HC Deb 16 May 1960 vol 623 cc1055-66

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

10.10 p.m.

Mr. John Howard (Southampton, Test)

On 19th August, 1959, a Dakota aircraft, en route from Barcelona to Gatwick, crashed. Everyone aboard— the crew of three and the 29 passengers —was killed. One of the passengers was Mary Cotton, a student at Westminster Hospital and a daughter of one of my constituents, and that is why I am interested in this question. My point in raising it tonight is not because anyone wishes to make capital out of personal tragedy but because the relatives are anxious that everything possible should be done to see that a similar accident never occurs again.

We have to ask ourselves, first, why the accident happened—why the captain of the aircraft G-AMZD flew into the top of a mountain at 5,000 feet, a mountain shrouded in mist. In doing so, not only did he kill himself, his crew and his passengers, but he caused considerable dismay because, had he been 100 feet higher, he would have cleared the peak. Again, was his failure to clear the peak due to the fact that he did not know that it existed, or did he take an unjustifiable risk? Was there a defect in the aircraft or its engines?

The report prepared by the Spanish authorities, and published by the Ministry of Aviation, does not give us the answers to these questions with any certainty. My purpose in raising the matter is two-fold. First, I wish to examine the regulations to see that they are adequate in their present form and to discover whether they are being properly enforced. Secondly I wish to draw attention to the unsatisfactory position that can be created by publishing a report from a foreign power without comment from our own Ministry of Aviation.

The regulations controlling the operation of aircraft concern the whole of the travelling public, particularly the thousands who travel by charter flights on their holidays each year. The crashed plane, owned by Transair, was on a non-scheduled charter flight from Barcelona to Gatwick. I put certain Questions to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Aviation on 11th April. He replied that the captain of the aircraft had not flown on the route before, although he was an experienced pilot and had been with Transair since 1956.

The conditions in the region in which the crash occurred are extremely difficult, not to say hazardous, and the regulations therefore require that a captain who has not travelled on the route before should be adequately briefed by a captain experienced on the route before he sets out. In amplification of his reply to my Question, my hon. Friend said that the captain of the Dakota had passed a test displaying knowledge of the route, including the terrain, air traffic and navigational facilities, a matter to which I will return later. He also observed that the existing regulations concerning briefing were generally satisfactory, but there was difficulty in making the same provisions for non-scheduled flights. I emphasise again that that the flight which I am discussing was a non-scheduled flight.

I have spoken to a number of pilots and there is no doubt in their minds about the hazards of the Montseny Peak area, where the crash occurred. The dangers are borne out by B.O.A.C. regulations, which require a plane, which is captained by a pilot who has not been on the route before, to carry as a supernumerary a supervisory captain with knowledge of the route and able to give advice on approaching this difficult part of the run to Barcelona.

I want to say a few words about the circumstances revealed by the report of the Spanish authorities. This report is extremely brief, but it makes clear that the aircraft left Barcelona for Gatwick on visual flight rules, that is rules requiring the captain of the aircraft to be able to see five miles ahead, to be able to estimate that he can remain at 1,000 feet either above or below cloud, and also that he will be able to remain one mile to the side of any cloud.

If those conditions do not exist, then the captain must switch to I.F.R., that is, instrument flying rules. That is quite a business and means reporting to local air control and obtaining a new flight plan. From the Spanish report it appears that the captain of the aircraft could either have flown round the mountain, thus remaining on V.F.R., visual flight rules, or could have reported to air control for a new plan. He did neither. He flew into the cloud, hitting the peak of the mountain at 5,000 feet. Clearly, one can suppose only that he did not know that the peak was there.

In these circumstances and against this background, I ask my hon. Friend four specific questions. First, is he satisfied that the regulations are being carried out, particularly as regards the briefing of pilots on the hazards of this route and possibly other routes as well? Secondly, what steps do his officials take to confirm that the briefing of a pilot is proper. In this case, how did the Ministry officials satisfy themselves about the information which my hon. Friend gave to the House on 11th April when he said of this pilot: He had, however, passed the tests required by the regulations as to his knowledge of the route, including the terrain, and the air traffic and navigational facilities".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th April, 1960; Vol. 621, c. 876.] How is my hon. Friend sure that that examination was taken and passed?

Thirdly, can my hon. Friend say whether the flight schedule was inspected? For example, was adequate time allowed to permit the pilot to change to I.F.R., or was it so tight that the pilot was tempted to take a chance? Fourthly, does he consider that the regulations are both adequate and capable of enforcement with non-scheduled flights?

As I said earlier, thousands of holiday-makers fly to Spain this way every year and charter flights are an essential feature of reasonably priced holidays. It is important to know my hon. Friend's opinion of the regulations covering this type of flight. Many of us may think, "But for the grace of God, we might have been on that Dakota". Cheapness should not be achieved at the expense of safety, and it may well be that something on the lines of the B.O.A.C. regulations should be introduced.

In the few minutes left I want to deal with a second important matter, the report itself. The British Airline Pilots Association is among those who deplore the publication of reports by foreign countries without covering comments from my right hon. Friend. The general public in this country do not distinguish between official reports of the Ministry of Aviation and foreign reports prepared in Spain and elsewhere. It would be preferable if the Ministry reserved its views on foreign reports, and in introducing the report used such phraseology as: The views do not necessarily represent those of Her Majesty's Government. Such an introduction would perhaps prevent the Press from coming out with the headline "British pilot blamed" as was the case with this crash. That headline was introduced despite the concluding words of the Spanish report which said: The Air Minister in Spain had closed the case without allocating responsibility. I refer now to Annexe 13 to the Code of the International Civil Aviation Organisation which provides for certain matters to be dealt with in reports covering crashes. It is quite clear that this report by the Spanish authorities on the Montseny crash failed in at least three respects. First, in reporting on the crash there was no comment on the condition of the engines. I am informed that an experienced investigator could have told if the engines were at full power at the moment of impact, and that would be significant because the aircraft was fully laden and it may be the explanation Why the pilot was unable to avoid the peak. In fairness to the pilot we should know what evidence was taken. Secondly, there was no transcript of the conversation between the crew in the aircraft and air control at Barcelona. That transcript may throw some light on the reason for the accident. Thirdly, the evidence of witnesses on the spot has not been published.

All countries which subscribe to this Code ought to comply with the standards laid down in Annexe 13, and since an accredited representative of the United Kingdom was present at the inquiry I am rather surprised that that representative either did not, or was not asked to, comment on the Spanish Report when it was published.

My hon. Friend may say in reply— although I do not think that he will— that the Scott-Cairns Committee is sitting at this moment to consider modification of the regulations for air traffic. We must not wait for that Report. There is a lesson to be learnt from this tragic crash and I hope that my hon. Friend can assure the House that the circumstances have been investigated in relation to the enforcement of the existing regulations, and that new regulations will be introduced if he feels that it is advisable to introduce them to improve safety standards.

Nothing can bring back to life those who were killed in this disaster, but it would be some small consolation to the relatives of the crew and of the students if they knew that every possible step was being taken to prevent a similar accident happening again.

10.23 p.m.

Dr. Horace King (Southampton, Itchen)

I am deeply interested in this debate, first as a vice-president of the National Union of Students, and, even more intimately, because one of the victims of the tragic crash was the brilliant young daughter of one of my closest personal friends. Mary Cotton was the head girl of her school, an outstanding athlete, the winner of the open unversity scholarship, and a brilliant young medical student on the threshold of a great career. Her death, like that of her student companions, was a grievous loss to her native town and to her country.

I want to thank the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. J. Howard) for the constant and untiring pressure he has exerted in trying to get a full and complete inquiry into this lamentable tragedy. I support everything he said. The report of the Spanish inquiry is a pitiful document of a couple of pages and, I believe, a shockingly inadequate document compared with the tragedy with which it was dealing. We want to see that such a disaster can never happen again to any charter plane.

I wish especially to urge the Government to press for compensation for the bereaved. My hon. Friend is not concerned with that aspect of the question. He is anxious only that nobody should again have to endure the sorrow which all the bereaved parents will endure for the rest of their lives. But I understand from the National Union of Students that at least one of the bereaved parents is a widow and her loss is economic as well as tragic. So I urge the Government to secure some financial recompense for the terrible loss that parents such as this widow have sustained.

The National Union of Students is to be commended for its initiative in arranging these foreign holidays for students. But over the members of the union now is a dark shadow. One of the members of its executive committee is a young undergraduate who lost his own sister in the tragedy. The union beg the Government to do everything they can, even now, to secure an adequate inquiry into the causes of the disaster and to make sure that everything is done which can be done to prevent such a disaster from ever happening again. At the same time, they ask that some financial aid be secured for those to whom the loss will prove a great hardship as well as a personal bereavement.

10.26 p.m.

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

My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. J. Howard) and other hon. Members including the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Dr. King) have rightly drawn attention, in this House tonight and at Question Time, to the natural public concern over this particularly tragic accident in which many young lives were lost. The questions raised by my hon. Friend fall, I think, under two main headings. First, has there been a satisfactory investigation of the accident? Secondly are the regulations being observed or is there any need for them to be revised?

I will begin by summarising the basic facts. As we all know the accident occurred to a Dakota aircraft operated by Transair Limited on 19th August, 1959. It was chartered by the National Union of Students and took off from Barcelona bound for Gatwick with 29 passengers, all students. The captain filed a Visual Flight Rules flight plan and took off from Barcelona Airport at 14.51 hours Greenwich Mean Time. Weather conditions were good except over the Montseny mountain range where there was cloud. About 19 minutes after the take-off the aircraft flew into cloud and struck the top of a peak of the mountain range which is just over 5,600 feet. All on board were killed and the aircraft was totally destroyed by the impact and subsequent fires. At the time it was approximately ten miles west of the route it should have taken.

I will deal briefly with the procedure for investigating accidents, which, as my hon. Friend has said, is governed by the Convention on International Civil Aviation, known as the Chicago Convention. Chapter 5, subsection (1) of Annexe 13 to the Convention provides that the State in which the aircraft accident occurs shall institute an inquiry into the circumstances of the accident. It was, therefore, in accordance with international agreement, the responsibility of the Spanish authorities to investigate the accident. The Convention further requires that the report containing the findings of the inquiry shall be sent to the State of registry which, of course, has been done. There is also a note which states: The Report would normally include in addition to the findings a summary of evidence and other essential information on which the findings were based. This note is not of course part of the actual Annexe to the Convention. It is largely a matter of interpretation and it may be that the Spanish authorities would say they had also complied with the note.

Spain has signed the Convention, as my hon. Friend points out, but has filed some differences. For example, the Spanish Government have not agreed to that part of Annexe 13 to the Convention which requires the State to permit accredited representatives of the State of registry to participate in inquiries. But although the report is not in the form in which it would have been prepared in this country by our own Accidents Investigation Branch, I hope to satisfy my hon. Friend and the House that in fact a proper report has been prepared and published, in accordance both with international and the Spanish law, and with adequate participation in all the circumstances by representatives of our own Accidents Investigation Branch.

The Spanish inquiry was conducted under a Spanish Air Ministry decree of 12th March, 1948, which was drawn up in accordance with Article 26 of the Chicago Convention, which is, in fact, incorporated in the decree. This decree permits the State of registry of the aircraft to send: … not more than three observers to the place where the accident occurred in order that they may be present during the summary report investigations. These investigations were, in fact, conducted by a military board of inquiry.

The accident occurred at about 1510 G.M.T. The news reached the Accidents Investigation Branch of 1he Ministry of Aviation at 1800 hours. Two officers of the Accidents Investigation Branch were on the plane to Barcelona the following morning, and they co-operated fairly closely with the military board of inquiry. A senior investigating officer of the Accidents Investigation Branch was allowed to carry out a free and independent examination of the wreckage and the scene of the accident. My hon. Friend asked why there was no examination of the engines. I understand that there was an examination in the course of that free and independent examination and that as far as one could tell they were both developing power at the moment of impact. However, even in our own reports it does not always follow that all the evidence is deployed in the final document.

A senior inspector of the Accidents Investigation Branch later visited Spain, and he was appointed as an official observer under the Spanish decree and discussed the circumstances surrounding the accident with a senior officer of the Spanish board of inquiry. In this connection it ought in fairness to all concerned on the Spanish board to be noted that the mountain peak on which the accident occurred is precipitous and that the terrain, the thunderstorms and the cloud made the investigation arduous and hazardous. Moreover, as I said, the aircraft was pretty well completely destroyed by the impact and by fire.

