HC Deb 22 July 1983 vol 46 cc758-66

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Garel-Jones.]

2.30 pm
Mr. Malcom Bruce (Gordon)

I am glad to have the opportunity to raise the subject of helicopter safety. Hon. Members will know that it is a matter of widespread and considerable public concern.

Hon. Members may be interested to know that I applied for the debate following an incident at Aberdeen airport on 11 July, when a Bristow Super Puma helicopter—or Tiger, as Bristow's prefers to call its adapted version—crashed on landing at the airport. The cause of the crash was the failure of the hinge pin on the tail fin cowling. The cowling flew open from the hinge and crashed into the tail rotor, which, not surprisingly, sheared off from the aircraft, which plunged 90ft to the ground, crashed on its side and injured 17 people. It is a miracle that all survived and it is a tribute to the pilot's skill that he managed to get the aircraft down, albeit precipitously, without loss of life. The incident was one of too many that have occurred in recent years and caused anxiety.

The day after the debate was awarded to me, a British Airways helicopter crashed into the sea at Lands End, killing 20 passengers. It is important to note that the helicopter was normally used in North sea operations and based in my constituency at Aberdeen airport.

The House may know that Aberdeen is almost certainly the busiest heliport in the world. In 1982, more than 500,000 passengers were carried by helicopters in and out of Aberdeen. That was a 32.6 per cent. increase over the previous year, and passenger traffic on helicopters out of Aberdeen airport has increased by 50 per cent. over the past two years. Last year, there were 38,400 helicopter movements—more than 3,000 a month and more than 100 a day. For many thousands of offshore workers—about 10,000 people work offshore at any one time and the crews are doubled up, so at least 20,000 people travel regularly to offshore installations—the helicopter is their regular travel-to-work vehicle.

The rapid expansion of helicopter traffic has been an understandable and necessary part of the North sea development. However, given the changes in the past two years, it would be surprising if there were not now a need to reconsider and revise operating standards.

There has been a series of accidents in the past two years, some tragic and fatal, others serious, but, mercifully, without loss of life or injury. The incidents have raised serious concern among passengers, their wives and families and the people living near the airport whose homes are regularly flown over.

One problem is that the helicopters currently in use were originally designed for military purposes and have simply been adapted to carry civilian personnel. They were not custom-built for the job and they were not designed for the work that they are doing.

In addition, the standards of operation have been developed rapidly for a fast-expanding service in a highly commercial environment. I emphasise that there is no doubt that commercial pressures mean that helicopters are operating within margins that should not be accepted, and would not be accepted for fixed-wing aircraft.

I shall give an example of what I mean. An oil company might approach a helicopter operator asking for a quotation for transporting people offshore. The operator who prefers a safety margin of fuel that would allow the aircraft to return to the mainland in the event of a fault — such as the failure of an engine — might quote for transporting 15 people. The oil company might say, "Fine, we have your bid, but a competitor has offered to transport 19 people for the same price." The reason for that is that the competitor will take less fuel, allowing only for a diversion to another offshore installation. That means that commercial pressures on helicopter operators are pressing them to allow fuel margins that increase the likelihood of ditching in the sea should there be a serious failure. People who are travelling to work and the pilots should not be subjected to such commercial pressure.

The Civil Aviation Authority recently circulated a code of practice to operators in the hope of securing a voluntary agreement about how and under what circumstances helicopters would operate. It has failed to achieve such agreement, presumably because some operators believe that it would remove the commercial advantage to those companies which are prepared to operate closer to the limit and are therefore able to make more competitive tenders. I urge the Minister to support the early introduction of legislation to enforce that code of practice to remove such commercial considerations from the calculations of helicopter operators.

The House might be interested to know—this goes slightly against what the Minister said during Question Time on Monday—that there appears to be a distinction between helicopters operating on civil passenger services such as to the Scilly Isles and those that run to offshore installations. My point is that operations to offshore installations have a slightly lower safety standard. There should be no such distinction. Safety should not be calculated on anything other than the highest available standard.

The differences in service are a source of anxiety outside and they will rightly worry the House. Because the service to the Scillies takes less than 15 minutes over water, it is not subject to the same regulations as longer flights. Moreover, the briefing and survival kits that are given to passengers to North sea installations are far better than those that are given to passengers travelling on what I concede is a short hop to the Scilly Isles. On North sea trips, all passengers wear survival suits and life jackets and they watch a video on safety in the terminal before take off. Moreover, passengers are shown where the exits are and how to open them. I understand that Penzance passengers are asked to read a leaflet and are then given a conventional aircraft briefing, such as would be the case with a fixed-wing aircraft, but which in many cases is drowned by the noise of rotors. It appears that quite different standards are applied. I hope that the Minister will examine that and consider whether changes should be made.

