HC Deb 02 February 1953 vol 510 cc1615-26

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

10.33 p.m.

Mr. Norman Dodds (Dartford)

It is with regret that I raise the problem of a London helidrome on a day when the nation is plunged into gloom because of the widespread floods on the East Coast, from which my own constituency did not escape. This morning there were 350 homeless people there, and the Mayor of Erith was pleased when at 10.30 consent was given to requisition 20 empty houses. But five hours later, at 3.30 p.m., that approval was countermanded, and the Mayor was informed that there had been a high level talk at which it had been decided that empty houses could not be requisitioned for that purpose. I hope tomorrow to follow up that point which has created in my constituency not only gloom, but a lot of anger.

With regard to a London helidrome, there are many local authorities in the big cities who have been encouraged by Ministerial statements to provide sites for building helidromes near the centre of their cities. On 17th January, 1952, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport said, in Cardiff, that progressive local authorities should consider the scheduling of sites to cater for helicopter travel.

The Ministry of Civil Aviation have for quite a considerable time been encouraging local authorities in large cities to make provision for helicopter passenger stations, and many have got on with the job. But there is a vital need to make a decision in London as soon as possible and I raise this matter tonight in the hope that I can speed that decision.

Some people think that there has been too much talk and too little action on this vital transport problem. Municipal authorities throughout Britain are waiting for a decision to be made on a helidrome for London—on whether it is to be built, on an appropriate site, in the centre or on the outskirts of the city. That does not mean that any building operations need to be started for some time. The need is for some decision with regard to London.

I have taken the trouble to write to many of the town clerks of our large cities. The City of Edinburgh make it clear that: There has been some discussion on the matter and correspondence with the Ministry of Civil Aviation. In a recent letter the Ministry advised that it was desirable that local authorities should reserve sites near their city centres against the time when helicopters suitable for regular operation become available. The Town Clerk of Cardiff makes it clear that his authority are very interested in the project of a helicopter station. The same is the case with the Town Clerk of Bristol. The Welsh Advisory Council for Civil Aviation make it quite clear that Wales is particularly interested in the development of a helicopter service. A committee of the City of Newcastle are: … in favour of a central site which is adjacent to the principal railway and motor omnibus station in the City. Manchester are particularly interested and their Town Clerk writes: In Manchester, we have earmarked a site which would be suitable for a helicopter station. It is very close to the London Road Station. I am sorry that I have not the authority to read out the appropriate points from a three-page letter from Birmingham, but their letter shows that that authority, too, are very keen on this proposition.

Sheffield are very anxious about it. They want to allocate a site near the centre of the city that can be made available when the twin-engined type which, presumably, will be licensed to operate in urban areas, are in service. They say that if there were a decision to have a helidrome in London, near Charing Cross, it would provide that impetus which is badly needed at the present time. The Town Clerk of Liverpool not only says that they are interested, but sends a picture of a model showing a possible helicopter station with a bus station below it.

Britain, at last, has become hoverplane conscious and six of the big aircraft firms have now declared that they are interested in rotating wing aircraft. There is the Bristol type 173, the first twin-engined, twin-rotor helicopter which successfully carried out its maiden flight at Bristol on 3rd January, 1952. This can carry 13 passengers or 2,500 1b. of cargo. B.E.A., late in 1951, produced their broad specifications for a 160 m.p.h. 45–48 passenger multi-engine helicopter. This would enable passengers to fly from the centre of London to Paris in little more time than it takes nowadays to get out to the airport. That, of course, is the only commercial advantage of helicopters.

Even if this is not possible for some time, the time to reserve London sites is now. That is why I hope that in the case of London there will not be too much delay in deciding on a site. I do not want to make politics out of this subject, but some very cautious statements have been made since the present Government came into office. I am indebted for the opinion of the helicopter people to the "Evening Standard" of 6th September, 1952.

The Helicopter Association had a social gathering and a dinner at Londonderry House. There were present, designers, manufacturers, test pilots, and overseas visitors, all discussing hover-planes, but preferring to call them helicopters; and preferring to talk of rotor stations. They did not like the name air-stop, and I share that dislike with them. In the past I have suggested helidrome, but it has been pointed out to me by the intelligentsia that that is a bastard Greek word. In that case, let us have heliport, but not airstop.

This newspaper states that Mr. Reginald Maudling, Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Civil Aviation was present, and he said that it would be wrong to lead the public into thinking that 40-passenger helicopters were just around the corner. There were murmurs of 'Rubbish' from some of the enthusiasts, and let us remember that this was a gathering of some of the most knowledgeable of people in the matter of helicopters. According to their comment, as published by the "Evening Standard," they considered that the Parliamentary Secretary's opinion was rubbish.

In 1951, I submitted a plan for a proposed helicopter station at Charing Cross. No one suggested that this was 100 per cent. perfect, but it was put forward just as a reminder that something could be done and in the hope that it would make some contribution to the "know-how" of putting up a helicopter station. The "Illustrated London News," of 2nd February, 1952, devoted the whole of its two centre pages to this idea, and last month, an aircraft publication and an architectural and building paper both had some congratulatory things to say of it.

Continental and American magazines have made it clear that in their views this is the best proposal yet put forward for a helicopter station on stilts. When the plan was first produced to the Ministry of Civil Aviation, there was a good deal of consideration, and comments were sent back in a report dated 20th July, 1951. This report from the Ministry stated: There seems little doubt that a satisfactory 'helidrome' could be built on this site, although the plans would need considerable modification. Ground access, both by road and underground railway, is good and the principal approach by air (over the river) is excellent. That is one of the main points for the suggestion of a helidrome on stilts over Charing Cross station. Just over the Victoria Embankment, it would rise to about 98 ft. The South Bank site might be suitable, but in that case, there are various authorities concerned about noise. I understand that there is still to be some experimental flights with regard to the South Bank site, but once the helicopter is taken down below roof level, the noise is terrific; and when the helicopter takes off from the ground level, the noise is also terrible.

The Charing Cross proposal is designed to get rid of one of the worst irritants of helicopter operation in a built-up city. The problem of noise is considerably reduced by having a platform well above roof level, and for considerations of safety, the angle of approach means that on the South Bank there is the problem of chimneys. That means that so much more land is needed —land which normally would be used—to be kept clear of buildings because of safety considerations while a helicopter is coming into the helidrome when visibility is not too good.

I understand from those who study this problem that the wind caused by the rotors of large hoverplanes would create big problems if the helidrome were on the ground level. Sir Patrick Abercrombie, the planner, says that adequate radio aids and really good lighting on the rooftops of stations make it an attractive proposition as against the problem of having a helicopter station on the ground.

I am sorry I have not the time to go into more technical details, but those details are on paper and can be seen by any hon. Member interested.

Mr. Peter Roberts (Sheffield, Heeley)

As the hon. Gentleman has said, we in Sheffield are very interested in this matter and I should be grateful if he would say something about safety. I have had it put to me that if the engine falls off the machine comes straight down.

Mr. Dodds

I am glad to hear that interjection, because I am not proposing that there should be any development for a passenger network as long as there is only the single-engine type. I am referring to the time when we have twin-engine, twin rotor, development, and not until then, which I anticipate will be not later than 1955.

The hoverplane offers us a new means of speeding up Britain's communications. The journey by train from London to Manchester takes four hours. The overall air journey, including the bus ride from Kensington to Northolt Airport and from Kingsway Airport to the centre of Manchester, takes three hours. Travelling by helicopter, with passenger stations at Charing Cross and Manchester City Centre, would completely revolutionise the travelling time.

New York, for instance, has issued a report. There, they at least have faced up to the problem. They estimate that by 1975 more than six million people, £40 million worth of airmail and £6½ million worth of cargo will be carried in and out of New York every year by helicopter; and passenger operations are likely to begin in 1953 or 1954.

Then there is the need for developing helicopters for war purposes. In that respect it is felt that the decision to have a helicopter station in built-up London would be one of the greatest inspirations to tailor-made helicopters to suit any purpose for a built-up area.

I know that there are one or two other hon. Members who would like to take part in the debate, so I will conclude. I hope it will be recognised that I have said all this to help and not to hinder the development of helicopter passenger traffic in this country.

10.44 p.m.

Sir Edward Keeling (Twickenham)

I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds) admit that helicopters using a central place in London must be put on stilts, or use a high platform, otherwise the noise would be terrific. Noise is the major issue. It is quite true, just as he said about Manchester, that, as Lord Douglas of Kirtleside said the other day about Paris, a helicopter could take one direct from the centre of London to the centre of Paris, and in doing so could beat the fastest aeroplane using an airport, which has its flying time doubled by the time taken to travel the distance to and from the airports. Lord Douglas admitted that before the problem could be solved noise must be conquered. As somebody else said, it may be a very good thing to get to the Place de la Concorde in an hour and a half, but not if it becomes the Place de la Cacophonie.

At present, London is probably the quietest capital in the world, especially since motors have been stopped from hooting at night and since hotel porters have been stopped from whistling for taxis. Do not let us destroy that admirable quality of London. Unless the problem of noise is solved, a helicopter service would do grave injury to a large number of people who live, work or sleep in central London. It might affect the work of the House of Commons—it might even keep you awake, Mr. Speaker, in your house. I ask for an assurance from my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that the Government will not sanction helicopters in the centre of London unless they are satisfied that they will not make a big noise.

Mr. Dodds

Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that the Ministry have asked that there should be helicopter stations in other cities? Does he ask that London should be exempt from this?

Sir E. Keeling

I am speaking for London only.

10.51 p.m.

Mr. Gerald Nabarro (Kidderminster)

I want to say something about the tremendous time-saving possibilities of these machines. I think I can claim to be the only Member of the House who has regularly flown to and from his Parliamentary duties by helicopter. I used the Birmingham—London service in the short period that it was running and I am very happy to see that there is a prospect that it will be introduced again in a few months' time with larger machines.

In the case of the Birmingham—London service, which is an ideal run for helicopters, using the Haymills Rotor Station in Birmingham, it took 20 minutes to get from the centre of the city to Haymills, 60 minutes for the flight to Northolt and 40 minutes to drive from Northolt to the House—a total of two hours. In the case of a helicopter flying between elevated platforms in the centre of both cities, there is no doubt whatever that the time could be reduced to about 65 minutes; in other words, a cut of approximately one-half in the time.

I believe that we are on the threshhold of a helicopter age in Britain for internal passenger transport. The question of noise can, in my view, be overcome with relative ease, and by many methods that need not be gone into this evening. The point that I wish to emphasise is that only by the erection of elevated stations in the centre of our principal cities can we gain the maximum benefit from all the time-saving potentialities of these brilliant little machines.

10.53 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Civil Aviation (Mr. John Profumo)

The fact that the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds) and my hon. Friends have joined in voice tonight, as they do so frequently over this subject, is an indication of the desire to see the helicopter established as a regular form of domestic communication. This is a desire which is shared on all sides of the House. The hon. Member for Dartford is now a recognised champion in this field and has most sincerely to be congratulated on the trouble which he has taken and the pioneering work which he has done in connection with the plans which he has now submitted for a central London airstop over Charing Cross station.

Before I proceed to discuss this fascinating problem in the time at my disposal, however, I should like to make it quite clear that there are others outside the House who have for years past been actively and urgently concerned with this whole project—designers, manufacturers, officials at all levels of the British Airways Corporations, especially British European Airways, and, last, but by no means least, my right hon. Friend himself and the experts in our Department. All are equally enthusiastic about the role to be played by the helicopter in the future. Indeed, because of their deep study of the problem, they are perhaps even more conscious than are some hon. Members of the very many difficulties which must be overcome before commercial helicopters can become a practical proposition.

I might add that I am myself a wholehearted helicopter enthusiast. When I was in America last year, I visited many of the large helicopter factories and what the hon. Member for Dartford might call "hovered" my way up the Hudson River to what the Americans call the helidrome of New York, which is, incidentally, not elevated—as the hon. Member would say, "on stilts"—and is still only in the experimental stage.

Until we have been able to develop the helicopter sufficiently to make its use a commercial proposition we shall not require permanent airstops, and until we know more about the performance of multi-engined helicopters, we cannot assess accurately the basic requirements of such airstops. Let us first examine the aircraft side of the problem. Although the hon. Member has been informed that helicopters can be manufactured to suit any purpose, it is an indisputable fact that helicopters, like fixed-wing aircraft, will be conditioned in size and design by the types of available engines. At present, these are limited and must obviously place severe restrictions on the scope and speed of the "tailor making" of helicopters to suit any purpose. Incidentally, when designing a helicopter, one has to bear in mind the question of passenger fares.

In the case of the Bristol 173, Mark I, which has been referred to, and which made its first flight scarcely a year ago, it has been worked out that the aircraft will probably cost about Is. a seat mile, The market for unsubsidised helicopter transport at this fare has yet to be tested. It is against this background that we have to consider the question of landing areas for these machines in the centres of our chief cities. My Department have advised local authorities to reserve sites for airstops, and to include them in their development plans. The specification which we have recommended ought to be adequate. Nevertheless, until we have obtained more practical experience, it would be premature for my Department, or any public authority to finalise designs for airstops which may have to be substantially re-adjusted in the light of operations with twin-engine helicopters.

Mr. Dodds

I am not asking for designs, but only for sites.

Mr. Profumo

I will come to that.

While single-engine helicopters can hover and, therefore, require an alighting area only a little larger than their rotors, it appears that twin-engine machines will not be able to hover on one engine. That is important.

Now I come to the main point of the hon. Member's speech, namely, the proposal which he has laboriously, ingeniously, and ably sponsored and publicised of the erection of a vast helicopter central terminal over Charing Cross station. Such a project, entailing very large expenditure—one aeronautical journal puts it between £4 million and £6 million—must, obviously, be large enough to accept a helicopter which cannot hover, and also to allow it to land with some considerable forward speed. How big this area should be we can only find for certain by means of further experiments with twin-engine helicopters.

I must add here a word of warning about public opinion in general. Unless we are to risk unnecessary retarding of the development of this new form of travel, we must carry public opinion with us at all stages of its initial development. To come to a decision on a site of this sort, which would deeply affect thousands of Londoners and completely change the face of our capital, before we know what requirements will eventually be necessary, would raise prejudice among the public in general, and unnecessary apprehension, which would react in a direction opposite to that which I believe the hon. Member wishes to pursue.

The hon. Member asks whether we intend eventually to have a helicopter stop in the centre of London. That is what we are looking towards, and, indeed, looking for. While we are awaiting further developments in the performance of helicopters a survey of possible air-stop sites in central London has been, and is being, made.

With regard to stilts as a solution to the noise problem, this is not necessarily the case, because from a ground level site with surrounding buildings the noise may not spread beyond its immediate vicinity, whereas with an elevated site there is nothing to stop the horizontal radiation of noise. The real answer is to try to develop helicopters which will be more silent. That matter is now being pursued by the Ministry of Supply. These are the facts. It only remains for me to hope that hon. Members have at least found this debate useful and instructive. For my part, I am convinced that the helicopter will be the bird of burden for domestic use in the future. However, I must emphasise the words "in the future" because I do not believe that this is immediately round the corner. I only hope that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friends will not take what I have said in any disparaging way. We all wish to go forward with every possible help in order to develop at the earliest possible time this great new means of internal communication.

Adjourned accordingly at One Minute past Eleven o'Clock.