HC Deb 06 March 1957 vol 566 cc352-4
Mr. de Freitas

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Air whether he will make a statement about the crash of the Beverley aircraft near Abingdon on 5th March.

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

Shortly after 11 o'clock yesterday morning a Beverley from the Royal Air Force Station, Abingdon, crashed near Drayton, about two miles from the airfield. The aircraft, which was bound for Malta and Cyprus, had taken off a few minutes before, but had reported engine trouble, and was returning to the airfield. The dead include three members of the crew, 12 officers and airmen flying as passengers and two civilians in the house which was demolished. The two remaining members of the crew, one other passenger in the aircraft, and two civilians were injured.

A Board of Inquiry has been convened and assembled this mornnig.

I know that the House will join with me in expressing our deep sympathy with the bereaved and the injured.

Mr. de Freitas

May I say, first, that my right hon. and hon. Friends join with the Secretary of State in his expressions of sympathy? May I ask him two questions? First, in view of the public disquiet about the secrecy of Royal Air Force inquiries when civilians are involved, as they are here, will the right hon. Gentleman allow the relatives of the dead civilians to be legally represented at the inquiry if they so desire?

Secondly, can the right hon. Gentleman say what restrictions have been placed on the operation of Beverleys, with whatever kind of engine they may have, pending the result of the inquiry?

Mr. Ward

Although, as I say, the Board of Inquiry has already started, and is being held in private, which is customary in these cases, I will certainly consider whether we can open it to the relatives of the deceased.

There is, I think, no evidence to suggest that the aircraft ought to be grounded or that any restrictions ought to be put on it, because the Beverley has already done thousands of hours' flying on Transport Command routes without any major accident of any kind. I think that enough is known already about the accident not to justify the grounding of the aircraft.

Air Commodore Harvey

As the accident, unfortunately, involves civilians, both killed and wounded, could not the inquiry be of a public nature? Also, will my right hon. Friend take notice of the extreme bravery and courage shown by the civilian and Service rescuers on the spot?

Mr. Ward

There are a number of factors, as I think my hon. and gallant Friend knows, which lead us to hold these inquiries in private. I would mention here only the need for speed. A formal public inquiry takes several weeks to convene. Having said that, I certainly do not underestimate the extent of public concern about an accident of this kind, and I shall hope to give the House a very full statement about the accident as soon as the Board has reported and we have had an opportunity to consider its findings.

I should like to pay a very high tribute indeed to the courage shown by all concerned after the accident.

Mrs. White

While no restriction is being placed on the aircraft, is any restriction being placed on the use of the airfield concerned in view of the representations which have been made on frequent occasions, particularly by a noble Lord in another place, about the undesirability of using the airfield because it is in close proximity to so many houses?

Mr. Ward

There is not the slightest evidence to show that the use of the airfield had any bearing at all on the accident. The aircraft had already been airborne for 18 minutes before the crash occurred. I would draw the attention of the hon. Lady to what the Mayor of Abingdon is reported to have said yesterday: There has never at any time been any complaint of danger to people in the district, and I believe this is the first occasion on which there has been any damage or injury outside the airfield itself. Its safety record since it was established in 1930 has been very good.

Mr. Dudley Williams

As there is a rumour going around that the aeroplane crashed because one of its engines began to fail, will my right hon. Friend take an early opportunity to say whether or not the Beverley can maintain its height fully loaded on three engines?

Mr. Ward

Yes, Sir. I do not want to say anything very much before the Court of Inquiry has made its findings, but all the trials that we have carried out so far show that in temperate conditions the Beverley ought to be able to climb at the rate of 300 feet a minute on three engines with its all-up maximum weight of 135,000 lb.

Mr. de Freitas

Will the right hon. Gentleman, as soon as he can, make a statement in the House covering the many points which have been raised from all sides of the House?

Mr. Ward

Yes Sir; as soon as I can.