HC Deb 23 April 1968 vol 763 cc34-7

Mr. Corfield (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the accident to a Shackleton aircraft on 19th April, 1968 and whether he is yet in a position to make a statement on the findings of the boards of inquiry into the earlier Shackleton accidents.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing profound sympathy for all who have been bereaved by these tragic accidents.

As hon. Members will realise, a Board of Inquiry has already been appointed to investigate the accident on 19th April, and it would be wrong to say anything which might prejudge the findings of the Board. All I can say at present is that the aircraft, which was a Mk 2 Shackleton, crashed near Machrihanish in bad weather while flying at low altitude. I regret there were no survivors. No evidence has been found so far to suggest any mechanical malfunction or failure.

As regards the other three accidents, inquiry proceedings in the first two cases have now been completed, and they are sufficiently advanced in the third case for me to be in a position to make a statement on the findings.

The first accident, on 4th November, 1967, involved a Mk 2 Shackleton on a transit flight between Gan in the Indian Ocean and Singapore. The firm conclusion has been reached that this accident was caused by a failure of No. 4 engine which resulted in uncontrollable over-speeding of the propeller and fire. The engine fell out but with great skill the pilot brought the aircraft down on the water with the result that the lives of three of the 11 on board were saved.

The second accident, on 19th November, 1967, concerned a Mk 3 Shackleton in the South-Western approaches 200 miles off the Cornish coast. Two of the 11 on board were saved. The aircraft stalled at low level while exercising with a submarine, and there was no evidence to suggest technical failure.

The third accident in Inverness-shire on 21st December, 1967 involved a Shackleton Mk 3 in transit to an exercise area. This struck the ground at high speed in a near-vertical dive from a height of 8,000 feet. There were no survivors of the 13 on board. It has been established that there was no structural, engine or propeller failure, and there was no fire or explosion before the crash. The most likely cause of the crash is thought to have been unexpectedly severe airframe and propeller icing which resulted in loss of control.

From the findings of the inquiries into the first three accidents and from what we know so far about the fourth, no common factor can be discovered. There was, however, one previous case in 1964 which was similar in many respects to the accident in the Indian Ocean. I would point out that two of the aircraft were Mk 2 and two were Mk 3—a different and later type.

Inquiries into these accidents are always carried out with great thoroughness. In the first two of the present cases they included the evidence of survivors; in the third, the debris of the aircraft was available for examination.

The aircraft involved in these four crashes had flown respectively 5,971, 3,620, 3,814 and 2,525 hours. These are low figures in relation to the fatigue life of the aircraft. In any case, all four of these aircraft had had recent major refits. The routine replacement of aircraft parts means that the effective age of an individual aircraft is normaly much less than the date when the type entered service would suggest. There is no evidence that the age of the aircraft had anything to do with any of the accidents.

When there is evidence of a serious technical defect in one aircraft which might recure in others, or if there is a series of unexplained accidents in similar circumstances, the Royal Air Force does not hesitate to ground an aircraft type, as it did recently with the Whirlwind helicopter, and with the Hastings three years ago. In the case of the Shackleton, however, in the light of the findings I have described there is no valid reason at this stage for grounding the type.

Mr. Corfield

May I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself with the Minister's expressions of sympathy with the bereaved?

I am sure that the House and the country will be relieved to hear that the hon. Gentleman has been unable to find any common cause in the previous three accidents. We appreciate that it is far too early to ask him for any definite information as to the cause of the fourth accident, but when that information is available will he make a statement to the House, and also, in view of the fact that there is bound to be a certain amount of anxiety over these crashes, undertake to see whether the Nimrod cannot be brought into service at a somewhat earlier date than at present expected?

Mr. Rees

I will, of course, make a statement as soon as possible. The Nimrod is due to come into service during next year and the Shackletons will phase out a little beyond that date. The Nimrod is going faster than anticipated, but I cannot promise more than that.

Sir A. V. Harvey

The Minister has given a very detailed account of this unfortunate accident. In reviewing the matter further, in respect of the two cases where the aircraft hit high ground when flying at a low level, will he review carefully the training system of the crews? I do not wish to reflect in any way upon their ability, but will the Minister look into the system?

Mr. Rees

We have done that recently, and the advice that I have been given is that the crews are well trained and know what they are doing, and that there is no need to alter the training programme.

Mr. Roebuck

Will my hon. Friend ensure that the fact that age had nothing to do with these crashes is made well known in Coastal Command? Can he say what is the state of morale in Coastal Command as a result of this series of crashes?

Mr. Rees

The morale in Coastal Command has traditionally been high. Naturally, there has been grief over the loss of so many friends and comrades, but I can assure the House that there is no evidence of lack of morale.

Mr. Lubbock

May I, on behalf of my party, also join in extending our deepest sympathy to the relatives of those who have been killed in this latest crash? Notwithstanding the fact that the Minister has said that there is no common factor between the four crashes, is it not a cause for very great anxiety that four crashes should take place within such a short time? Will the Minister therefore inform the House as soon as he can what steps can be taken to speed up the introduction of the Nimrod into service, and whether the date can be advanced?

Mr. Rees

On the last point, I can assure the hon. Member that the order was placed soon after October, 1964, when the Government came into office, and that it is going extremely well. The fact that it is going extremely well is the reason it gets no publicity.