HC Deb 20 December 1956 vol 562 cc1476-83
The Secretary of State for Air (Mr. Nigel Birch)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement on the Vulcan accident.

The Vulcan which crashed at London Airport on 1st October was returning from a highly successful flight to Australia and New Zealand. In addition to the pilot, it carried Air Marshal Sir Harry Broadhurst, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Bomber Command, as copilot, a crew of three R.A.F. officers, and a representative of Messrs. A. V. Roe.

It had left Aden at 0250 hours Greenwich Mean Time where the captain had been given forecasts of landing weather at London Airport and certain other airfields to which he might need to divert. He obtained later information en route, including further forecasts for London Airport. The last of these was given to him when he was over Epsom.

This forecast, which indicated broken low cloud, heavy rain and little wind, with visibility at 1,100 yards, proved an accurate description of the weather actually experienced.

The aircraft had ample fuel to divert, and Air Marshal Broadhurst emphasised to the captain that he should divert if he was dissatisfied with the weather conditions prevailing. The captain decided to make one attempt to land at London Airport. At about 1004 hours, at a height of 1,500 feet and about five nautical miles from touchdown, and with both altimeters correctly set, the aircraft began its descent under the control of the Talkdown Controller at London Airport.

The captain set his "break-off height" at 300 feet, that is to say, he intended to come down under the talkdown control until his altimeter stood at 300 feet, and if he then found that it was not possible to make the landing, to over shoot at that height. The G.C.A. talkdown instructions were followed, with some undulation relative to the glide path and some corrections in azimuth, up to a point about three-quarters of a mile from touch-down, when the pilot was informed that he was 80 feet above the glide path.

At this point, the weather was at its worst. The pilot received no further information on elevation, and, at a point about 1,000 yards from the touchdown point and 700 yards from the threshold of the runway, the aircraft struck the ground. Both main undercarriage units were removed, and the elevator controls were damaged. Subsequently, the aircraft rose sharply to a height of 200–300 feet, when it was found to be out of control.

The captain then gave the order to abandon the aircraft and himself used his ejector seat. The co-pilot repeated the order and, after trying the controls, also ejected. Within seconds of the order being given, the nose and starboard wing of the aircraft dropped and the aircraft crashed to the ground. The remaining three members of the crew and the passenger were killed instantaneously on impact.

The Royal Air Force Court of Inquiry, which assembled the following day, found nothing to suggest any technical failure in the aircraft which could have contributed to the accident. It concluded that the captain of the aircraft was justified in deciding to make an attempt to land at London Airport, but it considered that, in the circumstances, he made an error of judgment in setting himself a break-off height of 300 feet and also in going below that height.

The court drew attention, however, to the facts that, though the G.C.A. controller informed the pilot about seven seconds before the aircraft first hit the ground that he was 80 feet above the glide path, he did not subsequently advise him that he was below it, and that after the aircraft had hit the ground he continued his talkdown as if the approach had been normal. The court concluded that, since the aircraft was under G.C.A. control, the failure to warn the captain that he was going below the glide path was the principal cause of the accident.

On receipt of the Report, I referred the passages relating to the G.C.A. aspect to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation, who immediately arranged for an inquiry into the operation of the G.C.A. system to be undertaken by Dr. A. G. Touch, the Director of Electronic Research and Development at the Ministry of Supply.

In a Report which he submitted last week, Dr. Touch concluded that there was no evidence of technical failure or malfunctioning in the G.C.A. equipment. His investigation confirmed that the pilot was not warned by the G.C.A. unit of his closeness to the ground, but, despite a detailed and exhaustive examination of various possibilities, Dr. Touch was unable to establish the reason with certainty. He thought that the most likely explanation was that throughout the approach the Controller concentrated too much on azimuth at the expense of information on elevation.

He felt, however, that there were extenuating circumstances connected with the unusual speed of the aircraft and the number of corrections in azimuth. He also considered that even if a warning had been given in the final five or six seconds of the ten seconds which, in his opinion, elapsed after the pilot was told that he was 80 feet above the glide path, it would have been too late.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation and I have given most careful consideration to these findings. We are agreed that there was an error of judgment on the part of the pilot in selecting a break-off height of 300 feet and in going below it, and also that the G.C.A. controller did not give adequate guidance on elevation during the descent, and, in particular, that he was at fault in the concluding stages in not warning the pilot that he was below the glide path and, therefore, dangerously close to the ground. The apportionment of responsibility is difficult. I accept the conclusions of the Royal Air Force court, but neither I nor my right hon. Friend feel able to define the degree of responsibility precisely.

It would be unjust to the pilot and co-pilot were I not to make it clear, in conclusion, that it was their duty to eject from the aircraft when they did. I am satisfied that there could have been no hope of controlling the aircraft after the initial impact. In these circumstances, it was the duty of the captain to give the order to abandon the aircraft and of all those who were on board to obey it if they were able to do so. Both the pilot and co-pilot realised when they gave their orders that, owing to the low altitude, the other occupants had no chance of escape, and they considered that their own chances were negligible.

The House will wish to join with me in expressing regret that so successful a flight should have ended so tragically, and in tendering sympathy to the bereaved.

Mr. de Freitas

My right hon. and hon. Friends and I join with the Secretary of State in his expressions of sorrow and sympathy.

I have three questions to put to the right hon. Gentleman. First, was there not a monitor covering the height radar who could say whether it indicated that the aircraft was below break-off height?

