HC Deb 21 December 1955 vol 547 cc2101-10

3.55 p.m.

Mr. R. E. Winterbottom (Sheffield, Brightside)

I want to raise certain matters arising out of the disastrous air crash at Lodge Moor Hospital, Sheffield. My first point is that I am not going to give any lever to people who oppose American air forces being in this country. I welcome American air forces in this country, and, so far as this crash is concerned, I have no criticism to make at all of the American air forces.

The second point is really the reason why I requested this Adjournment debate. When I heard of the crash on Lodge Moor Hospital I came down to London as quickly as possible, but I was too late to put a Private Notice Question to the Prime Minister. I thought that only the Prime Minister or the Defence Minister was of the right political stature to answer Questions in respect of this disaster. I was too late for that, so I submitted a Question to the Prime Minister on the Tuesday, but it was rejected by the Table. The revised Question was put on the Order Paper for the Thursday. That Question was addressed to the Prime Minister. I was informed at the last minute that the Question had been referred to the Under-Secretary of State for Air. When I looked at the Order Paper I saw that it was Question No. 84, and that there was no possibility, no probable shadow of possibility, of getting in any supplementary question which I wanted to ask in respect of this disaster.

I resent that very much. I resent it for the people of Sheffield and for all those who are concerned about what happens in air crashes of this description. I couple with it the name of the Defence Minister, because the Prime Minister avoids answering the Question and, secondly, the Defence Minister avoids this Adjournment debate. While I have nothing at all against the Under-Secretary of State for Air, I say that this matter is of such importance as to warrant a reply at the highest political level. It should not be left—I apologise to the Under-Secretary of State for the use of the term—to an under-strapper. The importance of the subject has been studiously avoided. I tell the Prime Minister, through the Minister he has appointed to reply to me, that he is no longer a glamour boy but a responsible Member and Leader of the Government and, as such, should answer important Questions that only he or the Defence Minister can answer.

Now to deal with the case itself. I will not go into all the details. Suffice it to say that a jet fighter crashed on Lodge Moore Hospital and that one person was killed and several people were injured. What worried me was that rescue operations were hampered by the fact that although this aeroplane was not being used for target practice or for operations needing live ammunition, it had live ammunition aboard. When the crash took place, rescue operations were hampered by the explosions of that live ammunition. The crash was bad enough. I shudder to think what would have happened if that jet plane had gone a mile or two further and had dropped on one of the big steel factories of Sheffield. Not only would the crash have been worse, but the exploding ammunition would have created in all probability hundreds of casualties.

It is on the point of the plane's carrying live ammunition that I join issue with the Under-Secretary of State for Air, who has already sent me a reply to my Question in which he says that it is essential to have live ammunition on aeroplanes of this kind. I see no reason for that at all. Aeroplanes not engaged on target practice or on operations where they have to shoot should be prohibited from carrying live ammunition, because if they crash the subsequent explosions are a danger to life and limb. That is the simple point which I wish to make to the Under-Secretary of State today. I understand that he has now been appointed to another office, but I want him to give a pledge to the House that the points I am now making will be passed to the Prime Minister or to the Defence Minister—either or both—and that the House may have some reply to assuage the feelings of people, not only in Sheffield but in other places where there have been crashes and where the rescue work has been hampered in this way.

All target practice should be done well out to sea. The machines which are carrying the ammunition should, therefore, be stationed near to the sea. If that is impossible, then at least their courses should be so plotted that there is little danger to urban populations. I suggest that an instruction should be given to the Royal Air Force—and, perhaps, a recommendation made through the Prime Minister to the United States Air Force—that unless aircraft actually need live ammunition for their operations, the carrying of it should be prohibited in future. That is essential.

I do not worry so much about the fact that aircraft cannot be guaranteed not to crash sometimes, but I am concerned that when a machine does crash the dangers caused by its falling shall not be intensified by the explosion of live ammunition unnecessarily carried. I ask that a statement should be made to the House as soon as possible to the effect that such an instruction has been issued.

4.3 p.m.

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

I do not want to deal at any great length with the points made by the hon. Member for Brightside (Mr. R. E. Winterbottom) in the first part of his speech, except to say that I think that it was perfectly reasonable and proper for the Prime Minister to ask the Air Ministry to deal with this question. The Air Ministry is the Department which answers for the activities of the United States Air Force in this country, and is also fully qualified and able to deal with points of technical detail that may arise in the course of investigations and inquiries. I cannot, therefore, accept the accusation that the Prime Minister or the Minister of Defence has behaved in any way discourteously to the hon. Member.

Mr. Winterbottom

I am not accusing the Prime Minister of being discourteous to me—that does not matter. I am accusing the Prime Minister of being discourteous to Sheffield—and that does matter.

Mr. Ward

I am afraid that I must disagree with the hon. Member that the Prime Minister has been in any way discourteous to the hon. Gentleman's constituents.

However, I do not want to minimise at all the importance which I attach to this matter. Of course, this disaster is most distressing, and I am sure that the House will join with me in expressing sympathy to the relatives of the deceased and those who were injured in this tragic accident. As the hon. Member will probably know, the United States Ambassador sent an expression of his profound sympathy and his Government's distress to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, and General Wilson commanding the United States Third Air Force in the United Kingdom also expressed his deepest regrets and offered the use of any United States Air Force facilities or personnel such as hospital or medical assistance.

The report of the United States Air Force Board of Investigation will not be completed until later this week, and I am therefore precluded, and will indeed be so for some time, from making detailed comments upon the cause of this accident.

The bare facts which I can give the House are that a United States Air Force F-84.F fighter, abandoned by its pilot, crashed on Lodge Moor hospital about five miles west of Sheffield. The pilot is reported to have baled out at a height of about 3,000 feet and landed at Hathersage, about five miles from the hospital, suffering from shock and minor injuries. The aircraft was based at and came from the R.A.F. station at Sculthorpe in Norfolk, and was one of the United States Air Force fighters stationed in this country and pledged to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

One patient in the hospital was killed; 10 were injured, though I am glad to say not seriously; and considerable damage was done to the hospital. All that is very regrettable and distressing. The procedure for submitting claims for injury and damage has been explained to the relatives of the deceased, the injured and the hospital authorities, and I can certainly give an assurance that claims will be dealt with quickly and will be given every possible sympathetic consideration.

I would like to assure the House that accidents of this kind are fortunately rare. Indeed, since the beginning of 1946 only one person has been killed and two injured on the ground as a result of aircraft of the Royal Air Force being abandoned. The single fatal casualty resulted from a mid-air collision in which the impact in the air threw both pilots out of their aircraft.

Pilots of both Air Forces do their utmost to ensure that if an aircraft has to be abandoned full regard is had for the safety of the public on the ground. The rarity of an accident such as this is, I think, a tribute to the skill and the care exercised by pilots in this way. Hon. Members will doubtless recall several instances where pilots have preferred to crash with their aircraft rather than abandon them because of their concern for public safety. In particular, I would mention the instance in February of this year when a United States Air Force pilot was killed staying with his aircraft to avoid crashing on a housing estate in Great Yarmouth.

I have no doubt at all that everything is done to avoid accidents of this kind. I would mention particularly the fact that where an aircraft is under control from the ground at the time that it has to be abandoned, special care is taken to vector it towards open country.

The hon. Member has questioned the need for the carriage of live ammunition in aircraft, and I think that was the score on which he had the greatest anxiety. Let me first of all make it clear for the record that no one in Lodge Moor was killed or injured as a result of ammunition exploding.

Mr. Winterbottom

I did not say that. I said that rescue work was hampered.

Mr. Ward

I did not suggest that the hon. Member had said it, but it is as well to have this statement on the record for those who are studying the matter: no one was killed or injured by ammunition exploding.

The carriage of ammunition by aircraft of the Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force is necessary, and to place restrictions on it, such as were suggested, would, I am quite sure, interfere to an unacceptable degree with operational training and, indeed, would be bound to affect the operational efficiency of the two Air Forces.

Mr. Winterbottom

Will the Minister explain why ammunition has to be carried on an operation for instrument testing? That is the simple question which the people of Sheffield are asking.

Mr. Ward

If I may go on with my speech, I will deal with the matter; I have not finished with it yet.

I am advised that the risk of live ammunition being ignited in an aircraft crash is quite remote unless a fire occurs. In the event of fire, there is no risk of a mass explosion but individual rounds may be set off and in this case they may be propelled to a distance of 50–75 yards. The results of any such explosion are fortunately unlikely to cause serious injury, but I agree with the hon. Member for Brightside that they have a deterrent effect upon those trying to carry out rescue operations. I would add that in the case of the United States Air Force in this country there is no record of any major claim arising from the explosion of ammunition after an aircraft crash.

Clearly, an aircraft engaged in a training exercise involving the firing of live ammunition must carry ammunition. There are also occasions—and this may well be one—on which an aircraft has to carry ammunition in its ammunition boxes, although the guns may not be charged, because that gives it the right weight and balance which it needs.

Mr. George Darling (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Sand could be put in the ammunition boxes.

Mr. Ward

I am advised that the weight has to be properly distributed and the correct load carried. I would suggest to the hon. Member for Brightside that it would be as well to await the findings of the investigation into this matter, because I have no doubt whatever that the investigation will go into the reasons for which ammunition was being carried. Very likely there will be a perfectly good explanation. It is being investigated and I am certainly not in a position to anticipate the findings.

All the evidence available, both to the United States Air Force and to the Royal Air Force, shows that not only is the risk of casualties to people on the ground, as a result of an aircraft being abandoned in the air, extremely small, but also the number of casualties from the explosion of live ammunition as a result of aircraft accidents is negligible.

I therefore suggest that the policy as it stands and the regulations governing these matters should not be altered at the expense of the operational efficiency of the force unless the need for it is great enough, and, on the evidence, I do not think the need for a change of policy exists. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that his speech will be carefully studied at the Air Ministry, and I have no doubt that my successors will consider carefully whether any change of policy is needed, but I hope that I have convinced the hon. Gentleman that the risk is so small that no change of policy is required.

4.16 p.m.

Mr. John Hynd (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

It may be true that we shall have to await the results of the inquiry before we find out why this particular plane was carrying live ammunition in these circumstances, but I think that my hon. Friends will be disturbed to learn from the Under-Secretary of State for Air that to test a plane with the appropriate weights it must carry live ammunition. We do not know why this was necessary in this case.

The hon. Gentleman is Under-Secretary of State of Air—at present, at any rate—and, therefore, responsible for practices in the Royal Air Force. Are we to understand from him that it is considered by the Ministry essential that when a Royal Air Force plane is on practice flights, and it is desired to find out how it will react to certain conditions, including the weight of a full load of ammunition, it is necessary that live ammunition should be carried? Is it not possible for the Ministry to consider an alternative form of ballast, such as sand, which would serve the same purpose?

Mr. G. Darling

Or blank ammunition?

Mr. Hynd

Blank ammunition would probably not be suitable because it does not contain lead.

However remote the possibility of a crash in which ammunition is scattered about, I am surprised to hear that ammunition of the size of the present air fighting ammunition, scattering at a distance of fifty to seventy-five yards although not fired from the barrel of the gun, is not likely to cause serious harm. Is it not possible for some alternative ballast to be used, because however remote these accidents may be, they can happen, as is shown by this particular case, and lead to very serious consequences? May we have an assurance from the Under-Secretary that his Department have not overlooked the possibility of this, and that they will consider whether it is vital that complete sets of live ammunition should be carried under these conditions?

Mr. Ward

I am advised that when aircraft are engaged on flights requiring the carriage of a full war load, the ammunition is carried in boxes, although the guns are not charged. There certainly may be other ways of doing this, but I am sure that anyone who has examined a fighter aircraft and has seen how carefully the ammunition is stowed in such a small space, would not expect, without very careful discussion and investigation at the Air Ministry, that it would be possible or practicable to substitute some other kind of ballast for live ammunition.