I am worried as I have heard that the quality of briefing on North sea operations is variable and not always up to standard. I was advised recently that one safety video was showing cricket when the passengers were embarking and that the exits are not always properly demonstrated.

Is the Minister satisfied that commercial pressures do not affect maintenance standards? He should look into that. Helicopters on North sea operations fly intensively. They fly every day, go out in the morning, fly all day and come back at night. Maintenance is carried out overnight so that the machines can be in use the fallowing morning.

In those circumstances, and allowing for the commercial pressures that I have mentioned in the contracts and bids to oil companies, there can be little provision for back-up aircraft or for taking a helicopter out of service. As a result, we have to ask ourselves whether certain faults could have been detected beforehand if maintenance had not been carried out under quite such intense pressures. It is too easy to be wise after the event, but one or two of the incidents which have occurred recently give rise to the question whether the fault should have been detectable beforehand and the incident or the crash avoided.

It appears also that the exchange of information on faults in aircraft is limited. I am advised that a Royal Air Force Puma, which is fundamentally the same as the Tiger aircraft which crashed at Aberdeen airport, suffered a fatal crash some years ago from a cause identical to that which affected the Bristow aircraft the other week, yet Bristow was not told this by Aerospatiale, the makers of the aircraft, or by anyone else. I hope that the Minister will say whether that is so. If it is, it is a grave matter that a fault which might have been detected earlier had not been rectified and that the aircraft in operation had not had it corrected.

Safety affects not only those in the air but those on the ground. I find that local councillors and I continually receive complaints from people concerned about helicopters flying over housing. Noise is a problem, but safety is their prime concern. When we have accidents such as the recent one that I have described, that concern is increased.

The management at Aberdeen airport assures me that matters have improved and will improve further when the new instrument landing system comes into operation. I hope that this is so. Nevertheless, there seems to be considerable confusion about what routes should be followed and at what heights.

Given the rapid development of helicopter operations in recent years, especially in the past two years, I ask the Minister to agree that the time is ripe for his Department to conduct a review of all aspects of helicopter operation. I urge him specifically to support moves to incorporate the new code of practice into regulations, with legal sanctions, as quickly as practicable. Does the hon. Gentleman consider that the fact that the code is confined simply and specifically to the effects of engine failure alone is adequate or should other factors be considered, especially as a helicopter is a quite different piece of engineering from a fixed-wing aircraft and the opportunities for catastrophic failure are fundamentally different, and not only those caused by engine failure?

The general standard of passenger briefing and equipment on North sea flights is high. But does the Minister believe that further spot checks should be carried out, given the example to which I referred and others that I have heard of varying standards? Ought not checks to be carried out to ensure that a standard is always applied? Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that the standard should be extended to all civil routes, including that to the Scilly Isles? I hope that he will agree to look into that.

I ask the Minister to investigate the effect of commercial pressures on helicopter safety on North sea flights. From the representations that I have received from a variety of quarters, there is no doubt that these are putting an unacceptable price on offshore safety. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that such an investigation should not be confined to looking at helicopter operators themselves but should look at the oil companies, which ultimately pay the bill, and at the chartering agencies for carrying people offshore. It is necessary to investigate the approach of the oil companies to ensure that they who at the end of the day apply the commercial pressures are not applying them too severely. The evidence suggests that they are.

Will the Minister also consider limiting the offshore diversion option and building a standard safety margin which will allow aircraft to return to the mainland in the event of a failure? Will he investigate the effect of commercial pressure on aircraft maintenance and the provision of back-up aircraft, and tell the House and all those affected whether any unacceptable compromises are being made? Will his Department look at the over-flying of houses, especially around Aberdeen airport, to see whether further steps can be taken to reduce it, and to satisfy himself that standards of operation are satisfactory? I specifically mention adherence to the weight, altitude and temperature limit, which determines the speed at which a helicopter gains height from an airport in the event of any failure on take-off.

Will the Minister—this is a point for the long term—consider giving practical and financial support to the development of new generation helicopters specifically designed and built for civil use, and preferably built and designed by British manufacturers?

