HC Deb 19 February 1960 vol 617 cc1673-82

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Brooman-White.]

4.2 p.m.

Mr. Norman Dodds (Erith and Crayford)

I believe that it is appropriate to raise the question of helicopter passenger services this week when the Government have announced plans to spend colossal sums of money, particularly on defence, which, as experience has shown, is like pouring money down the drain. I am asking that the Government should at long last, and as a matter of urgency, consider helping the development of this form of transport which can undoubtedly be useful to mankind, particularly in a country that is rapidly being choked to death by road traffic.

This is not a new subject for me. I have been raising it in the House for over ten years. But of one thing I am certain. Never before has it been so vital to take this matter seriously. Because of developments in other countries, there is now a challenge that we cannot ignore. It would be doing the nation a great disservice if we were to continue to defer making important decisions, because time is not now on our side.

It is possible, however, that the Parliamentary Secretary may say that I should have waited to raise the matter after the Advisory Council reports in two or three months' time. With that I would thoroughly disagree, because I think it is important that it should be discussed in this House before the Council finalises its Report. Events are moving so quickly in the helicopter world that we really must get on with the job as a nation if we are not to be left behind. We must now do something in a big way, with the Government playing a major rôle in the development of helicopter services.

Tremendous speeds are being achieved by airliners, and plans are being made for even greater speeds, but on relatively short journeys, for instance of 200 to 300 miles, the need for increased speeds is becoming highly questionable. It is here where the helicopter has such a great future. It will prove a great blessing if heliports can be made available in city centres and the noise that they make can be kept within reason.

Speaking of noise, when one considers the tolerance shown by the public these days to the shattering blasts given off by some motor-cycles and even some motor scooters it does not seem that there will be much of a case against helicopters in this respect, and particularly in city centres, where the heliports can be built on stilts way above the rooftops of neighbouring buildings.

The helicopter will never be able to compete with the aeroplane for speed, but it has remarkable qualities of its own which give it an important place in the aviation world. City centre to city centre air transport is only one of the many tasks which can be undertaken by the helicopter in peace and war, but the tasks it can undertake are too numerous for me to mention in this debate.

I suggest that serious thought should be given now to the need for an entirely new kind of service because of the chaotic traffic conditions on the roads. In spite of heavy expenditure on new highways, ground transportation conditions are becoming less and less reliable, and I suggest there is a place in a big way for helicopters that can fly in even atrocious weather conditions, and that there is no part of the world which has greater need of them than Britain.

I have just read on the ticker tape, in the Lobby, that over 1¼ million new motor vehicles were registered during 1959 and are now on roads that are already in a chaotic state. I suggest, therefore, that to get off to a proper start in the face of this great challenge helicopter operators must have financial assistance from the Government to prime the pump for the first few years of this great and exciting adventure. I also ask that a decision be made quickly, because it is urgently required.

We have the benefit of experience in other countries, and for a few moments I will deal with the experience of New York Airways' helicopters. New York Airways carried its first passenger on 8th July, 1953. During 1959, it carried 125,000 passengers and the company expects that by the end of 1963 it will be carrying them at the rate of 1 million per year.

In America, there are three helicopter companies—in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. The details of the results of these three united scheduled helicopter operators is particularly interesting. During the years 1954 to 1959 the subsidy given by the Government has nearly doubled, but the number of city miles has multiplied twenty times—from 725,000 in 1954 to 15 million in 1959. The subsidy rate per seat mile has been reduced from 3.61 dollars to 32 cents in 1959, and the companies are expecting that, with the new helicopters, by 1965 there will be no need for any subsidy, or, if any is needed, it will be very small, because it is anticipated that the new multi-turbine helicopters which are expected in 1961 will transform the finance.

The helicopter that they have in mind is the Vertol 107 and the Sikorski S61. Despite the attraction of American helicopters, at least at this stage, the president of New York Airways, on 5th January, 1960, said: The availability of the Fairey Rotodyne in 1964 will place New York Airways in a position to offer the public a substantially enlarged and even more useful service operating on a business basis. That speaks very well for one of our own helicopters by 1964.

