HC Deb 11 April 1973 vol 854 cc1323-7
Mr. Wiggin

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry whether he would make a statement about the air disaster at Hochwald involving a Vanguard of Invicta International Airlines.

The Minister for Aerospace and Shipping (Mr. Michael Heseltine)

An Invicta International Airlines Vanguard G-AXOP (Oscar Papa) on a flight from Bristol to Basle yesterday crashed at about 10 a.m. GMT into a forest in a mountainous area near the village of Hochwald some ten miles south of Basle Airport during the course of an overshoot following an unsuccessful approach to land.

Of the 139 passengers and six crew it is now believed that more than 100 passengers and four crew lost their lives.

I know the House will wish to join me in expressing deep sympathy with the relatives and friends of those who lost their lives in this disaster.

The terrain in the area where the crash took place was very difficult and access to the wreckage was greatly hindered by heavy snow and by mist. In these particular circumstances a great tribute must be paid to the Swiss rescue organisations for their efforts to get the injured to hospital and in particular to the farmers and villagers of Hochwald for the enormous effort they made to locate and help the survivors.

A formal investigation into the accident has been instituted by the Swiss authorities who have invited the United Kingdom to appoint an accredited representative and advisers to assist them. A party from the Accidents Investigation Branch accompanied by a team from the Royal Air Force Institute of Aviation Pathology arrived at Basle early yesterday evening.

Invicta International Airlines have made arrangements to fly relatives to Switzerland today in two flights scheduled to leave at 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. One of these flights is expected to return this evening bringing those survivors fit to travel.

Mr. Wiggin

I thank the Minister for his expressions of sympathy. The expressions of sympathy received from Her Majesty and the Prime Minister were much appreciated. This is a terrible and sudden disaster of great magnitude to three parishes in my constituency. In extending my sympathy and thoughts to the bereaved, I know that the House will understand my personal feelings when I explain that many of the dead came from the little town where I live and were personal friends of mine and of my family. I also wish to join in expressing gratitude to those in Switzerland who assisted yesterday.

Although it will probably come outside the terms of any technical inquiry, will the Minister investigate the long delays in getting information to England? Is he aware that the list of injured was not received until eleven o'clock last night, and even now the names of three injured persons are not known. This places great stress on the relatives of all those involved in the disaster, most of whom are bound to be tragically disappointed. Does the Minister have any information on when a list of the dead will be available and will he say whether the flight recorder has been recovered?

Mr. Heseltine

I am sure that the whole House understands my hon. Friend's deep feelings. The House will sympathise with the people whose anxieties arise from the delay in notification. There has been great difficulty in effecting rescue operations and in finding the dead and identifying them and there has been a delay which, although regrettable, is in these circumstances understandable. The lists of the dead and the survivors are being published as soon as they are available.

The flight recorder has been recovered. I understand that it has reached Heathrow and is on its way to Bournemouth. In the absence of any unlikely event, we expect a preliminary read-out this evening.

Mr. Benn

May I join in the expressions of sympathy so movingly expressed by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) with those who have been bereaved by this disaster which is so cruelly focused on these small con-munities. I thank the Government for the rapid action they have taken in sending out a team, and the Opposition also associate themselves with the thanks that have been expressed to the Swiss rescue teams.

Will the Swiss inquiry be held in public, and will the report be published in accordance with normal practice? Secondly, in view of the good record of the Vanguard aircraft, and of Invicta, will the Minister see that the fatigue factor, which received some publicity over the weekend, will be looked at especially carefully in the inquiry? Thirdly, will the Government give further help to the communities which have been so badly afflicted and will they assist in seeing that the notifications to the next of kin are made as expeditiously as possible?

Mr. Heseltine

The decision to publish the report is a matter for the Swiss authorities. We would, of course, have the opportunity to make representations about that decision, but in the last resort it is a matter for them.

In referring to the fatigue factor, I believe that the right hon. Gentleman is referring to pilot fatigue as opposed to aircraft fatigue. Perhaps I may ask him to await the findings of the Bader Committee which has been established by the Civil Aviation Authority to look into this matter.

The Government, obviously, are very concerned about the effect on the communities and would do everything possible to speed up publication of the information if it were within their control, but regrettably it is not.

Mr. Tom King

I have close personal and family connections with the villages affected by this tragic disaster, and I am grateful for the opportunity to associate myself with the expressions of sympathy from both sides of the House. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) in asking for every possible help to be given to those who are in Switzerland now, and on their return.

Mr. Heseltine

Certainly, any requests that are made will receive immediate, sympathetic attention.

Mr. Stonehouse

Is the Minister aware that the preliminary investigation by the Swiss authorities points to human error being a likely factor in this disaster? Will he please ensure that the Bader Committee report is acted on quickly? Will he consider controlling the number of hours that British airline pilots are allowed to fly, as according to the recent BALPA report British airline pilots are expected to fly longer hours than are almost any other country's airline pilots? This must be dealt with urgently by the Government if disasters of this sort arc to be avoided.

Mr. Heseltine

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would not expect me to comment upon any preliminary views expressed on this matter. The purpose of the inquiry is to ensure that all factors are considered carefully and in detail. As for the findings of the Bader Committee, it seems to be logical to allow the Committee to reach its conclusions before commenting on them.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

I join in the expressions of sympathy which have been voiced to those who have been bereaved in the accident. Will my hon. Friend ask our accident investigators to check why the aircraft was allowed to attempt to land at Basle in such bad weather and why it was not diverted to another airport in Switzerland?

Mr. Heseltine

As I am sure my hon. Friend will understand, that is a matter for the inquiry.

Dr. Miller

In associating myself with the expressions of sympathy, may I ask the Minister how old was the aircraft, whether it was fitted with navigational instruments efficient enough for blind flying and whether under those conditions it had sufficient power to gain height immediately?

Mr. Heseltine

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to comment on the aircraft in advance of the inquiry, but I can tell him that it was 11 years old and had had 16,367 hours in operation, which is probably about half, or under half, the expected design life of the aircraft.

Mr. Tebbit

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Might I seek your guidance and put it to you that if the practice of Private Notice Questions is to continue in the circumstances of disasters and the like, it would be prudent if you could advise hon. Members about the way in which that facility is offered to the House and as to the inadvisability of using such an occasion for ignorant speculation and posture?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member has made a fair point. I do not believe that it is a matter for me.