HC Deb 12 June 1969 vol 784 cc2073-82

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn till Monday next.—[Mr. Concannon.]

2.16 p.m.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

Some time during the morning of Friday, 23rd May, Sergeant Paul Meyer, of the United States Air Force, who was stationed at Mildenhall, in my constituency, was found staggering along the A11 road. The police, in accordance with the Visiting Forces Act, returned this young American to his base where a security guard put him to bed to "sleep it off".

Shortly before dawn Sergeant Meyer awoke and, walking through the main gate, he entered into the cockpit of a C130 aircraft. There was nothing unusual about this, since Sergeant Meyer, as a master mechanic, was employed on these large aircraft and no suspicions were aroused until, without making radio contact with the tower, the aircraft roared down the runway and took off.

Thereafter, it appears that this huge aircraft, flown single-handed by a man without any pilot training, travelled at high speed and presumably at a fairly low level across a wide area of Southern England. It came dangerously close to the extremely busy air traffic routes in and out of London Airport. It was eventually picked up, although not for some considerable time, by American and British radar and finally, after radio contact was made with it, Sergeant Meyer was able to speak with his wife in Virginia. Shortly afterwards it appears that Sergeant Meyer lost control of the aircraft and, as far as I can ascertain, crashed into the English Channel somewhere between Bournemouth and Cherbourg.

So much for the bare facts. I turn now to the important questions that led me to seek this short debate. Before I do so, however, perhaps I may express my sympathy to Mrs. Meyer and her family and also to the commanding officer and others at the Mildenhall base. From long and close experience, I have developed the warmest regard and respect for the United States Air Force in this country, and I want to put it on record that in my constituency United States airmen and their families are model guests and welcome neighbours.

I have myself frequently visited Mildenhall base and, indeed, I may well have been shown through the particular aircraft which Sergeant Meyer hijacked, if that is the right term. I therefore have little doubt that the American Air Force inquiry, now being conducted, will establish all the pertinent facts and will lead to such changes or tightening up of security arrangements as may be needed to ensure that such a dangerous incident will not occur again. Nevertheless, I have several important questions to put to the Minister.

First, I seek an assurance that all possible steps have been taken by the American authorities to guard the many aircraft stationed at Mildenhall and other American bases against any future danger of a drunken, demented or even disloyal man taking off on unauthorised flights.

This is not the first such incident. In June, 1958, another United States mechanic took off in a B45 bomber from Alconbury base, in Huntingdon, and this aircraft crashed on to the London-Edinburgh railway line. There have been other cases in the United States since them. One does not have to be a devotee of "Dr. Strangelove" to recognise that a huge aircraft, carrying thousands of gallons of high octane petrol, not to mention the possibility of even more deadly items, can be a lethal weapon in the hands of an untrained and possibly unstable man.

I thank heaven that Sergeant Meyer did not crash his aircraft on one of my Suffolk villages, or, much worse, on Central London in the rush hour. If that had happened, scores and perhaps hundreds of British lives might have been lost. So my first request is for a categorical assurance that everything possible is being done at Mildenhall and elsewhere to prevent such an incident from recurring.

Secondly, can the hon. Gentleman confirm that this aircraft did fly across the air traffic pattern of London Airport? At the time, I am told that several dozen large passenger jets were arriving and taking off from London, and to inject a rogue aircraft into this pattern was extremely hazardous. I hope that the Minister can tell me at precisely what hour the air traffic radar at London Airport picked up this dangerous intruder. I hope that he can tell me what steps were taken to warn or divert other civilian aircraft in the vicinity.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will also say if, as is rumoured, nothing was done along these lines, was it because the Hercules was not located, or if it was, as a "blip" on the screens, was it not identified as the missing aircraft from Mildenhall? Above all, has the Board of Trade reviewed the procedures concerning such incidents? Are the Government satisfied that the action taken in all the circumstances was satisfactory?

Thirdly, I understand, that R.A.F. and United States fighter aircraft were ordered to search for the missing Hercules. Is this true? If so, why did they not find it? With an official American inquiry proceeding, I do not ask the Minister to anticipate its findings, but I am sure that he is aware of the anxieties which have arisen about the adequacy of our defences, if fighter aircraft were sent up and failed to locate a very large and comparatively slow Hercules transport flying over England in daylight.

Then there is the question of our military radars. It is alleged—I put it no higher—that no radar contact was made with the plane until an hour and a half after its unauthorised take-off. Is this true? If it is, it is very disturbing.

I do not want, and the Minister would not welcome it if I did, the pursuit of this question in great depth at the moment. There are some obvious security considerations. But I believe that the House is entitled to a clear-cut assurance that our radar defences are adequate, or, if they were shown by this incident not to be, that the most urgent steps are being taken to make them adequate and without a moment's delay.