I said earlier that there was a challenge. I believe that the challenge will be by Sabena, the Belgian airline, that its helicopters will challenge us in this business of passenger transport. It was on 21st August, 1950, that Sabena inaugurated the first helicopter mail service on the European Continent. Last year, this service of helicopters carried 250,000 passengers and by so doing it has acquired experience which will prove to be of great value in the helicopter race ahead.

It must be borne in mind, however, right from the beginning, that Sabena has been heavily subsidised by the Government. Its operations manager has recently said: I am convinced that the rotorcraft will ultimately take over all short-range routes covering distances of under 250 miles. Sabena has shown by its experience that the helicopter has been valuable in feeding the long-distance aircraft whose departures and arrivals can be centred at a central point, Brussels Airport.

The challenge, I would suggest, is here. In the aviation magazine Interavia, of December, the operation manager of Sabena writes: Without doubt, the principal stage that can be envisaged at the moment is a regular service from Brussels to London. But the question of regularity imposes certain requirements which, in the case of services across the sea, cannot be met by the machines available. Before this project can be put into effect, we must have multi-engined helicopters. We have got them. They are on order they are expected to be delivered in the spring of 1961. The Vertol 107 is a 20 to 25-seater.

I would suggest that the Vertol is a challenge to us because it is claimed, as a result of numerous tests which have been made, that the external noise of this aircraft is less than that of any other aircraft of comparable size. It is felt that some of the needs of this country will be met by having helicopters which will not be too disturbing to the community. Therefore, I should like to ask a number of questions. I do not expect to have them all answered, but I should like to have them on record, so that in the next months and years I shall be able to follow them up.

What is the plan of B.E.A. for the introduction of scheduled helicopter passenger services and on what routes? Are there any known plans for the introduction of helicopter passenger services by private operators? If so, what are they? Has B.E.A. yet decided whether to use the American Vertol 107 or the Sikorsky S61 helicopters, and what are the advantages over the British helicopter for the initial stages of the proposed inter-city passenger services?

When is the Bristol 192 expected to be ready for passenger services, and what are its prospects in this field? What plans are there for inter-city passenger services for the British helicopters—the Dragonfly, Widgeon, Whirlwind and Wessex—on which much development work has been carried out to give considerably improved performances?

What are the prospects of the 23-seater Wiltshire, which it is claimed by the manufacturers will be more powerful than its American counterpart, the Sikorsky S61? What are the prospects of the Westminster 35 to 40-seater civil passenger helicopter for which there are high hopes of it being an economic proposition and in respect of which it is stated that the Westminster Mark I will be flying in mid-1961?

In view of the statement that B.E.A. intends to order Fairey Rotodynes, what steps are being taken by B.E.A. to obtain the necessary operating experience to ensure that there is no delay in using them immediately they are available? Because of the obvious need for much greater effort to be made in the production of suitable British helicopters, how do the Government propose to step up their assistance to manufacturers?

In view of the valuable and timely assistance given to helicopter operators in other countries, how do Her Majesty's Government propose to help our operators in a way which will meet the urgency of a situation which must be dealt with effectively and quickly when there is so much evidence of major moves in respect of helicopters in other countries?

I leave it at that, except for just one more question. I would mention that three days ago I gave notice of these questions, so that I am not putting the Parliamentary Secretary in a hopeless situation.