I believe that I have more helicopter pilots and people connected with helicopters in my constituency than has any other Member. Pilots are intelligent and educated people whose own lives are involved. They operate to very high standards. They perform an arduous job with great professionalism, and often with great courage, in very difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions. North sea development and production could not and would not continue without their dedication. There is anxiety among pilots, passengers, families, and people living on the ground, and the Minister must respond to that anxiety in a positive way.

Overall, the safety record is good, but action is needed from the Department to apply even higher standards to reduce commercial pressure to a more acceptable level, and to ensure that the unfortunate succession of accidents in recent years comes to an end. I hope that the Minister will be able to give to all those who share my concern, confidence that steps are being taken to improve safety, and that he will agree that a new and urgent initiative is now required to meet the short-term problems and the long-term future of safe helicopter operations throughout the United Kingdom.

2.46 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Mitchell)

It is unusual for so new a Member to be successful in catching your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for an Adjournment debate. The hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) has been successful in securing that opportunity in regard to a subject in which there is at present considerable public interest.

When the hon. Member gave notice of his intention to raise the subject, we had not experienced the shock of the accident last Saturday near the Scillies. Transport Ministers, no less than the whole nation, share the grief of the families involved. The distress arising from such a disaster puts out of our minds and out of perspective for a time the reality of the safety record. Although it is not the subject of today's debate, I feel that it is proper for me to refer to the action which followed the accident that I have mentioned.

As hon. Members will know, the S61 helicopter has now been recovered from the sea bed and has been taken to the hangar of the chief inspector of accidents at Farnborough, where it will be subject to a searching technical examination. Hon. Members may be assured that any evidence which may emerge to suggest the need for any remedial or preventive action will be acted upon speedily.

Helicopter operations in the North sea area in support of the oil exploration and production industry began in about 1969 and developed rapidly to become one of the world's biggest helicopter activities. Throughout the 1970s the main emphasis of activity built up in northern waters, with the Sikorsky 61 helicopter bearing the brunt of the work. At one stage no fewer than 50 S61s were operating, probably making up two thirds of the total North sea fleet. But that dominance began to diminish in 1981 with the introduction of the larger capacity Chinook and the Super Puma.

It will be helpful if I give some figures to illustrate its scale. In the period since 1970, over 10 million passengers have been carried offshore. The helicopters have flown for some 813,000 hours, completing 1,465,000 flights. From the outset, single-engine helicopters were severely restricted and ceased operations virtually completely in the mid-1970s, since when all activity offshore has been in twin-engine helicopters.

Hon. Members will know that these operations are frequently conducted in the most difficult weather conditions. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman, representing the constituency that he does and with a close association with many of the people involved, will be keenly aware of that fact. Fog or low cloud, heavy rain, strong winds, and in the winter freezing conditions at or near the surface make the North sea area the most testing place for helicopters and flight crews to operate. I am pleased to take this opportunity to acknowledge the magnificent job that has been done by flight crews and the ground support units of the companies which have played such a crucial part in developing our oil industry. Many of them will be constituents of the hon. Gentleman. Nowhere in the world does such intensive helicopter flying take place in such demanding conditions.

I turn now to the accident record which has emerged from an analysis of the past 13 years of intense activity. There have been six fatal accidents, including the two training accidents in March 1981 and October 1982 in which six people were killed, and also the Bell 212 in September 1982 which was engaged on a casualty evacuation flight, when the six occupants were killed. That last flight, made at the pilot's discretion, operated in weather conditions in which normal public transport activity would not have been permitted, and it was therefore a particularly tragic accident.

Thus, excluding those three accidents, there were three fatal accidents to public transport helicopters, the S58 in April 1976 with one fatality, a Wessex in August 1981 with 13 fatalities, and a Puma in July of this year with one fatality, making a total of 15. I do not underestimate their importance, or the personal tragedies that are involved, but by any standard that is a remarkable record of safety. Put in a statistical fashion, it represents a rate of 1.48 fatal accidents per 1 million passengers carried, or 3.69 fatal accidents per 1 million hours flown. That compares favourably with world-wide operations, where 10–3 fatal accidents per 1 million flying hours for all twin-engined helicopters is the comparable figure, and 4.15 fatal accidents per 1 million flying hours for fixed-wing public transport aircraft with up to 50 seats, which would be the fixed-wing equivalent to these aircraft.