So, while the report is brief and does not cover all the ground which we might expect in a similar report prepared in this country, I think I ought to make two things perfectly clear. First, the Accidents Investigation Branch finds no reason to disagree with the main findings of the Spanish board. Secondly, there is no reason at all to believe that any further investigation would throw any more light on the circumstances of the accident.

My hon. Friend raised the question of whether the report should have been published in this form and whether we should have added some report of our own. My right hon. Friend carefully considered whether or not the report should be published, and he took into account that it was the report of the official investigation into the accident as provided by international agreement. It was, therefore, the document which ought to be published, and he concluded that public interest in an accident of this kind, which involved such severe loss of life, meant that the report certainly ought to be published. In any case, my hon. Friend made the point that the report itself makes it quite clear that it specifically avoids allocating responsibility to any person.

My hon. Friend has raised a second issue of great importance. He has asked, in effect, whether all the relevant safety regulations have been observed and whether in the light of the experience of the accident they ought to be revised. I should like to emphasise that in all cases where an accident occurs— even where an incident occurs—it is carefully looked at to ascertain whether there is any lesson to be learnt from it.

We certainly did not fail to do that in this case where there was this heavy loss of life. So far as observance of the regulations are concerned, the pilot and the crew were all properly qualified and experienced. Their hours of flying were in conformity with the regulations designed to guard against fatigue. There was nothing to suggest that there was anything wrong with the aircraft, its mechanism or its loading. The pilot in the case had a long flying experience, including many years with this particular type of aircraft. His record was free from accident or criticism. Incidentally, Transair, the company operating the aircraft, had had no other accidents involving loss of life of passengers or crew since its formation in 1947.

In the case of a non-scheduled journey, as this was, Regulation 45 of the Air Navigation (General) Regulations Order, 1954, requires that the pilot in charge shall, within twelve months, have been tested by or on behalf of the operator as to his knowledge of the terrain, the seasonal meteorological conditions, communications, air traffic facilities, service and procedures, search and rescue procedures and the navigational facilities relevant to the route

It is also required that within six months he shall have been tested as to his proficiency in using instrument approach-to-land systems of the type in use at the aerodrome of intended landing and any alternate aerodrome, such test being carried out either in flight or by means of apparatus of approved type in which flight conditions are simulated on the ground, and in I.F.R.—instrument flight rules—conditions, which may in the case of tests carried out in flight be simulated. I can give my hon. Friend the assurance in regard to the Regulations for which he asked. The pilot in this case successfully completed the tests required in respect of a non-scheduled flight from London to Barcelona on 9th April and 16th August, 1959. Under these Regulations virtually all charter flights take place and there is nothing to suggest that they have proved inadequate.

Mr. Richard Collard (Norfolk, Central)

Will not my hon. Friend agree that it is rather surprising that, according to what has been said, the first time this pilot flew on this route was as a captain of the aircraft? Whatever the Regulations may say, surely that is a thing to be avoided.

Mr. Rippon

The position as far as the Corporations are concerned to which my hon. Friend referred, is that certainly it is required that a pilot on a scheduled service shall be under supervision if he has not had any experience of the route, but even in the case of Corporations that does not apply to charter flights. There is a difference between scheduled flights which, as far as possible, must be carried out even in difficult conditions, and charter flights, which can be postponed more easily if a pilot for any reason feels unhappy about his own experience, the route, weather conditions, or any other matters.

I hope I have said enough to indicate that really no useful purpose would be served by any further investigation into this accident. Nor, I suggest is there anything that would lead us to believe that even if the Regulations or the safety procedures had been different this parti- cular tragic accident could have been avoided. The relatives of course have our deepest sympathy. We fully understand the concern they must feel, not only for the loss of their relatives, but also to try to avoid a repetition of such an accident. They can have our assurance that we do everything in our power to learn lessons from every accident of this kind.

Mr. J. Howard

Can my hon. Friend tell us whether his officials have actually checked the records in this particular instance, the records of the tests?

Mr. Rippon

I have said that we are satisfied that the pilot was tested according to the Regulations on the two dates to which I have referred.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Eleven o'clock.