I must also ask: what progress is being made in the provision of a suitably equipped heliport or heliports in or near the centre of London, and what are the proposals in this respect? Is the Ministry still considering the plan which I put forward to it in 1951, which appeared in the London Illustrated News on 2nd February, 1952? Various American and Continental organisations have said it must ultimately come down to this? During the last few days I have been talking to people in the helicopter world, and they believe that there is a future for this and that this is what will be needed over Charing Cross Station, or in a similar position, in the near future.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will not say that we cannot afford it. In the debate that we had on 2nd February, 1953, the then Parliamentary Secretary mentioned that it was estimated that it would cost between £4 million and £6 million. I admit that that is a lot of money, but this week we have decided to have two atomic powered submarines at a cost of £20 million each, and I suggest that for the benefit of mankind and for the prestige of this country one heliport over Charing Cross Station would do more for us than those two submarines will.

The impact of the age of flight has already been felt in almost every phase of life. Yet this miraculous era has only just begun. I suggest that there is no real future in it for nations which lack courage, enterprise and the spirit of adventure. Can we expect this in respect of helicopter passenger travel? I shall look forward very much to what the Parliamentary Secretary has to say on this important subject.

4.17 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Aviation (Mr. Geoffrey Rippon)

I welcome the opportunity which has been provided by the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds) to have this short debate on the future of inter-city helicopter services in this country. I can assure him that this is something which my right hon. Friend is most anxious to encourage. There is no doubt that this is a subject which has already excited considerable public interest, and it is likely to assume an even greater significance in the near future.

The hon. Member has asked me a number of questions. I am very grateful to him for giving me notice of them, and I will answer as many as possible in the short time available. I must say that I share the enthusiasm which I know he has shown for many years in the helicopter as a form of transport. I well remember being lent a helicopter by an American oil company, as the result of which I was able to leave New Orleans at seven o'clock, visit an offshore oil well and have breakfast, and get back to the city in time to deliver a lecture at ten o'clock, and all that allowed time for the pilot to forget the gas, drop down at a nearby filling station, fill up and set off again.

It is true that in many parts of the world people are becoming accustomed to the helicopter as a normal form of transport and one which can save a very great deal of time. However, I am sure the hon. Member knows perfectly well that there is a world of difference between using helicopters for military, charter or pleasure purposes and providing an economic commercial intercity service.

The fact is that the operating costs of the current generation of helicopters are high, about 5s. per passenger mile, and such helicopter services as are operated overseas, to some of which the hon. Gentleman referred, such as New York Airways and Sabena, are run at a considerable loss. As the hon. Member said, they receive either direct subsidies such as mail subsidies or benefit indirectly by profits on services with fixed-wing aircraft which wish to encourage a helicopter feeder service. Some which are purely experimental are of the kind of which we have already had considerable experience in this country.

What I believe important is that the United Kingdom is in the vanguard in producing helicopters of a size, speed and range which will carry worth-while pay loads. The very apt quotation which the hon. Member gave from the chairman of New York Airways shows that we are in a position to make a very great contribution.

My right hon. Friend has no power either to provide these services himself or to require operators to provide them. He has, however, been pleased to note that recently there have been a considerable number of applications to the Air Transport Advisory Council, which show that plans for the introduction of scheduled services are being developed both by British European Airways and the independent operators. These applications relate both to internal services in the United Kingdom and on the Continent.

As the hon. Member knows, under the existing system, which will, perhaps, be radically altered by the House when it considers the Civil Aviation (Licensing) Bill, the approval of the Minister is required for the operation of any scheduled service after he has considered the advice given by the Advisory Council. The applications which are now before the Council—some of which overlap—have not yet been heard. I do not know when they will be heard, but clearly it would be inappropriate for me to attempt to discuss them individually or in detail today. I can say, however, that it is not our intention to allow the various interests to stake out claims in advance before there is any real prospect of the commercial operation of these routes.

What are these commercial prospects? As the hon. Member indicated, looking to the mid-1960s, they are very favourable. By then the large multi-engined helicopters essential to the development of a network of competitive inter-city services will be available. There is, first, the Rotodyne, in which there has been a world-wide interest because it represents a significant departure from previous forms of helicopter design in that it incorporates certain principles of both rotary and fixed-wing aircraft. The Rotodyne, which will be powered by two Rolls-Royce shaft turbine engines is designed primarily for inter-city operations, either carrying passengers or freight. It is a helicopter which is capable of carrying up to 65 passengers or 18,500 lb. of freight up to 250 miles at a speed of between 180 and 200 miles an hour.

