HC Deb 18 July 1983 vol 46 cc21-3 3.35 pm
Mr. David Harris

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Transport whether he will make a statement on the helicopter accident off the Isles of Scilly.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom King)

At approximately 12.40 pm on Saturday, a British Airways S61 helicopter engaged on a passenger service between Penzance and the Isles of Scilly, carrying a crew of three and 23 passengers, crashed into the sea in poor visibility one and a half miles east of St. Mary's aerodrome. The two pilots and four passengers were subsequently rescued by the St. Mary's lifeboat, but 19 passengers and the cabin attendant are missing and must be presumed dead. No bodies have yet been recovered. The response from the rescue services was prompt and effective. In particular, the swift recovery of the six survivors from the water by the St. Mary's lifeboat is to be highly commended.

The air accidents investigation branch of my Department is conducting a formal inspector's investigation into the accident and will report to me. Arrangements were made immediately for an investigation team to go to the scene. With the help of the Royal Navy, the crash beacon has been located. Efforts are at this moment being made to recover the helicopter. Diving conditions are, however, not easy and the weather and difficult tidal currents in the area may bring problems.

I know that the whole House will wish to join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to the family and friends of those who have lost their lives in this tragic accident.

Mr. Harris

In thanking my right hon. Friend for his statement, I should like to express my personal sympathy to the relations of all those who lost their lives in this tragedy.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the islanders, whom I visited yesterday, have in no way lost faith in the helicopter service, which is a valuable link for their community? They appreciate that, until this weekend, the service had an excellent safety record. It had carried 1.25 million passengers over 19 years without incident. I, too, would like to praise the rescue services, and in particular the coxswain, Matt Lethbridge, and crew of the St. Mary's lifeboat. I am sure that nothing more could have been done, in those circumstances, to save more lives.

Finally, I ask my right hon. Friend to make known the results of the investigation as soon as they are available.

Mr. King

I endorse my hon. Friend's point about the excellent safety record. This is the first fatal accident ever suffered by British Airways' helicopters, which have operated the link with the Scilly Isles for 19 years, carrying 1.25 million passengers, as my hon. Friend has said.

As soon as the report of the chief inspector of accidents is available to me, I envisage that it will be published. Clearly it is most important that we should learn any lessons that are to be learned from this tragic accident.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

On behalf of the Opposition, I extend sympathy to the relatives and friends of those who died in this tragic accident.

I agree that it is too early to draw any conclusions about the accident, but will the Minister agree that there is cause for wider concern, especially as a similar aircraft made a forced landing last Wednesday at Longside near Peterhead, having suffered engine failure? Is it the case, as has been reported, that the aircraft which crashed had been in use in the North sea services until only a couple of weeks ago?

I entirely agree that British Airways' helicopters have a marvellous safety record. However, will the Minister look carefully at an answer that he gave me last Thursday, which shows that there had been 409 notifiable occurrences relating to helicopter safety, and involving Sikorsky S61 helicopters? Will the Minister consider the possibility of a full inquiry into helicopter safety, intensity of usage, and maintenance and service requirements? Not all helicopter incidents concerned S61s, but their numbers must give us all great cause for concern. There are many questions to be answered.

Mr. King

I am grateful to the hon. Member for associating the Opposition with our expression of sympathy. I note his comments about the Sikorsky helicopter. It is true that an incident took place recently, but it is also true that this was the first Sikorsky fatality in the United Kingdom in 10 years. Considering that the Sikorsky helicopter is one of the main workhorses of the North sea, that is an outstanding record.

The helicopter in question came from Aberdeen on 24 June, and I understand that it received its annual airworthiness certificate of inspection on 22 June, two days before it moved down to Penzance.

My statement makes clear the importance that I attach to a full investigation by the chief inspector of accidents. It is the chief inspector's statutory responsibility. He has already been in touch with me a number of times since the accident took place and I am satisfied that his team is doing all it can to get to the truth of the matter as quickly as it can. I do not feel that, at this stage, a public inquiry would be appropriate.

Mr. David Mudd (Falmouth and Camborne)

As a Cornish Member of Parliament, I wish to be associated with the messages of sympathy to the bereaved.

Concern has been expressed that it took perhaps 40 hours effectively to pinpoint the wreckage of the aircraft. That being so, will my right hon. Friend, as a matter of urgency, review the standards and design of search and rescue homing radio and radar beacons carried by such aircraft?

Mr. King

I do not wish to anticipate any findings that may emerge from the report of the chief inspector, but I well understand why my hon. Friend has raised that point. The matter needs further examination.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

I am sure that my hon. Friends on this Bench would like me to express our sympathy to those who lost their loved ones in the tragedy. The service had an excellent safety record until this desperate tragedy. Do precisely the same safety standards apply to helicopters in civil use as apply to those used —as this helicopter was—in commercial operations in the North sea? Do the same standards of safety and maintenance apply to both?

Mr. King

My understanding is that the standards are the same, saving only any different requirements for longer periods spent over open water, such as might apply to the North sea. However, they are all the responsibility of the Civil Aviation Authority and must satisfy its requirements.

Mr. Robert McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)

While awaiting the outcome of the departmental inquiry —and without in any way casting an aspersion on that service's safety record over the years—would it not help if the Secretary of State contacted the senior executives of British Airways to obtain an assurance that they have taken on board the many lessons to be learned from inquiries arising out of helicopter accidents—albeit that they have not involved British Airways? In that way, some reassurance may be given to the public—a particularly important factor at this time of year — that British Airways is taking every possible step to maintain safety standards.

Mr. King

It is a prime statutory duty of the CAA to ensure that any lessons that can be learned in that respect from the reports of the chief inspector of accidents are pursued. All airlines — not only British Airways — are required to take all such factors into account.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that no black box flight recorders are carried in that type of helicopter? Will not the absence of such equipment make an investigation into the causes of the accident—and into the causes of all accidents involving helicopters—that much more difficult?

Mr. King

My hon. Friend is correct in saying that there are no black boxes on the helicopters in that service, and that may make the investigation more difficult. However, as both pilots have survived and as it may be possible to recover the aircraft, I hope that it will be possible to get to the truth of the matter.