HC Deb 19 June 1972 vol 839 cc44-50
The Minister for Aerospace (Mr. Michael Heseltine)

With permission, I will make a statement about the tragic accident yesterday to a British European Airways Trident aircraft.

BEA Trident I, G-ARPI (Papa India), on flight BE 548 from Heathrow to Brussels, crashed yesterday just south of the Staines bypass a few minutes after take-off at 1709. One hundred and nine passengers and nine crew all lost their lives as a result of the disaster. I am sure the House will wish to join the Secretary of State and me in expressing deepest sympathy with the friends and relatives of those who were killed in the first major accident that has befallen a Trident aircraft in commercial service. The Chairman of the British Airways Board, Mr. David Nicolson, has also asked me to tell the House of the deep sorrow of himself, the Chairman of BEA, Mr. Henry Marking, and all their colleagues for those bereaved in this terrible accident.

The aircraft took off normally from Heathrow, cleared initially to 1,500 feet. After take-off the pilot received and acknowledged clearance to 6,000 feet, which was the last message received from him. The flight data recorder has been recovered from the wreckage undamaged and a preliminary readout shows that the undercarriage and flaps were raised normally; that the autopilot was engaged at about 400 feet in accordance with normal procedure; and that the aircraft reached a height of about 1,750 feet at a speed of 160 knots. At this stage the wing leading edge droop mechanism started to retract and the aircraft entered the stalling régime. Almost immediately afterwards, the autopilot became disconnected and a high rate of descent began to buildup whilst the aircraft assumed a very marked nose-up attitude. Its angle of descent during the last 500 feet was greater than 60 and it struck the ground in an almost level attitude.

The calculated stalling speed of this aircraft in this configuration and weight was about 178 knots. The normal speed range for raising the leading edge wing droop is 225–250 knots. The effect of removing the droop is consistent with the flight path of the aircraft as determined from the flight recorder and confirmed by eye-witnesses. The investigation continues to try to establish what was the reason for the droop being removed at such a low speed and altitude. A comprehensive team of experts from the Accidents Investigation Branch and the operator commenced work on the site very shortly after the accident, and they will probe every aspect of this disaster, including the circumstances in which a fire broke out during the attempted rescue operations.

In view of the gravity of this disaster and of public concern, the Secretary of State has decided that there should be a public inquiry. The Lord Chancellor is being invited to appoint a Commissioner and Assessors for this purpose and a report will be published. In the intervening period, any factual information of importance to the safety of Trident aircraft which emerges from the preliminary investigations will be passed immediately to the appropriate safety authorities.

Mr. Mason

May I immediately associate my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself with the hon. Gentleman's expressions of sympathy to all the relatives and friends of those who died in the disaster, especially when the whole House knows that the Trident aircraft has had such an excellent record?

May I also ask the hon. Gentleman to take all possible steps to speed up the inquiry on three aspects in particular? I refer first to the droop problem that he mentioned, to establish that no structural or engine weaknesses are developing in this configuration of aircraft. Secondly, will he state as quickly as he can that no sabotage was involved? The third aspect is whether the observance of noise regulations has any bearing on the accident.

Further, why is there not a helicopter at Heathrow Airport manned and fully equipped with medical supplies so that it can take off and go to any aircraft accident within a short radius of the airport?

Finally, I feel—and I think the hon. Gentleman feels—that something must be done to halt the sightseers who act like vultures descending on death scenes. They hamper the rescue operations, and they could lead to a higher death toll. The hon. Gentleman should make sure that the police are given some authority to cordon off areas and take steps to deal with intruders. I am sure the House would support such a move.

Mr. Heseltine

The speeding-up of the inquiry is something we should all like to see, but a large number of very detailed investigations must be undertaken before it can get under way. Therefore, while we want to see the inquiry procedure implemented as fast as possible, it might be irresponsible of me to promise that that can happen in the immediate future. But I can say that the Accident Investigation Branch of my Department started work very shortly after the accident and any urgently-needed information that emerges will be passed on to those responsible in either the operation or the manufacturing side of the industry.

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's anxiety about structural or engine weaknesses. This is a matter on which we shall obtain a lot of information, and already have, from the black box, which has been recovered. It will be probed at the public inquiry, but I do not believe that there is any ground for anxiety on that count at this stage.

I can give a similar preliminary assurance about sabotage. There is no indication that sabotage took place.

The indications are that any noise abatement procedures would have been completed at a lower altitude than that which the aircraft had reached satisfactorily, so that there is a prima facie case for assuming that those procedures were in no way involved, although of course the matter will be probed at the public inquiry.

I shall look into the question of the helicopter service, but the House will understand that in a disaster of this sort the good that could be done by one helicopter, even with the crew it could carry, would be relatively restricted.

The right hon. Gentleman's last point—the extraordinary fascination that such disasters seem to have for a large number of people—is particularly important. Walking around the site last night, I found it inexplicable why so many people, many with their young children, seemed to want to come and have a look. In this case it could not have done any harm because there were no survivors, but it is easy to envisage circumstances in which the appalling queues of traffic and pedestrians—I abandoned my car four or five miles from the site to get forward—could have caused the most appalling disaster, with people seriously injured at such a disaster not getting to hospital quickly enough. I do not believe that the police are short of powers. The problem is that they have all their efforts concentrated on the rescue operations. But my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be receiving a report on the matter from the Police Commissioner for the Metropolis and will look at that point with great care.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

May I first express my own condolences to the next of kin of the crew and passengers and also pay my own tribute to the police, firemen and ambulance workers who went to the scene of the crash? This was the most appalling tragedy we have had in civil aviation in this country, and it could have been just that much worse if the aircraft had fallen on to Staines. Therefore, may I ask whether there was anything uncharacteristic about the Trident's takeoff and whether my hon. Friend is satisfied with a take-off pattern that allows an aircraft when climbing, and therefore at its most vulnerable to failure, to fly so close to a densely-populated area?