The Government are making a substantial contribution to the cost of developing this aircraft and B.E.A. has announced its intention to purchase an initial six Rotodynes. It is planned to introduce the Rotodyne into service in 1064–65 and the Minister has now informed B.F.A. that he is prepared to give it assistance to an amount not exceeding £1,400,000 towards the cost of introducing the Rotodyne into service.

The hon. Member was concerned to know the degree of Government support which was being given to this and other helicopters. It is not possible to give a precise figure of total Government support over the years. Certainly, the assistance that has been given for the development for military purposes of such types as the Whirlwind, the Wessex and the Bristol 192 is likely to have a substantial long-term value in the civil field. There has also been a great deal of research and development work of value to both fixed-wing and helicopter aircraft. Furthermore, for many years the Government have supported B.E.A.'s helicopter experimental unit. Recently this has related especially to work on the development of ground facilities, equipment and the working out of approved procedures. That in itself will help in the development of a suitable air traffic control system.

Another matter to which the hon. Member has drawn attention is the question of noise. There has been a great deal of fundamental research on noise, with which I cannot deal this afternoon. Much work has been done on the Rotodyne since its first flights were made, when no attempt was made at noise suppression. The experiments which Faireys have carried out since 1956 have been very extensive and have already resulted in the achievement of a significant reduction in the noise level, but much remains to be done and we are in touch with the manufacturers on this aspect of the matter.

The hon. Member also asked about the Westminster, another large, twin-engined helicopter capable of transporting about forty passengers or five tons of freight, which is being developed by Westlands and which is expected to be available in 1962. This is certainly a possible alternative to the Rotodyne although somewhat smaller.

Of course, while awaiting the introduction into service of the Rotodyne and Westminster there is a possibility of various interim types being used, including those mentioned by the hon. Member. They are for example the United States Vertol 107 or the Sikorsky 61 carrying about 25 passengers. Later on we expect to see available a British version of the S61, the Wiltshire which, with a Gazelle engine, is expected to be more powerful than its American counterpart. We can look forward to a civil version of the Bristol 192 which is now in full production for the Royal Air Force. It is expected to be available in 1962–64 and will be known as the Bristol 192C. There is also a possibility of a Bristol 194.

The hon. Member asked me about B.E.A.'s plans. I am informed that the Corporation has not yet finally decided which of these interim types it may wish to purchase. All these matters are, of course, for the commercial judgment of the operators concerned.

The other aircraft to which the hon. Member referred are likely to be used mostly for charter work rather than for scheduled inter-city services—the Widgeon, Whirlwind and Wessex.

I want finally to refer to heliports. Before these services can be finally introduced, it will be necessary to have suitably-equipped heliports. Landing sites have been made available as and when required for the various services now operating, but the real need for permanent sites will arise with the introduction of these multi-engined machines.

Responsibility for heliports outside the London area rests with the local authorities and we are encouraging them to make provisions for them in their development plans. We have also given advice to more than a hundred authorities. In the London area, at Battersea, a small heliport is operating satisfactorily to deal with present traffic, but comprehensive facilities are being considered by a special committee which was appointed last July. This committee hopes to present an interim report fairly soon. It is particularly considering possible sites. I will not list them all, although I can assure the hon. Member that Charing Cross Station is among them.

I think that I have said enough to convince the hon. Member that a great deal is going on in this matter and that the Government are providing financial and other assistance on a fairly generous scale. We intend to press ahead with the creation of the conditions necessary for the introduction of regular inter-city services at the earliest practicable date. I believe that the era of the bigger, faster, I hope, quieter, and certainly more economic, helicopters is just beginning and I agree with the hon. Member that the possibilities are boundless.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock.