HC Deb 17 June 1953 vol 516 cc1143-50

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

11.51 p.m.

Mr. John Grimston (St. Albans)

The topic I am raising this evening, namely, the closing of certain of the Reserve flying schools, is a very wide one and I shall try to limit what I have to say to give my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Air an opportunity of answering the points which I shall seek to make.

I should say, at the outset, that my object is to give him this opportunity of explaining the purpose behind this move which, in my experience, is imperfectly understood by those most affected. To narrow the field for discussion between us, may I also say that I agree with my hon. Friend and with the Government that economies were necessary in the operation of these schools, that there were many petty extravagances in their day to day running which did not exist under the arrangements which operated before the war, and that there were many men on the strength of the various flights who could serve no useful purpose. There was a good deal of unproductive training done, there has been no clear aim before these reserves since the war, and they have provided a large number of pilots whose ages were getting increasingly high and who would consequently be of little value in the event of war.

I should also make it clear that I do not regard these reserves as a source of operational jet fighter pilots in the event of war, but I differ from the Minister on two main questions: First, the method of timing and putting over his announcement, and, secondly, the effect of the move on the future supply of pilots for Coastal Command, for Transport Command and for civil aircraft.

To deal with the first point first, it seems to me that the impression which this move has given in the way it was put over has been that it was a snap decision taken without sufficient forethought. In the first place it was announced on 20th December, a few days before Christmas, at a time when those men who were affected could do nothing whatever to help themselves. Although this may seem a small point, it is one on which the people affected feel very much.

Secondly, three months after the announcement was made an advertisement appeared in "Flight," a magazine read by flying people, asking them to join the very Service from which they had been sacked. The advertisement was strongly worded and asked people who were in the R.A.F. in the war to go back into the R.Aux.A.F. and the Volunteer Reserve on a part-time basis. It went on, "What so many do not realise is that the R.A.F. really needs part-timers and cannot do without them. In going back on a part-time basis you will be doing a service to yourself and the country." That fact that that advertisement was inserted three months after the decision to sack these men did not encourage them to feel that the decision was taken after a great deal of thought. I hope that the Minister will be able to correct at least that point.

Six months after they were told they were going to be dismissed and their schools closed down many of the members of these reserves still do not know whether they are, in fact, to be offered flying jobs or not. On the other hand, several obvious misfits have been retained. One case concerns a man of 46 who can be of no possible use in the event of war, and another one concerns a man grounded through lack of nerve who has been offered a further five years' flying engagement. These are small, isolated points, but they serve to indicate how the people on the job regard the way the decision is working out in practice, and they need reassurance.

Lastly, the effect of the timing has been not to make for a smaller, more efficient and keener Reserve, but one much disillusioned. A subsidiary effect of this method of putting over this decision has been the effect on the recruitment to this and similar services. There is a feeling that if this is the way one is treated in the Air Force it is better to go to the other Services.

The closing down of flying on smaller aerodromes means that the overheads, such as fire and flying control, police, and so on, will become a burden which the remaining civilian flying element on these aerodromes will be unable to bear, and, consequently, will result in their closing down with the loss of opportunity to young men to become keen on the air and enter the Service in the future.

The main result of the decision is that it will mean that we shall not get the kind of reserve of pilots for transport and coastal aircraft that I am quite certain we need. There is a feeling shared by many that the Air Ministry is obsessed with the flying of jet aircraft by young pilots, and possibly with the future development of guided missiles. As has been shown by the Americans in Korea, I believe that equally important in the event of war is the need to get people to and from the theatre of war as quickly as possible. That means an increasing use of transport aircraft.

Pilots for these aircraft are people who can very well be trained part-time for ordinary civilian walks of life. A man does not need to be very young to fly them. What is needed is that a man be exceptionally keen, accurate, and should have the qualities of mind to enable him to know a great deal about navigation, trigonometry, and radio. All these things can be learned in the class rooms, cheaply. A very useful adjunct to our reserves would be formed if they were manned on a part-time basis by the kind of young men who like to do part-time National Service, and prefer to do it in a Service connected with the air.