Until the tragic accident off the Scillies last Saturday, the S61 had never been involved in a fatal accident in or around the United Kingdom. That reassurance should be made known to the men and their families who were involved in the North sea work to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

I hope that hon. Members will agree with me that that is evidence to justify the claim that we have a good safety record. Of course, there can be no such thing as absolute safety in this or any other form of activity—one has only to consider the danger on the roads—and the task must therefore be to ensure that everything within reason is done to encourage the maintenance of a high level of safety. That is the statutory responsibility of the Civil Aviation Authority. Part of its function is to ensure the safety of air navigation, the airworthiness of aircraft, the approval certification of aircraft operators, the licensing of air crews, the control of air traffic, and the supervision of flight operations.

The hon. Gentleman raised the matter of the briefing given to passengers, and suggested that in some cases it was inadequate. I shall consult the chairman of the CAA about that matter. He assured my predecessor in January of this year that the authority has the necessary regulatory powers that it needs to do its job.

The hon. Gentleman asked about a reassessment of standards and called for spot checks. I agree that it is important for us to monitor what is going on. We do that on the day-to-day activities with officials of the authority, in close touch with the flight operations and engineering elements of the operating companies, on a direct basis. They have an intimate knowledge of the level of achievements.

Commanders of aircraft, aircraft operators and maintenance engineers are required by law to report any incident, malfunction or defect which endangered the aircraft and its occupants or which, if it were not corrected, could be hazardous. Safety is not achieved solely by creating a regulatory or overseeing body and providing it with statutory muscle. The essential thing is the way in which it is operated and the way in which most contact is kept between the CAA and those responsible for flying the aircraft.

Mr. Bruce

Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the CAA, having failed to get a voluntary agreement on a code of practice, wishes legislation to be introduced to tighten the controls?

Mr. Mitchell

If I have time, I shall, cover that point, but I wish first to answer the ponts that the hon. Gentleman has already raised about the commercial pressure on the operators. He asked specifically whether I would look into the dangers of corner-cutting that could result in reducing safety standards.

To prevent this, the chairman of the CAA has had meetings with the helicopter operators and the oil companies as charterers to ensure that the absolute need to maintain safety standards is fully understood. The authority for its part has intensified its monitoring by flight operations inspectors and has opened an airworthiness office at Aberdeen to ensure a regular on-the-spot presence of the airworthiness surveyors. I hope that the hon. Member will recognise that that takes us some way towards the measures for which he is asking.

The hon. Member will also wish to know about another important step taken by the Civil Aviation Authority over the past eight months to enhance flight safety. Of the four operators who together account for almost all of the North sea operations, three — Bristow, British Airways Helicopters and Management Aviation—have been the subject of an operational standards appraisal by a team from the authority dealing in depth with flight operations and airworthiness. Each of these appraisals was satisfactory in every respect. I am told that British Caledonian, the fourth operator, is on the programrne and will be visited shortly.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Is it possible for the surveys to be published so that we can see precisely what has been said and done?

Mr. Mitchell

That is an interesting suggestion, and I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about it.

In its role as regulator of aviation safety the CAA is required to enforce the various statutory measures that have been introduced to promote air safety, and at times there has been pressure for these to be added to for various reasons. The authority has been working for sonic time in consultation with representative bodies of helicopter operators and pilots to draw up a new helicopter performance code of practice.

The CAA has decided to recommend to the Secretary of State additions to the Air Navigation (General) Regulations 1981 which will specify the weight and performance requirements for helicopters, based on the work which has been done on the code. The United Kingdom will probably be the first country to embody such comprehensive requirements in its aviation legislation. I hope that the hon. Gentleman feels that that answers his second major point.

The authority has also recognised the importance of ensuring that helicopter airworthiness certification standards keep pace with advances in helicopter design and construction that may involve new materials and manufacturing techniques. This is a longer-term contribution to safety and it is being examined by a panel of experts set up under the auspices of the Airworthiness Requirements Board, which is a statutory body established under the Civil Aviation Act 1982 to give advice to the authority on the design, construction and maintenance of aircraft.

I have sought to tell hon. Members something of the achievements of the helicopter operators in the North sea, to put those regrettable accidents into perspective and to outline the measures that have been taken recently or are in hand to achieve and maintain a satisfactory safety record. It is well understood in the aviation industry worldwide that it is not yet possible to provide the same high standard of reliability in a helicopter as that which has been achieved with modern fixed-wing aeroplanes. I am in no way complacent. The safety record that I have outlined is good, particularly for helicopters, but I intend to keep in close personal contact with the chairman of the CAA.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of technical points from his close knowledge of and association with those in his constituency who are involved in flying in the North sea. He can be assured that I shall read his speech carefully and will write to him on a number of technical points that I have not been able to cover.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Three o'clock.