HC Deb 16 February 1955 vol 537 cc388-92
Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I will, Mr. Speaker, with your permission and that of the House, answer Question No. 53 with the following statement.

I am sure that the House will share the Government's gratitude to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cohen, and to his assessors, Sir William Farren, Professor Duncan and Air Commodore Wheeler, for their conduct of this memorable Inquiry, and for the clear and masterly Report which they have produced.

The court found that the cause of the accident to the Comet wrecked off Elba was the structural failure of the pressure cabin brought about by fatigue. Owing to the impossibility of salvaging any of the wreckage from the Naples crash, the court could give no positive answer to the cause of this accident but concluded that it was at least possible that the cause was the same as that of the Elba accident.

The court have made a number of recommendations designed to prevent future similar accidents and the Government has no hesitation in accepting all these recommendations. They include suggestions directed to guarding against fatigue, particularly in pressure cabins, the fullest use by aircraft manufacturers and others of the facilities available in Government research establishments, the pursuit of scientific and technical research into the problems of pressure cabin design; and the possibility of more intensive flight testing of future aircraft with novel design features.

I am glad to be able to assure the House that action to implement these recommendations is being taken by my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Supply and myself in collaboration with the Air Registration Board. Indeed, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald), speaking on behalf of the Crown, informed the court, action on some of these matters was decided on some little time ago.

The knowledge gained in this investigation will enable the Comet to be strengthened and made safe for future operation. As the House will be aware, B.O.A.C. have on order 12 Comet Us and five Comet IIIs. They are now discussing with de Havilland's the future composition of their new Comet fleet and, indeed, contemplate increasing their order to 20 aircraft.

In addition, a number of Comet IIs in a modified version are being ordered for delivery to the R.A.F. for Transport Command as early as the work involved allows. Special pressure tank tests will be arranged and the aircraft will be required to obtain a full passenger certificate of airworthiness before they can go into service.

Comet I aircraft cannot be made suitable for further airline use without extensive and costly modifications. Certain of the existing aircraft, which can be usefully employed to further research and development work for which the Ministry of Supply is responsible will be required by that Ministry. The aircraft will, in particular, be used to assist the programme of further testing and research which was recommended by Lord Cohen in his Report.

The work of the court could not have been so thoroughly done without the help given by the Italian and South African Governments. The admirable work both of the Royal Navy in salvaging so large a proportion of the wreckage of the Elba Comet, and of the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, made possible the discovery of the cause of these accidents.

Dr. Bennett

While thanking my right hon. Friend for that very comprehensive reply, may I ask whether it may now be assumed that, as a result of these misfortunes and investigations, the Comet will now prove to be the most extensively-tested aircraft that ever left the ground?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I think it is true that the results of these very detailed and careful investigations will have the effect suggested by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Stokes

Does the Minister appreciate what a tremendous effect the very thorough investigation that has been made of the Comet will have on the public travelling by air, and how reassured they will be by the ruthless way in which anything considered to be unfit will never be used again? I am sure it is the view of the whole House that the new Comet will move from success to success.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I am much obliged to the right hon. Member, and I agree with what he has said.

Air Commodore Harvey

Will my right hon. Friend make quite clear that the tests carried out at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough are a lesson to the world in thoroughness? Secondly, may I ask the approximate cost of the Comet I taken over for test purposes and the approximate date when the Comet II is likely to be in service?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The answer to the first point is "Yes, Sir." I would ask that notice of the second part of the supplementary question should be given to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply.

Mrs. White

How much will be added to the cost of Comet II and Comet III in order to bring them up to the standard required, following the recommendations?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I think that is a question which better be put down on the Order Paper.

Mr. Smithers

Can my right hon. Friend say whether the inquiries made in the course of the investigation have satisfied him as to the security conditions existing along the route travelled by the Comet?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

If I recollect rightly, that matter was dealt with by the court of inquiry. I have no reason to doubt the wisdom of the court of inquiry.

Mr. Beswick

Would the right hon. Gentleman say upon whom will fall the cost for the Comet Is which are not now to be put into airline service? Secondly, can any statement be made by any of his colleagues about the transference of public funds to the de Havilland company for the purchase of the Comet IIs, which are already in the course of production, and which, I understand, will also not go into civil airline service?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I think that questions on that subject are rather for the Minister of Supply.

Mr. Beswick

Is it not the case that the original cost of the Comet I was borne by B.O.A.C. which, of course, entered into those commitments with the agreement of the Minister, and that to some extent he is responsible for these contracts? To that extent, therefore, can he not answer the question?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

No, Sir. In the first place, this is purely a commercial matter between the builders and the operators. If the builders were the concern of any of my right hon. Friends, I think it would be a matter for the Minister of Supply.

Mr. Usborne

Whilst, when the Comet II and III again come into service, they will probably be far and away the safest aircraft flying, that is obviously going to take some time. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us what is likely to happen in the meantime to that small but expert team of B.O.A.C. engaged on Comet development? What are they to do in the meantime?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I think that in the first place that is a matter for the B.O.A.C. commercial management, but if I can get the information for the hon. Member from them I shall be glad to do so.

Mr. Rankin

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us what is happening to that part of the fleet of Comet Is which will no longer be used commercially? Is that going to the R.A.F.? If so, are those machines going to be in a state of airworthiness?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I did deal with that matter in the penultimate paragraph of my statement. When the hon. Member has read it, he may put down a further Question, if he cares to do so, and I will do my best to answer it. I think the statement deals fully with the matter.

Mr. Beswick

Are we to understand that it will now be a requirement for future certificates of airworthiness that pressurised aircraft must be tested in a tank similar to that at Farnborough? If that is the case, what will be the policy of the right hon. Gentleman towards the purchase of aircraft of a similar type from other countries which have not had the same type of testing to which British aircraft will, in future, be subjected?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I should not like to answer the first part of the supplementary question completely dogmatically without notice, but generally speaking the answer is "Yes." The general question of aircraft supplied from foreign countries is, of course, a different one. If the hon. Member wants an answer to that I suggest that he put a Question down.