and development resources. There are, of course, other types of aircraft which may be able to perform maritime duties comtemplated by my hon. Friend. We expect to learn much about the Princess from flying tests, and much about flying boats generally, including the shapes of their hulls.

I should like to say a word about the general arguments in favour of the flying-boat which my hon. Friend and the hon. and gallant Member for Derby, North have put forward to the House. I have no time to deal with them in detail. I might have liked to have done so. If I had I should not have taken sides, and it is a matter on which I do not wish to take sides tonight. But I have a brief comment to make on the general line of the argument.

If we have to consider the tug-of-war between the flying boat advocates on the one hand and the land plane advocates on the other, there are many factors to be taken into account other than direct operating costs. It may be that for air liners of the size now contemplated, with 100 or more seats and 200,000 lb. in weight, a flying boat's direct operating costs are comparable with those of a corresponding land plane. The problems of runway lengths and strengths are, of course, relevant.

Future technical developments, such as deflected and reversed thrusts of jet engines, may come to the land plane's assistance, but in comparing costs of marine air bases and land airports we cannot overlook the enormous investment already made in land airports and the fact that on any argument these airports will always be needed and will always have the advantage of being near the big cities and centres. Moreover, marine bases, each of them, cost a great deal, and if we operate flying boats, alone amongst the major air operating countries, we shall have to pay the cost of all marine bases outside Britain as well.

My hon. Friend mentioned the figure of 150 tons as the maximum for land planes. Above that weight he thinks flying boats should replace the land planes. Last year he put the figure at 60 to 80 tons. Maybe in a year or two my hon. Friend may come before us and be using the same arguments and say that the right figure is 200 tons. I mention those figures, not to score off him, but to point out the changing arguments.

He spoke of the Delta wing which has the advantage of low wing loading for take-off and landing, and the bypass engine that has the advantage of saving in fuel and, therefore, in weight. Both these developments will, I think, favour the land plane, other things being equal.

The House may be wondering whether there has recently been a change of view amongst experts and prospective users to the advantage of the flying boat. The Princess' first flight was bound to provoke interest and well deserved congratulations. The comments of the Chairman of B.O.A.C. at the time of the maiden flight showed that B.O.A.C. shared the general interest and joined in the well-earned tributes that were being paid, though I must say that I do not recollect him congratulating the Minister of Supply. B.O.A.C. will, no doubt, watch the development of the first Princess, but I know of no indication that B.O.A.C. are once again considering the possibilities of using the Princesses on scheduled airlines.

The single Proteus III engine is required for the Britannia, for which there may well be a considerable demand overseas. Bristol's have a big job to do in completing the development of this engine and the Olympus engine, which is very important. Further work will be needed after that to couple the Proteus III which is required in coupled form for the second and third Princesses. If we asked them to do this all at once, the Britannia and the users of the other engine would suffer. It may well be that the Princesses will have to wait, and I am sure the House and my hon. Friend would agree that that is right.

There is, I think, little between my hon. Friend and myself. The question whether in different circumstances the Ministry of Supply would take special steps to see that the flying boat did not die is a hypothetical question. At present we have the first Princess, and we intend in due course to go on with the other two. Smaller flying boats which may be required for military and commercial purposes will gain from the work on the Princess just as the Britannia has gained from work on the Brabazon. Those responsible for development and the potential users will be able to learn from the development work in tests on the Princess and take the next steps accordingly.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-one Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.