HC Deb 28 February 1958 vol 583 cc701-3

11.4 a.m.

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation whether he will make a statement about the recent air disaster at Winter Hill, Lancashire.

The Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Harold Watkinson)

Yes, Sir. At about 9.45 a.m. yesterday a Bristol Wayfarer aircraft G—AICS, of Silver City Airways Limited, on a charter flight from the Isle of Man to Manchester, struck high ground in poor visibility near the I.T.V. transmitting station on Winter Hill, about four miles north-west of Bolton, Lancashire. Deep snow impeded rescue operations, but valuable assistance was rendered by staff from the I.T.V. station and by people living in the vicinity.

Of the 39 passengers and three crew members on board, there were at 8.30 this morning seven survivors, including the three crew members. Three members of the staff of my Chief Inspector of Accidents have gone to the scene of the accident to begin inquiries. I have decided that a public inquiry shall be held.

The House will, I am sure, wish to join with me in expressing deep sympathy with the bereaved and with the injured, and appreciation of the efforts of all there, including personnel of the Services, who brought help in circumstances of the greatest difficulty.

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that the services rendered by the people and authorities in the neighbourhood in circumstances of frightful difficulty were gallant in the extreme? Will he also confirm that the record for safety of the company running this flight is outstanding?

Mr. Watkinson

Although the rescue conditions could hardly have been more difficult, those who flew helicopters and those who broke through the snowdrifts and had a most difficult time behaved in a brave and gallant fashion. It is also right to say that Silver City Airways have operated for twelve years and have carried 1½ million passengers during 200,000 flights without any accident involving death or injury to a passenger up till now.

Mr. Beswick

I am sure that everyone will regret that the Minister has found it necessary to answer a Question of this kind so soon after the recent aircraft crash. All my right hon. and hon. Friends associate themselves with the sympathy which he has offered to those who have suffered a loss. I should like to add how much we appreciate the gallantry of those who went to the aid of these unfortunate people in such difficult circumstances.

Dr. Bennett

In the light of the extremely fine operating record of the company operating this aircraft, but also of the disasters which have happened from time to time recently, could my right hon. Friend say anything about the level of safety which there is in air transport generally nowadays?

Mr. Watkinson

I can give one figure which I think is very interesting. On schedule operations—that is, schedule passenger flights—the present rate of fatality is one fatality every 40 million passenger-miles flown.

Mr. Nabarro

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that there have been two of these extremely tragic accidents, both involving charter aircraft, within the last three weeks? Although he is establishing a public inquiry, doubtless to be followed by a public report, much of the value of this procedure will be vitiated by the fact that the report will probably not be available for ten to twelve months. Will my right hon. Friend take exceptional action on this occasion to have the report published much more speedily, with a view to allaying public concern about these tragic disasters?

Mr. Watkinson

I do not accept my hon. Friend's time scale of ten to twelve months. The difficulty is that after an air crash my inspecting officers have the most difficult technical task of reassembling pieces of wreckage spread over very large areas.

For example, following the recent crash, we are trying to rebuild an aircraft from pieces which had to be collected over a very large area indeed. I must say, frankly, that I will not do anything to hasten them unnecessarily on that task, because on their success depends the finding of the true cause of the accident, which is absolutely vital.

Although I accept my hon. Friend's wish that we should publish these reports as quickly as possible, and although I will do all I can to hurry them, I want to make it plain that I will not do so at the expense of making a thorough investigation.

Mr. Beswick

I should like to take this opportunity of asking the Minister a further question. I accept everything that he said about the necessity of thoroughness rather than speed and haste in these matters. I know something of the difficulties which face those who investigate them. At the same time, the Minister's Department and his officials have now before them a number of accidents, and I believe that their resources are rather thinly spread. I have asked him this question before, and I should like to take this opportunity of asking it again: is he satisfied that he has adequate technical facilities and staff at his disposal sufficient to enable him to make these inquiries with both the thoroughness and the speed which is called for?

Mr. Watkinson

Yes, Sir, I can give that assurance, because in addition to my own accident inspectorate we have no hesitation at all in calling in the R.A.E. or any other body which we think can help. I can give the House an assurance that I am in a position to make thorough and detailed investigations into this or any other accident.

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