HC Deb 09 February 1956 vol 548 cc1810-2
Mr. George Wigg

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Air whether he will make a statement on the circumstances which caused six Hunter aircraft to crash on Wednesday, 8th February, 1956.

The Secretary of State for Air (Mr. Nigel Birch)

Yesterday morning eight Hunter aircraft from the Central Fighter Establishment at West Raynham took off on an exercise. The exercise took place over the base. By the time the aircraft were due to return the weather had deteriorated and they were diverted to Marham. Two landed safely. A third overshot the runway and crashed beyond it. The fourth aircraft crashed near the airfield, and the pilot was killed. The pilots of the remaining four aircraft baled out and the aircraft crashed in open country. There were no civilian casualties.

A court of inquiry presided over by an air vice-marshal is already sitting.

I am sure that the House will wish to join with me in expressing sympathy with the relatives of the pilot who was killed.

Mr. Wigg

I should like to tender my respectful sympathy—as I am sure my right hon. and hon. Friends do—to the relatives of the young officer who lost his life. Will the Minister be prepared to make a public statement, compatible with security considerations, when the full details are brought to light? In addition, will he tell the House the marks of the Hunters used yesterday, especially bearing in mind the fact that there has always been a suspicion that Marks I and II are liable to be deficient in fuel if a crisis arises such as that of yesterday, when the G.C.A. apparently failed?

Mr. Birch

On the first point, most certainly. As soon as the report of the court of inquiry is received I shall certainly be prepared to make as full a statement as possible. The aircraft in question was a Mark I Hunter with an Avon engine—but I would point out that all modern fighter aircraft have quite short flying duration, and the difficulty is that the lower they get the higher is their fuel consumption.

Mr. Strachey

I join with my hon. Friend in expressing the sympathy of the House in connection with this terrible accident. Will the Secretary of State in due course answer the following questions: First, were the aircraft concerned those that have been modified in such a way as to reduce their fuel capacity? Even if they were, what is the explanation of their apparently having run out of fuel after twenty minutes? Had they been adequately fuelled when they took off?

Secondly, is the Minister satisfied that flying should have taken place in the weather conditions which were reported yesterday? Was that fair to the pilots of this type of aircraft?

Thirdly, will he inform us about the whole ground control system of the two airfields—both the airfield from which they flew off and that to which they were diverted, the reports from ground control having broken down altogether?

Fourthly—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] These are very important matters. I do not expect answers today. When the inquiry has taken place, the House will want to know in detail about these matters. There is increasing anxiety in the House at the apparent fact that the modifications which have taken place in the Hunter aircraft have not made it capable of flying effectively in the conditions of Service life.

Mr. Birch

As the right hon. Gentleman recognises, most of the questions which he has asked can be determined only by the inquiry. One question I will certainly answer straight away, because I specifically asked about it myself. There was no question of these aircraft taking off without a full load of fuel. All the aircraft had a full load.

Mr. Burden

Hon. Members on this side of the House join the Minister and hon. Members opposite in expressing sympathy with those who suffered death or injury as a result of this accident. There is one feature which, it appears, ought to be looked into. The Minister has stated that these aircraft were operating over base. If so, it seems extraordinary that the deterioration in the weather conditions, which were suitable when they took off, were not evident to those who were controlling the aircraft from the ground, so that they could issue a word of warning in time for the aircraft either to land at base before the deterioration was too great for them to do so, or to go elsewhere.

Mr. Birch

When I make my statement we can deal fully with that question. It has to be determined by the court of inquiry.

Mr. Shinwell

I agree that many of the questions which have been asked of the right hon. Gentleman must obviously be the subject of inquiry, but does not he agree that in order to remove the disquiet which exists in certain quarters about the Hunter machine—especially the engines which are operating in the various types—it would be advisable, always consistent with security, that as full a statement as possible should be made to the House in due course?

Mr. Birch

I quite agree about that, but there is no question of this accident being caused by engine failure. The fact is that during the last calendar year the accident rate in the Royal Air Force has been extraordinarily favourable—and also favourable in regard to Hunter aircraft. There is no question of there having been a lot of accidents in Hunters.

Several Hon. Membersrose——

Mr. Speaker

The House had better await the result of the inquiry. It is premature to pursue this subject now.