The anxiety expressed by hon. Members will certainly be put to my successors at the Air Ministry, and I am sure that they will consider with great care all the points that have been made.

Mr. Hynd

The Under-Secretary has expressed surprise that this proposal has been made and he has assured us that he will examine it.

4.20 p.m.

Mr. George Darling (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Two points gravely disturb me. One is the question of training flights. I understand that this was an American aircraft from an American air base on a training flight. I should have thought that in the wide open spaces of the United States training flights could operate with far greater safety than here. I am not developing any anti-American theme, and I do not want to do so, but one would have thought that pilots sent from the United States over here would have been properly trained and that no further training flights of this kind would have been needed over here.

Secondly, if training flights are needed and they involve the carrying of ammunition, they should not be sent over populated areas of this country. Apparently, this aircraft came from Norfolk. If a training flight involved the carrying of live ammunition from Norfolk, the aircraft should have gone east instead of west. Then, if anything happened, the explosion would have taken place over the North Sea and not over the populated city of Sheffield. I cannot accept any of the curious excuses and special pleading which have come from the Under-Secretary about the carrying of live ammunition on a training flight which was westward from Norfolk over populated areas of this country. Nothing the hon. Gentleman has said will comfort people in the populated areas of this country who might have an aircraft full of ammunition falling upon them.

We thoroughly understand that aircraft might drop from the skies through all kinds of accidents, but why in heaven's name they should have to carry live ammunition when travelling over England I do not know. Nothing the hon. Gentleman has said has suggested to me any excuse for this practice. It does not seem intelligent either from the point of view of military training, of aircraft training, or anything else. I am confident that none of the statements made in his speech will comfort anyone. I suggest that this question should be inquired into more thoroughly so that we have a proper explanation of why this aircraft was carrying live ammunition over England.

4.22 p.m.

Mr. Jack Jones (Rotherham)

I want to question the idea that this plane had to carry a certain amount of weight. This accident happened not far from my constituency. It could have been that that aircraft came to a standstill in the middle of one of the steel furnaces in that area. Then the live ammunition would have created havoc in perhaps hundreds of homes in the area.

It is all nonsense to suggest that blank ammunition of the same weight could not have been carried. Those of us who have spent time instructing boys in the use of ammunition know how easy it is to take out a few threads of cordite so that the ammunition is rendered harmless. The objection about weight is a lame excuse. If it is packed carefully in belts it is a matter of meticulous mathematical calculation, but even those belts could be filled with blank ammunition and one or two empty boxes put in to give the necessary weight to the aircraft.

We are not suggesting that a particular air force deliberately set out to harm the public. That would be a very foolish thing to suggest. What we are suggesting is that in peace time when flights are made over thickly populated districts of that type where there are steel furnaces, blast furnaces, rolling mills and what have you, every care and precaution should be taken. I express the hope that in future when aircraft must carry a certain weight, the ammunition will be blank. As in the case of dead bodies, it would be the same weight but harmless.

4.24 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Mulley (Sheffield, Park)

I want to reinforce what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. Jack Jones) and to say that my hon. Friends and I are not satisfied with the explanation which has been given by the Under-Secretary of State.

Even though it might be said that the danger of ammunition exploding was so small as to make the matter in the past one of a very tiny risk, obviously now the situation has changed. An accident has occurred in which somebody has been killed and others seriously injured. It was evident from the accounts of eye witnesses of the disaster that the explosion of ammunition was a very serious additional hazard.

I ask the Under-Secretary or his successor to convey to the United States Air Force our feeling that, quite apart from the very valid point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. G. Darling), there are plenty of places in this country and out at sea where training flights, particularly those with which some risk may be involved, could be undertaken instead of over closely-packed industrial areas.

Secondly, will the Minister and the United States Air Force give careful consideration to the complete elimination of the carrying of live ammunition of any kind on a purely training operation? I agree that we must await the full inquiry report, but I hope that it will become available to Members of this House who represent the constituents involved in the accident. I hope that by then we shall also have a satisfactory statement as to future policy.