HC Deb 28 July 1965 vol 717 cc470-2
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Denis Healey)

I will, with permission, inform the House of the findings of the board of inquiry into the accident to the Hastings aircraft of the Royal Air Force on 6th July, and of the action which is being taken following the inquiry.

The board has found that the loss of control which caused the aircraft to crash was due to the failure of the two upper attachment bolts of the starboard outer elevator out-rigger. Subsequent tests at Harefield Laboratories and the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, have shown that the failure was one of fatigue.

The Minister of Aviation and the manufacturers have made a thorough investigation of the Hastings control system and have defined certain work which it is considered should be done on all Hastings aircraft before they are released for flying.

It has been decided to return to the manufacturers in this country, or to suitable centres overseas, for reconditioning and modification all elevators, tailplanes, fins and rudders. While the aircraft are grounded, the opportunity is also being taken by the Service to carry out special checks for any other defects, and remedial action will be taken if necessary.

In parallel with this work, and as a precautionary measure, the manufacturers are making a separate study of the general structure of the aircraft to enable them to give an assurance of its safety for the remainder of its life.

I cannot say at this stage exactly how long the necessary remedial work will take, but the first aircraft should be flying again within a few weeks and the whole programme should be complete in about two months.

A detailed study has been made of the effect of the temporary withdrawal of the Hastings on our operational and training capabilities. The main impact is on our training programme which will have to be temporarily curtailed in a number of ways. By means of a reallocation of priorities and increased chartering, additional transport aircraft have been made available for our air forces overseas and this will enable them to meet their operational commitments.

Transport Command is proud of the standards that have enabled its scheduled services to achieve probably the finest airline safety record in the world, and everything possible will be done to maintain these standards.

Sir J. Eden

I am sure that the whole House is grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving the House the information arising out of the board of inquiry. Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether the circumstances of this tragic accident are being used by the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough to add to its knowledge of metal fatigue in aircraft generally? Is there any special checking procedure, particularly for older aircraft, by which signs of fatigue can be detected before they are too far advanced? If so, are these methods being used?

The statement referred to additional transport aircraft being made available. Could the right hon. Gentleman be a little more specific as to what aircraft he has in mind for this purpose? Since it is the intention that the Hastings aircraft should come back into service as soon as possible, can the right hon. Gentleman look further ahead into the future and say when they are likely to be replaced altogether and by what aircraft?

Mr. Healey

I think that the hon. Member will know that the question of fatigue is a problem which is not yet fully understood by our scientists and still less by our engineers, but, of course, we are learning what we can from this tragic experience and we will apply the lessons to tests of all other aircraft.

On the question of the replacement of the Hastings, under the new programme which the House approved some months ago, the C130E will begin to come into operational service towards the end of next year and will be completely in operational service in 1968, five or six years before the Hastings replacement would have been in service under the previous programme.

Sir A. V. Harvey

The right hon. Gentleman referred specifically to transport aircraft. In view of the fact that this is the second type, first the Valiant and now the Hastings, that have had fatigue tests within a few months, will he give an undertaking that the full knowledge of the Royal Aircraft Establishment and the industry will be applied to check-inspection of all types, whether military or transport?

Mr. Healey

Yes, Sir.

Mr. Lubbock

May I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement and ask him two questions? First, how can he give us an assurance that the first aircraft should be flying again in a few weeks when a study of the general structure of the aircraft is being undertaken to enable an assurance to be given of its safety for the remainder of its life? How is the right hon. Gentleman sure that this study will come up with a favourable answer? Secondly, what arrangements for chartering aircraft for Transport Command have been entered into in anticipation of taking the Hastings out of service?

Mr. Healey

The Hastings represents a special fatigue problem because of vibration in the rear assembly when the aircraft is on the ground. This problem is not thought likely to apply to other aircraft, but it will be fully studied and the necessary steps will be taken to deal with the problem before the first Hastings comes back into service.

Steps have been taken to meet the charter problem, but the hon. Member will understand that the number of aircraft which we charter will depend on the operational situation. The bulk of our worldwide transport arrangements are not affected by the withdrawal of the Hastings.