§ The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Denis Healey)
Shortly after four o'clock yesterday afternoon, a Hastings from the R.A.F. Station, Abingdon, crashed near Dorchester, about three miles from the airfield. The aircraft, which carried Army and Royal Air Force passengers, some of whom were to undertake practice parachute jumps, had taken off a few minutes before. The captain had reported control difficulties and the aircraft was returning to the airfield.
All six Royal Air Force members of the crew and the 35 passengers of the Army and Royal Air Force lost their lives. Two were members of the Territorial Army undergoing training.
A board of inquiry has been convened and assembled this morning.
I know that the House will join with me in expressing our deep sympathy with the bereaved.
§ Mr. Hay
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that my right hon. and hon. Friends 1587 and myself wish to be associated with his expression of sympathy to the relatives of those who lost their lives in what I read is the worst accident which has ever befallen the Royal Air Force?
The right hon. Gentleman said that a board of inquiry has been convened. Since the Hastings aircraft is in very general service and cannot be said to be a fighting aircraft, will he consider, in this case, waiving the customary rule that the proceedings of such boards of inquiry for Service aircraft are in private and on this occasion, bearing in mind the very great loss of life and the natural anxiety which everyone has to find out the causes of the accident, holding the inquiry in public?
§ Mr. Healey
I am grateful to the hon. Member for his early remarks.
I have considered the question of the inquiry carefully, but there are juridical obstacles about holding a board of inquiry in public, as I think he will remember. In view of the very deep public concern about this matter, I undertake to the House that I will make the fullest possible statement about the findings of the inquiry as soon as I possibly can.
§ Mr. Shinwell
May I, on behalf of the back-bench Members on this side of the House, associate myself with the expression of sympathy to the relatives of those who lost their lives? May I ask my right hon. Friend to convey to the officers and men of the Royal Air Force our respectful sympathy?
§ Mr. Neave
As the paratroop training instructors who were killed were my constituents, would the Minister not like to record now the fine performance of the paratroop training school at Abingdon, in spite of this terrible disaster, and his hope that it will continue its great work in training?
In response to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Hay), will he say that he will give a full report to the House when the time comes?
§ Mr. Crawshaw
I appreciate this opportunity of adding a few words of humble tribute to those which have been expressed. I hope that the House will allow me to pay a special tribute to the members of the Territorial Army who lost their lives. These men not only give unstintingly of their services to the country, but they are prepared at such times to make the final sacrifice. Not only the House but the whole country is concerned about the future of the Territorial Army. I know that whatever the decision may be, the House would like to go on record the great appreciation which we owe to these people.
§ Mr. Soames
We are grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his assurance that he will make as full a statement as possible to the House. In the meanwhile, will he confirm that the accident, on the face of it, and before the inquiry, seems almost inexplicable, since the Hastings has an excellent low-accident rate up to the present?
§ Mr. Healey
Yes. I think that it is worth saying that over the last five years the Hastings has a fatal accident rate only half as high as that of most aircraft in the R.A.F. In the last four years it has suffered no major accident.
§ Mr. Lubbock
May I, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, associate myself with the expressions of sympathy to the relatives of those who died in this tragedy? Is the Secretary of State satisfied that pending the results of the inquiry the Hastings should be allowed to continue flying, irrespective of the fact that, as he said, it has a very low accident record, for it has been in service for a considerable time?
§ Mr. Healey
Yes, Sir. I have considered the matter. In view of the fact that the pilot reported control difficulties shortly before the crash took place, I have instructed that all other Hastings should be examined and should have their control systems checked before they carry out further flights.