Finally, I turn to the United States Air Force inquiry which is currently going on. Obviously, it has had to be conducted in secret and most of its findings are likely to remain classified. But can he tell me why no British officer was allowed to be present as an observer? We and the Americans are allies and there should be no secrets between us, at least about flights of American aircraft across our own country. So will the hon. Gentleman also give a categorical assurance that the United States Air Force will provide a transcript of its inquiry hearings to the British Government? This is essential, so that those responsible for this country's air defence and air traffic safety may satisfy themselves that the investigation has been thorough and that the conclusions are satisfactory.

Moreover, once the Minister has studied the transcript and considered the Americans' conclusions and the steps which they take, I hope that he will not exclude the possibility of a further British study of this incident. What matters to the House is the safeguarding of British interests and, for that matter, British lives. We have just seen, in the case of Captain Thain, that different nations' experts can reach very different conclusions about air crashes. I do not wish to see any such differences creating injustices, misunderstanding or grievances between this country and the Americans over this incident.

So, finally, will the hon. Gentleman assure us that the American evidence will be made known to the Government and that, when it has been studied and all the facts are to hand, he will make a further statement to the House. This is essential to satisfy the genuine anxieties of my constituents, to satisfy those who fly in and out of London Airport that our air traffic arrangements are adequate and, above all, to assure us that the military radar defences of this country are adequate for the task before them.

2.28 p.m.

The Minister of Defence for Equipment (Mr. John Morris)

May I, first, join the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Eldon Griffiths) in extending my sympathy to Mrs. Meyer? I am sure that the House will appreciate the hon. Gentleman's remarks about American forces in this country. I also thank him for the way in which he has raised this issue, and I hope that my reply will remove some of the misconceptions which have arisen about this case.

First, I would give the House a brief statement of the main facts of the incident as they appear to me. They derive from two sources—the information which the United States authorities promptly placed at our disposal, and the very comprehensive data available from the British air traffic control system.

I must emphasise, as the hon. Member fairly put it, that an American board of inquiry is at present considering the incident with the object of establishing all the attendant circumstances, and recommending any remedial steps which may be necessary. The board was convened almost immediately after the incident and it is still in session. I am assured that it is examining the matter with great thoroughness. Until the American authorities have received and considered the findings of this board, a number of questions obviously remain sub judice, including questions touching the responsibility of individual members of the United States Air Force. The House will not expect me to deal with points of this kind.

I shall, therefore, confine myself to four matters—first, the course of events from the moment at which the unauthorised flight began; second, the action taken by the British and American authorities during the course of the incident; third, the action subsequently taken by my Department; and, fourth, certain wider matters about which hon. Members and some sections of the Press have expressed anxiety.

The facts of the incident are these. At 5.15 a.m. on Friday, 23rd May, 1969, an American Air Force sergeant, who was a member of the establishment of ground personnel at the United States Air Force base at the R.A.F. Station, Mildenhall, made an unauthorised take-off in an American C130 Hercules aircraft. This was detected immediately by the United States Air Force authorities at Mildenhall.

With commendable speed, they informed the United Kingdom Air Traffic Control organisation and the Air Defence Operations Centre of R.A.F. Strike Command within minutes of the unauthorised take-off. Almost simultaneously—three minutes after the take-off, to be precise—a radar response was observed on British radars. The information given to us by the American authorities enabled the unschedule radar plot to be at once identified as the rogue aircraft.

London Airways Civil Air Traffic Control was immediately warned of a potential penetration of its controlled air space. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be very much encouraged to hear that. He was right to raise these matters which caused anxiety to him and perhaps to his constituents. I hope that this will relieve some of that anxiety.

From the moment of the first radar observation to the eventual disappearance of their aircraft off the Cherbourg peninsula one and a half hours later, the Hercules was continuously tracked by British radars. Information about its height, course and probable future track was provided to all air traffic control authorities concerned or likely to be concerned, including the Continental radar system. There is no truth in the suggestion that it was at any stage before its final disappearance lost to radar surveillance or that any of the traffic control authorities concerned were without information about its course and height.

Nor, because of the prompt action taken by the air traffic control autthorities, did the Hercules become a hazard to other aircraft under air traffic control. I know that the hon. Member has been very concerned about that because of the danger to other traffic in the area. All necessary warnings were issued and in one case a civil aircraft bound for London was given special instructions to steel clear of the Hercules' track. In short, the British air traffic control system operated with commendable speed and efficiency throughout the incident.

It is not the case that the rogue aircraft remained unseen or unidentified, nor was there any lack of adequate information about its behaviour throughout the period of the flight. The incident confirms our confidence in the arrangements for tracking and controlling aircraft in British airspace. It also confirms the close and efficient liaison which exists between ourselves and the United States Air Force authorities in this country.

It may be worth adding that vessels of the Royal Navy and a Whirlwind helicopter of the R.A.F. took part in search operations and at sea, later, a naval vessel responded to the request of the American authorities for assistance in salvaging the wreckage.