Mr. Heseltine

Many of the areas around Heathrow Airport are densely populated, and great care is exercised in choosing the aircraft routes with regard to the layout of the population below. But the aircraft was off course. All the issues raised will be examined at the public inquiry.

Mr. Russell Johnston

May I associate myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends with the expressions of sympathy at this ghastly disaster? I have two questions. The first is in technical terms. The Minister referred to the droop and the fact that it had been retracted before it should have been. It presumably lost aircraft lift. Is that entirely under automatic control or entirely under manual control, or is either optional? While it is true that BEA has a first-class safety record, it also seems to be horribly true that if a modern airliner crashes the chances of survival are very slim. What research is being directed by BEA or the hon. Gentleman's Department towards increasing the chances of survival under crash conditions?

Mr. Heseltine

The droop procedure is a manual procedure on the aircraft. Safety in aviation is a subject of massive investment and expenditure by the manufacturers and of continued care and attention by those responsible for air traffic safety. The amount of testing and the duplication and triplication of equipment in aircraft are all designed to ensure the remarkable safety record that aircraft can nowadays show on any examination. There are 72 Tridents of all types now flying, and they have completed 566,000 hours' flying. That indicates the immense care taken from a safety point of view, but I will look at the actual effects of impact such as the hon. Gentleman raises.

Mr. Tebbit

Will my hon. Friend accept from me as well as from the right hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) that we all urge upon him the utmost speed in publishing the results of the inquiry, which commonly takes well over a year? Particularly as several parts of his statement have contained what many people would regard as some implication of mishandling of the aircraft, will he make further statements, or arrange that further statements are made, during the course of the inquiry when it is possible to rule out any cause which has been discussed in public, as soon as it can be ruled out?

Mr. Heseltine

I fully appreciate the anxiety of my hon. Friend and the whole House for the inquiry to proceed with all speed, but from the inquiries I have been able to make so far I am impressed by the depth of research that must anticipate any meaningful inquiry. It would be regrettable if an inquiry were to get under way and then had to hold itself in suspension while further investigatory work was carried out. But I am as keen as my hon. Friend is to ensure that, compatible with doing a thorough job, the inquiry is carried out as quickly as possible. As to the possible implications of what I have said today in my attempting to give the House such information as I could give, interpretations should not be written into what I have said. It is always possible to say nothing. That is the totally safe thing. But it is important from the point of view not only of the operators and those concerned with the aircraft but of the future passengers to give as much information as I can at this early stage.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

The hon. Gentleman will agree that the only small comfort that can be drawn from this terrible disaster is that the aircraft happened to fall on unoccupied ground, and that no residents of London were involved. He will also agree that perhaps that makes it even more necessary to point out that no form of travel is entirely immune from accidents and that, therefore, we should take the utmost steps to ensure that if such an accident does occur people on the ground are not involved in it. That makes it all the more necessary to press on as quickly as possible with the third London airport, so that aircraft land and take-off over areas in which large numbers of the population are not put at even the slightest risk.

Finally, I was within range of the airport when the accident occurred. I was in a car and heard it coming over the air. Recognising that I could do nothing to help, I drove away from the area rather than towards it. I am only to sorry that other people did not do the same.

Mr. Heseltine

I certainly associate myself with what the hon. Gentleman has just said. If there is any benefit, it is the fact that so few people on the ground were affected. It could have been much more serious.

It is the Government's determination to press on as fast as possible with the building of the Maplin Sands Airport to bring it into operation at the end of this decade.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

In view of the deplorable incidents which took place after this dreadful disaster, will my hon. Friend consider having discussions with representatives of the news media about the possibility of withholding the news of such disasters for several hours so that rescue operations can take place unhindered?

Mr. Heseltine

To withhold the news would present difficulties. If one started to think through the possibilities all sorts of anxieties would arise. I fully sympathise with the spirit behind my hon. Friend's question. It may be possible to enlist some help from the news media to encourage the public to do what the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Hugh Jenkins) did, which was to drive in the opposite direction. This is a line of thought that we might be able to pursue

Dr. Miller

I also should like to associate myself with the condolences expressed by hon. Members to the relatives of those who lost their lives. A large number of members of the medical profession from Scotland are involved. The staff of the hospitals involved will have lost people of tremendous value to the people of Scotland.

As the automatic procedure had taken over at the usual point in the upward flight, may I ask whether new instructions have been issued to BEA to alter that procedure, and that the pilot, instead of switching to automatic, should continue, at least until the outcome of the inquiry, to continue the flight by manual means?

Mr. Heseltine

I am not aware that the introduction of the automatic pilot at 400 feet, which is normal procedure, could be said to have had any impact upon this particular flight. That would be a matter for the operator, BEA, to investigate. I should be surprised if it was felt that this was a contributory factor, although I am sure that BEA will read what the hon. Gentleman has said.