Secondly, how could it be that the controller continued his talkdown after the aircraft had actually hit the ground? Was there an echo on the screen? If so, what is the explanation for an echo being there in the circumstances?

Thirdly, although we must, naturally, all have every sympathy with the controller, should we not go further and establish definitely whether he was responsible? Is it not of the greatest importance to know whether we should retain confidence in the equipment used at London Airport?

Mr. Birch

I am not absolutely certain what the hon. Gentleman means by "monitor". There is, of course, a team of two. There are the tracker and the actual controller, and the talkdown is recorded, but there is no immediate monitor.

On the question whether there could have been a special echo from the Vulcan, that matter was gone into exhaustively by Dr. Touch, whose Report, incidentally, will be published in due course, and he concluded that there was no question of that at all. Further, he concluded that one could have full confidence in the equipment at London Airport and that there was no fault whatever in it.

Mr. C. I. Orr-Ewing

Will my right hon. Friend consider very carefully whether it is wise to have these very heavy and somewhat unusual military aircraft landing at a busy international airport? Would it not perhaps be wiser to divert them to aerodromes which are less busy and where there is more scope should a mistake be made? Will he also consider, and perhaps let the House know, whether the controller on duty had got full information on the optimum glide path of the Vulcan, or was he informed only of the optimum glide path of civil aircraft with which he was more normally concerned?

Mr. Birch

There is nothing new about military aircraft using London Airport. Since London Airport was opened, there have been some hundreds of landings by these aircraft and, of course, the system of control at London Airport is extraordinarily good. Canberras and Comets have landed there. There is nothing unusual about it. The whole question of whether it would be wise to make a change in policy is now under review. If we decide to make that change in policy, I will certainly inform the House. I think that perhaps my hon. Friend ought to address his question about the glide path to the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation. The controller certainly knew that he was controlling a Vulcan and notice of that was given many days beforehand.

Mr. Beswick

Does not the Secretary of State think that this is a most unsatisfactory Report on what was a most regrettable accident? Is he not also aware that he has left the position about the ground controller somewhat vague? I had a Question down about this aspect of the matter and Dr. Touch's Report. Can we have an assurance that we shall have a full statement about the inquiry made into the ground control side of the accident?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in civil aviation, where there has been a good deal more experience in ground controlled approaches than on the military side, it has been found necessary to fix a minimum ceiling below which the pilot of any aircraft shall not come, and that this ceiling is fixed in relation to the experience of the pilot and his familiarity with a particular aircraft type as well as the airport conditions? Will he not admit that the most important factors about the experience of the two pilots concerned have been left out of the Report? In view of their comparative inexperience of this type—which was inevitable—and in view of the new type that was involved, was it not really an awful tragedy that the decision to come in at London Airport in those conditions was made? Was not that decision made partly in view of the reception committee which was waiting at the airport? Is not this an aspect of the whole matter which must be considered very carefully for the future?

Mr. Birch

As for the first part of the question about G.C.A., Dr. Touch's Report will be published in full and the hon. Member will be able to go into all that.

On the question of the experience of the pilot, it is perfectly true that the Vulcan had been in service for only a short time. On the other hand, the pilot had what is called a master green instrument rating, which is the highest one can get in the Royal Air Force. The system of tracking for height is exactly the same in the Royal Air Force as in civil aviation.

On the question whether the pilot should have come in there and what the hon. Member described as the "reception committee", London Airport was being used throughout the period—during the hour before the crash took place there were eight landings and there were six landings in the half-hour succeeding it. Therefore, I do not think that one can say—and this was what the court itself found—that the pilot was wrong in attempting to land.

Mr. Beswick

The right hon. Gentleman has avoided the real question. It is a question not of whether the pilot had a green ticket, but of what experience he had of this particular type of aircraft in G.C.A. approach. The Secretary of State has not told us what experience the pilot had, or what experience the copilot had, which is probably more important.

Mr. Birch

The pilot had not done a full G.C.A. landing in a Vulcan. Of course, he had done it hundreds of times in other aircraft, and he had done the talkdown until just before touching down. He had practised that, but he had not done a complete one on a Vulcan. He had the highest rating. There have been very many G.C.A. landings on Vulcans. I think that between 20 and 30 were carried out at Boscombe Down. There is nothing special about a Vulcan G.C.A.

Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind, in further consideration of this matter, that the great virtue of the wartime system of fog dispersal—F.I.D.O.—was that even if an aircraft was brought down by electronic means to within near to the airfield the pilot was able to make a visual approach during the last vital few hundred feet?

Mr. Birch

Yes, Sir. My right hon. Friend will be aware that there is no F.I.D.O. at London Airport. But it is not really a question for me. Perhaps he will address it to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation.

Mr. Hunter

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that there is a very large residential area around London Airport—at Cranford, Bedfont and Feltham—and that this very regrettable accident has caused some alarm among the civilian population? There is a school only 400 yards from London Airport, which shows that there are many thousands of people who live in the district. Does not the statement that the pilot had the choice of seven airfields indicate that some instruction should be issued to officers in the Royal Air Force that when they have the choice of seven airfields, and are in difficulties, it would be better to use an isolated airfield than one in a crowded area such as that which surrounds London Airport?

Mr. Birch

Naturally, any accident causes alarm. London Airport is not the only airfield which is in a built-up area and has many houses around it. The record at London Airport is extremely good. I sympathise, of course, with the people who live in the area.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Charles MacAndrew)

Order. We have spent a long time on this statement.