I believe the supply of pilots is not a thing of which the R.A.F. can wash its hands. Only recently B.O.A.C. had to go to Australia to recruit its pilots. Surely that is wrong. We can produce the pilots if young men have the opportunity, and I believe there is no better training than that obtained before the war through a reserve branch of the R.A.F.

To sum up. I believe that economies have to be made, but the decision appears to have been a snap decision, taken without sufficient thought. I believe it is not understood by those who spent their whole working lives in the job. I believe that it represents a lessening of the opportunity for part-time service for the right type of young man, which is a pity. I believe the effect on coastal transport and civil flying, and so on, future recruits, will be serious. Finally, I hope that this debate will give the Minister the opportunity of explaining to many people who are seriously worried at the moment.

12.1 a.m.

Dr. Horace King (Southampton, Test)

The young men we are talking about served in the war with great distinction. Young and middle-aged R.A.F. reservists have come to me and expressed their sense of disappointment and frustration at what has happened. They served their country and they wish to continue to do so. They are not too old at 35, 38 or 39, and if they are not physically capable or mentally alert enough to serve with the jet planes they can serve in the pistonengine aeroplanes.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. J. Grimston) for raising this subject and I hope that the Minister may say something which will allay the feeling of injustice which exists.

12.2 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Mr. George Ward)

In the autumn of last year the Government carried out a thorough review of the defence programme in all its aspects. This was announced to the House of Commons by the Prime Minister on 4th December. Included in that review was a careful examination of the size and shape of our air crew reserves to see whether we were getting the best value for the considerable amount of money we were spending on their training.

In calculating the most economical and efficient size of a reserve air crew force account must be taken of the number of aircraft we are likely to have in war and the known wastage rates. In calculating the shape of the reserve there must be a thorough examination of the age and qualification of each individual reservist and his experience. All this was done before any decision was arrived at and the decision made was not a snap decision.

More for the benefit of the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. King) than for my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. J. Grimston) I would quote what I said on this subject in the speech I made in the Air Estimates debate on 12th March: We have also made a thorough re-examination of our air crew policy for the Volunteer Reserve. We have taken into account the fact that the age of these reservists is rising; that many of them have necessarily been out of touch with Service flying for some years; and that any refresher training on modern operational aircraft must inevitably be given at Royal Air Force stations, as, indeed, happened when we called up pilots for three months' refresher training on operational types in 1950. In consequence, we can only justify in present circumstances, giving training on Chipmunks and Ansons to a much smaller proportion of the aircrew now on the Reserve. These considerations have led us to the inescapable conclusion that we can and must make a saving in the provision of reserve flying facilities."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th March, 1953: Vol. 512, c. 1512–3.] By the middle of December it had already become clear that substantial economies had to be made, and that has been acknowledged by my hon. Friend tonight. Although our detailed examination was not entirely complete we were left without any doubt whatever even at that stage that whatever the outcome was we could immediately close seven schools.

However, before taking any action to close those schools I felt it was my duty to tell the House of Commons about it. But it was the last week of the Session. If I had waited until January, when the House reassembled, a whole month would have passed during which we should have been spending a considerable amount of money which we knew that we ought not to spend. We therefore felt it our duty to tell the House before the Christmas Recess and to take action to close down seven of the schools without delay.

I very much regret that it was necessary to do this just before Christmas, but I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate the exceptional difficulty I was in in the matter. The advertisement in the magazine "Flight" was directed at the whole field of recruitment for non-Regular Forces and not necessarily at Volunteer Reserve aircrew alone. All the same, in the form in which it was produced it could be reasonably interpreted as designed to attract aircrew primarily. Therefore, we withdrew it immediately after my speech on the Estimates in March.

My hon. Friend said that many reservists still did not know their fate. I am advised that all pilots have already been told and that all signallers and navigators will be told by the end of this week. With the letter which we wrote to each reservist went a personal message from my noble Friend explaining the reasons for our action and expressing the Air Council's appreciation of the service which that reservist had given to the Royal Air Force and regret that we had to end his training. We earnestly hope that many of them will continue to serve the R.A.F. in a ground branch.