So much for the course of events on 23rd May. Following the incident, my Department has been in touch with the U.S. Air Force headquarters in this country, and discussions have taken place. The American authorities are in no doubt about the public disquiet which has been expressed, and we have conveyed to them our concern, which they share, that the attendant circumstances of the incident should be examined carefully and all reasonable steps taken to guard against a recurrence. It is precisely for these purposes that the U.S. Air Force has convened the board of inquiry to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

As I am sure is generally understood, the discipline of American personnel and the security of American aircraft at United States Air Force bases in this country is solely the responsibility of the American authorities. We have no power to regulate for the American Armed Forces, and we would not wish to have. It is for the American authorities alone to devise and, as necessary, to review such procedures as are needed for security and safety. They are as much interested in such matters as we are. For our part, however, we are fully entitled to express our views and seek assurances. That is what we are doing.

The hon. Gentleman has asked whether we shall see the proceedings of the American board of inquiry. I can assure him that we shall certainly be informed of its outcome. We are asking the United States Air Force authorities to let us know in due course whether the evidence taken by the board, the findings that it reaches, and the subsequent consideration of these matters by the appropriate American authorities have suggested the need for additional precautions against the unauthorised use of aircraft. We shall seek an assurance that all the necessary steps are being taken.

For this purpose, we do not need to be given a transcript of the board's proceedings and, indeed, it would be contrary to all accepted practice to ask for one. The only essential question for us both is not the machinery by which inquiries are made, but the conclusions which are reached by the American authorities and any necessary steps to which those conclusions point. On those matters, we shall expect to be fully informed.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

This is a crucial matter. I accept that the Americans are capable of conducting their own inquiry, but does the hon. Gentleman consider it enough just to accept their conclusions without making the British Government aware of all the pertinent information on which those conclusions are based? The public mind requires some assurance on that.

Mr. Morris

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I require to be satisfied about the necessary security precautions and to ensure that all the requisite information to do that will be available to me. However, there is no precedent for having a transcript of the inquiry, which may be concerned with a number of other disciplinary matters which are of no affair of ours.

The hon. Gentleman may have experience of inquiries of this kind and of the precedents which our own courts may have as regards internal Service inquiries. What is important is not the machinery, but that I should be satisfied. I give him the assurance that I shall expect to be satisfied about the necessary security precautions which he has stressed.

I should like to add that, in advance of the board's findings, the U.S. Air Force has already issued instructions reinforcing existing orders governing the security of aircraft and discipline of personnel.

As for any wider implications of the incident, I have noted carefully the anxieties expressed by hon. Members and by the Press. I hope that the information which I have already given will have removed any anxieties about the adequacy of our arrangements for tracking and identifying aircraft in British airspace. As I have said, the performance of the air traffic control system was exemplary.

The question may well be asked whether a similar incident could occur involving an aircraft armed with nuclear weapons. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman referred to "deadly weapons". As the House has been assured on a number of occasions, very elaborate procedures are applied both by ourselves and by the Americans to ensure that there is no possibility of unauthorised use of nuclear weapons or of aircraft with a nuclear potentiality.

It would not be in the public interest to describe the procedures in detail but, as is generally known, they rest on the "two-man" principle; that is to say, they impose at every stage in the handling of nuclear weapons and aircraft with a nuclear potentiality the requirement that at least two authorised and independent individuals must act simultaineously. In addition, there are elaborate precautions for guarding weapons and aircraft and preventing unauthorised access to them.

We do not apply precautions of this degree of stringency to other aircraft; for example, aircraft of the type represented by the Hercules transport aircraft are not fitted to carry nuclear weapons. To do so would be prohibitively expensive, and we do not believe that it would be justified.

That is not to say that we view the unauthorised use of the general run of military aircraft with the smallest degree of equanimity, or that strict rules do not exist for the security of those aircraft and for the discipline of the personnel who have access to them. There are very carefully designed regulations, and arrangements for enforcing them. These are such as would place very serious obstacles in the way of the unauthorised use of aircraft, and incidents of the kind which recently took place at Mildenhall are exceedingly rare.

But I would draw a very clear distinction between aircraft carrying a nuclear capacity and the general run of military aircraft. The procedures in force for the security of the former are designed to be proof against even very extreme and exceedingly improbable contingencies: the procedures for the general run of military aircraft, though strict, are less extreme. It follows that it would be altogether mistaken to conclude from the incident at Mildenhall that anything remotely comparable could have occurred with aircraft possessing a nuclear capacity.

In addition to seeking from the American authorities the assurance I have already mentioned, we have taken stock of our own arrangements for the security of aircraft in the Royal Air Force, and I am satisfied that they do not require revision.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths


Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has exhausted his right to speak.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Three o'clock p.m. till Monday next.