HC Deb 06 July 1970 vol 803 cc325-8

Mr. Dan Jones (by Private Notice) asked the President of the Board of Trade if he will make a statement about the crash of the Comet aircraft belonging to Dan-Air Ltd. in Spain on Friday, 3rd July, 1970, killing 112 persons.

The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. Frederick Corfield)

It is a matter of very great regret to me that my fir it duty in this Parliament should be in connection with a matter of this tragic nature.

A Dan-Air Comet 4, G-APDN, on a charter flight from Manchester to Barcelona, carrying 105 passengers and seven crew, crashed into the northern slopes of the Sierra Montseny at approximately 1800 hours on Friday. It was at a height of about 3,000 feet above sea level, approximately 35 miles north-east of Barcelona. The tops of the mountains in this area are about 5,600 feet.

The aircraft was completely disintegrated by the impact, following which there was a fierce fire. All those on board were killed instantly. I am sure that the House will wish to join with me in expressing the greatest sympathy with the relatives and friends of all those who died in this disaster.

The scene of this accident was wild and hilly. The Spanish authorities, once the wreckage had been located, lost no time in constructing tracks for a couple of miles to gain access to it. They have set up a commission to investigate the accident, and a Senior Inspector from the Accidents Investigation Branch of the Board has been accredited to them. The full resources of the Accidents Investigation Branch will be made available to the Spanish commission, which is also being assisted by the operator and the manufacturer of the aircraft. The flight data recorder has been recovered. We have offered the Spanish authorities help with equipment available in this country to obtain transcripts of the recordings.

Mr. Jones

I thank the Minister of State for that reply. May I associate myself with his expressions of condolences to those concerned? This is the second tragedy that has occurred in my constituency within a few years. I am sure that my constituents would want me to say that the condolences should be expressed to others who are unfortunately involved.

May I ask the Minister a question which I, and indeed all responsible people, consider to be of outstanding importance. Why was the aircraft flying below the safe height ceiling? I know that it is an outstandingly obvious question, but equally it is an outstandingly important one.

Mr. Corfield

The hon. Gentleman and the House will appreciate that it would be pure speculation if at this moment I were to say anything other than what I have already said. We are giving the matter of getting a thorough investigation going top priority. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall make a statement as soon as ever we can.

Mr. Walder

As a number of my constituents lost their lives in this tragic accident, I naturally wish to follow the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Dan Jones) in his expression of sympathy. At such a time, there is inevitably considerable speculation and surmise about the cause of such an accident, with public and local feeling concentrating upon two matters—first, the fact that an aircraft came to grief in a situation where there was a known navigational hazard and, second, the safety and efficiency tests carried out on this aircraft before it left the ground.

Mr. Corfield

On the first question, I cannot add anything to what I have already said. It would be pure speculation to try to find reasons at this time.

On the second question, it is relevant that this airline has a remarkably good safety record and reputation. This is the first accident it has had in its seventeen years of service. We must await the full inquiry before we speculate as to the reasons.

Mr. Mason

I wish at the outset to associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the expressions of sympathy which have already been offered.

Will the Minister of State ask the President of the Board of Trade to speed up an inquiry himself, as distinct from the long-term Spanish inquiry? This is the height of the tourist season. Many thousands of people have booked overseas flights and will want their anxieties put at rest.

Will the hon. Gentleman study whether there is any resemblance between this air crash and others which have occurred in recent years in which planes have crashed whilst on the approach path to Barcelona airfield, particularly bearing in mind the adequacy of navigational aids, whether there is any radar interference because of the mountain range, and the draught channels in the mountains causing freak gusts whose effects might be incalculable and extremely serious?

Mr. Corfield

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman knows as well as anybody that under I.C.A.O. agreements the responsibility for the investigation of this crash rests with the Spanish Government. We are giving the maximum amount of help.

As to the question again of speculating as to the cause, I do not wish to say anything, except that I understand that Barcelona is regarded as a singularly well-equipped airport in that part of the world and also that this is an aircraft which was singularly well equipped.

Mr. Tebbit

Although the airport may or may not be well equipped, the aircraft in question was using, immediately before the accident, a highly unreliable type of navigation facility—a non-directional M.F. beacon—and both my former colleagues and myself would like an assurance that, particularly where such matters are under the control of the Minister, such beacons will be replaced as early as possible by more satisfactory and modern equipment.

Mr. Corfield

If I understand my Friend's question aright, this would be primarily the responsibility of the Spanish authorities. We will certainly make such representations as are appropriate.

Mr. Leslie Huckfield

Will the Minister of State bear in mind that from time to time British aviation pilots have in fact made recommendations that navigational facilities in that part of the world should be improved? Will the Minister of State recommend that the President of the Board of Trade give serious consideration to setting up yet another standing review body to review the safety performance of aviation operators in this country, similar to the body set up following the Argonaut disaster in 1967?

Mr. Corfield

I think that that suggestion is premature. I will certainly not rule out anything that appears appropriate when we have had the result of the investigation.

Mr. Charles R. Morris

Is the Minister of State aware that the bereaved relatives will appreciate the expressions of sympathy which have been voiced in the House following this terrible tragedy?

Did any consultations take place between himself and the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, or indeed the British Ambassador in Madrid, in regard to the almost indecent haste with which the burial arrangements were made?

Mr. Corfield

We were in touch with our Consul. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that under Spanish law bodies must be buried at the maximum within 48 hours of death; in many cases and in certain conditions it is a shorter period than that. I fully appreciate that this time scale is very short and that it is apt to cause distress to relatives, but equally the House will realise that these regulations are made because of the climate of the country, and in this case the terrible damage caused by the impact must be remembered.