I cannot answer my hon. Friend tonight on the question of the individual cases, but I should be glad to look into them if he will let me have further details. I am very keen that this matter should work smoothly and that there should be no misunderstanding of that sort. What about the remainder? The picture is not really as bad as it has been painted—not by my hon. Friend but by others elsewhere. In round numbers, a total of 3,200 aircrew will remain out of the original 7,600. Taking pilots only, 2,200 will remain out of 5,000. That will include about 250 qualified flying instructors whom we may need at the flying schools on the outbreak of war.

All these 3,200 will, of course, continue their training, and a large number of them will voluntarily go to R.A.F. stations to do their continuous annual training on operational types of aircraft. As regards the future, the aircrew reserves are now beginning to benefit from the flow of young National Service men and short service Regular aircrew who have completed their full time service in the R.A.F. and are up to date on modern types of jet aircraft. Although I am inclined to sympathise with what has been said tonight about being too absorbed with jets, we cannot lose sight of the fact that this is a jet age. Before very long, there will be far more jet planes in the Air Force than piston-engined types. But there will also still be room in the Volunteer Reserve for additional entrants under the age of 26.

The figures I have given do not represent the whole of our aircrew reserve. I wish to make that quite clear. There is quite a considerable built-in reserve in the Regular force, because in the ordinary course of their duties and of their careers many fully trained operational pilots, with recent squadron flying experience, are necessarily doing a tour of duty on the ground or in some non-operational type of flying. These would be available immediately to take their places in the front line on the outbreak of war and would be replaced by people beyond the age for operational flying.

My hon. Friend mentioned particularly supplies of crews for Transport and Coastal Command. I have figures here of reserves with experience of all roles in the air force. Out of the total of 3,200 I mentioned, we are keeping nearly 1,000 who have had experience in the transport role. Moreover, those with the necessary experience of transport flying will be kept on until they are 40 years of age. Then there will be the flow in the ordinary course of events of pilots coming out of the R.A.F. at the end of their short service engagements and taking their places in the Reserve, as the older men reach the age limit and have to retire. That, of course, is the object of any Reserve—to keep going all the time the flow of people who will be most useful in time of war.

As regards Coastal Command, we are keeping nearly 500 who are experienced in that branch, and the same applies to the flow of new blood into reserve training in the maritime or coastal role as I pointed out in the case of the transport role. Civil aviation was another point which was worrying my hon. Friend. The R.A.F. will, of course, always remain the main training ground—the nursery if you like—for civil aviation pilots. Many people who finish their short service engagements will take employment in civil aviation; and that is as it should be.

The more people we can get into the Air Force for four- and eight-year engagements the better it will be for civil aviation as those people finish their engagements and go out into civil aviation again. The number of National Service aircrews who have taken on employment in civil aviation has been very few, and that has been a disappointment to us all, but it is quite understandable, because in the short time they are with us they do not really get the experience for which the civilian operators are looking, and it costs them a good deal of money to get it on their own.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans for raising this matter tonight, because it gives me another opportunity of saying something to dispel the doubts felt by people who really have not had the opportunity to study this matter because it is so complicated. I know that my hon. Friend must feel deeply about the closing down of the No. 1 Reserve Flying School at Panshanger. This is the original de Havilland School of Flying and was the oldest of the schools which trained reservists of the Royal Air Force for a great many years—a task which was begun at Stag Lane as long as 30 years ago.

Many of the other civil flying schools have an equally fine record of training our airmen under civil contract over the years. They have staffs which include names famous in the aviation world, and some who have been in the schools since their earliest days have helped to train many thousands of Royal Air Force crews. The knowledge of the fine work done by these famous schools made our decision all the more difficult. I should like to say once again how very much we appreciate all the work they have done for us in the past and how deeply my noble Friend and all members of the Air Council regret that we have had to close them down.

Adjourned accordingly at Seventeen Minutes past Twelve o'clock, a.m.