HC Deb 20 January 1969 vol 776 cc40-4

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

84. Sir G. SINCLAIR: To ask the President of the Board of Trade whether he will make a statement on the accident to the Ariana Boeing 727 on Sunday, 5th January, near Gatwick, in the Dorking constituency.

The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. William Rodgers)

With permission I will now answer Question No. 84.

A Boeing 727 of Ariana Airlines, on a scheduled flight from Kabul via Frankfurt, crashed two miles to the east of Gatwick Airport at 0135 hours G.M.T. on Sunday 5th January, whilst making an approach to, land on Runway 27.

The aircraft first hit a tree and finally came to rest in a field after having demolished a house. It broke up into a number of large pieces on impact and burst into flames; and 43 of the passengers and five of the crew died. Two of the three occupants of the house also lost their lives. The captain, co-pilot and flight engineer and 11 passengers survived.

The House will join with me in expressing sympathy with the relatives and friends of those who died, and in wishing a speedy recovery to those who were injured.

I am sure that the House would like to pay tribute to the local residents, who courageously went immediately to the assistance of the survivors. The rescue services and the police arrived on the scene within a few minutes of the accident. In visiting the scene during the day, I saw what had already been achieved and the excellent work being done in difficult conditions. I would also like to pay tribute to the work of the hospital staffs at Redhill and East Grinstead.

An inspector's investigation was started immediately by a team from the Board of Trade's Accident Investigation Branch, who arrived before first light. They have established that the runway visual range given to the pilot by Air Traffic Control was 100 metres, but that the fog was patchy and lights could be seen through it. The pilot decided to carry out an approach down to his authorised minimum of 200 feet, to see for himself whether he then had the required visibility to complete the landing. He told Air Traffic Control that if he had to overshoot, he would divert to Heathrow, where the weather was better.

Somewhere during the descent the aircraft got well below the glide slope and struck the trees when it should have been 500 feet above aerodrome level. The investigation now in progress is concentrating on this section of the flight. The accident report will be published in due course. Meanwhile, as the House will understand, it would be wrong for me to speculate about the outcome.

Sir C. Sinclair

While thanking the Minister for that preliminary statement, and associating myself fully with the sympathy he has expressed and with the tributes which he has paid to the individuals and the services which came with such remarkable speed to help at the scene of the crash, may I ask him whether he thinks there is now a case for modifying the current British procedure which places final responsibility on the captain of the aircraft of whether or not to make a landing in foul weather?

Mr. Rodgers

The House will be fully informed when we have the report of the investigator.

It would be premature to draw any conclusions whatsoever about the cause of the crash, but the point which the hon. Gentleman makes is being borne in mind.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing

Will the inquiry have liberty to consider whether, if precision approach radar had been present, it would have been possible to draw the attention of the pilot to the fact that he was below the normal glide path? As this equipment is available, should it not be deployed at our major airfields which are wont to have fog during winter months?

Mr. Rodgers

The inspector is in a position to make whatever recommendation he thinks fit, but I would again remind the House that it is too soon, particularly in view of my statement this afternoon, to draw conclusions on whether we have learnt anything about forms of air traffic control.

Mr. Rankin

Does not my hon. Friend think that there are occasions when a pilot ought to have some guidance, and not be compelled to depend upon his own decision as to whether, on occasions, he should or should not land at an airport?

Mr. Rodgers

I am aware that there are differences of opinion on this matter. It has been fully examined in the past. We do not have closed minds.

Mr. Fortescue

In view of this disaster, will the Minister tell the House whether it is still his intention to withdraw from use one of the at present duplicated approach aid systems installed at Heathrow?

Mr. Rodgers

In so far as it is possible, this will be maintained in use, although I ought to make it clear to the House, without prejudice to anything further we may learn from the report, that the precision approach radar which has been mentioned in almost all the supplementary questions is very rarely used and that the I.L.S. approach system is much the most sophisticated in the world.

Miss Harvie Anderson

Will the Minister not appreciate that there is great public concern both about the approach procedure and use and about the overshoot procedure, and that this is a constant source of anxiety for our domestic aircraft landing in poor visibility? Will these matters be taken into account?

Mr. Rodgers

Those will certainly be taken into account, but, again, it is much too soon to assume that the availability of one system rather than another would have made any difference on this occasion.

Mr. Sandys

The Minister said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Dorking (Sir G. Sinclair) that the important point which he raised about procedure would be borne in mind. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could say a little more than that? Could he not assure us that the question of the desirability of altering the procedure will be seriously examined?

Mr. Rodgers

I have sought to make clear in answer to all questions that there are differences of opinion whether the I.L.S. approach by itself is sufficient or whether P.A.R. should be retained. This is something which we are examining. A decision was made a year or so ago after very full consultation; but on a safety matter of this kind we shall look at it again, although I must remind the House that this is without prejudice to what may have gone wrong on this occasion.

Mr. Crouch

Can the Minister clear up one important point? At the time of this accident, there was a statement, either from the British Airports Authority or from his Department, to the effect that British airports are not closed because of fog. However, I am sure that many hon. Members have had the experience of being told when in the air that London Airport was closed and that the aircraft was being diverted to another airport. Is an airport in Britain ever closed because of a decision on the ground?

Mr. Rodgers

A British airport is never closed because of conditions on the ground. By international agreement, airports are required to be kept available continuously in case there are emergencies where, for example, a captain quite rightly decides that he has no alternative but to attempt to land. Any formula such as that mentioned by the hon. Gentleman is one which is simply used as common currency by the airlines.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. Private Notice Question. Mr. Hogg.