HL Deb 23 March 1927 vol 66 cc687-708

LORD GORELL rose to call attention to the frequency of accidents in the Royal Air Force; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I think I should say at once that in raising this Question I have no intention whatever of developing an attack upon the Government and Air Ministry, and still less of saying a single word which shall reflect in the slightest degree upon the efficiency of the Royal Air Force. Respectfully and humbly I venture to associate myself with the words which fell from the Prime Minister the other day, that there is no finer spirit in any Service in the world than in our Air Force. In connection with the subject to which I wish to draw your Lordships' attention I think that it would not be out of place to pay a special tribute to that great and gallant man Sir Hugh Trenchard. I have had the honour of his friendship for some years and I know that on this particular subject of accidents there is no one to whom they come with more heartburning and who feels a deeper grief for the loss of anybody associated with that Force.

I do not propose to go into the question of any particular accident, or to say anything which shall arouse a sense of uneasiness beyond what the figures that have already been given have aroused. I think the Secretary of State for Air has said that there were 58 fatal accidents in the Royal Air Force last year. That is obviously an average, of more than one a week, and even up to quite recent times, only last week in fact, there were some more. When I first put this Motion down upon the Order Paper, on March 6, it was suggested to me that it would be well to postpone it in view of the desire of the Prime Minister to make a statement in another place. Of course I acceded to that wish and on March 10 the Prime Minister did make that statement. Had that statement fully covered the ground I should not have retained my Motion upon the Order Paper of your Lordships' House, but I do not think that it did. In the intervening time, through letters and other communications which have come to me, I am satisfied that the statement that was made by the Prime Minister has not entirely removed all the sense of uneasiness on this question, and indeed that is hardly surprising.

The Prime Minister said he had devoted several days during the holidays—that is during last summer—to making an investigation and I am sure that everyone must be exceedingly grateful to him for having, in the midst of all his many other arduous labours, done so. But the Prime Minister did not speak in any way as an expert, nor did he claim to speak as an expert, and there are certain questions which I should like to put to the noble Duke who, I understand, will reply for the Government, which were not touched on at all by the Prime Minister. In practically all that fell from the Prime Minister I think that everybody connected with the air can find nothing to disagree. I do not myself propose to traverse the ground that he covered; I think it is unnecessary to say anything more than he said upon the temperament required for the spirit of the air or the dangers and difficulties that necesarily arise from that. All that concerns what he called the personal equation I shall therefore pass by. Nor have I anything to say (I think nothing can be said further than he said) on the question which has aroused considerable public interest—namely, the publication of reports on individual accidents. It seems to me, if I may say so, that the arguments advanced by the Prime Minister were quite conclusive.

It is not upon those questions that I wish to ask for information, but rather on certain technical aspects of these accidents. Most of these accidents occur, as far as can be known, from certain definite causes. Very often the cause cannot be known, but it is, I think, admitted that the stalling of a machine, especially when it is near the ground, is at any rate a very frequent cause of these accidents. I am informed that so long ago as January, 1925, an invention was designed called the Savage-Bramson anti-stall gear, which had for its purpose the giving of unmistakable warning to the pilot when this was about to take place, that this invention was subjected to many tests during the early part of 1925, and that twelve were ordered as long ago as October, 1925. Since that date it has been subjected to further tests. I find among the technical experts who deal with the air that there is criticism of the Air Ministry as having been rather dilatory in testing and possibly applying this device. I do not associate myself with those criticisms; I do not feel that I know enough to do so; but I should like to ask for information about the matter. I am informed that this device is being put into mass production in France. If that is so, I hope the noble Duke will be able to tell us something about it and possibly some of the reasons which may have weighed with the Air Ministry if they have decided not to go in for anything of the kind.

A second point upon which I would like information is the question of a device to prevent the petrol tanks from bursting into flames. That does not of course necessarily prevent accidents, but it would have the effect, if successful, of greatly mitigating the mortality which falls upon the pilot and the machine if the petrol tank crashes, bursts into flame and consumes everything and everybody. I am informed that there has been an invention which complies with the specification of the competition that was instituted to try and arrive at such an invention by the Air Ministry in 1921–2, and I see from The Times of January 19 that the inventor of this is now in communication with foreign Governments.

I further see in the technical Press a long article dealing with this question of anti-crash and anti-fire petrol tanks by a writer who signs himself C. G. G., a caustic but not uninformed writer upon Air matters. He criticises the Air Ministry on the same grounds of having indulged in considerable delay in the question of investigating and possibly applying these inventions. Again I do not associate myself with that criticism, but I ask for information about it. It is obvious that in the case of fighting machines some devices, even if successful, cannot be utilised because they may take off too greatly from performance and it may be that that is so with this invention. But I think it would be well that such information as the noble Duke feels able to give should be given now when there is undoubtedly a sense of uneasiness on this subject.

The third Question I would direct to the noble Duke concerns another aspect of these accidents. I am informed that very often when an accident takes place in the early part of the day the natural desire of the Press to get hold of and publish at the earliest possible moment full information is productive of very great hardship to the relatives of those who suffer injury or death. There have been instances quite recently where the members of the household of a flying officer, who are passing the time in quiet, have been disturbed by a telephone message or, in another case, by a knock at the door and the visit of a reporter. In each case the relative—sometimes the wife, sometimes the father or mother—was asked without any preliminary warning for a photograph of the son or husband for publication, and when the question: "What for?" was asked, the relative was told quite curtly: "Because he was killed this afternoon in an accident." Before, therefore, any possibility has been given to the Air Ministry to communicate with the relatives, this kind of sudden fearful shock was administered to them.

There is something quite ghoulish and horrible about such procedure and I would ask the Air Ministry whether they cannot use their great influence to appeal to the Press to suspend publication of details and of names, and certainly not to go to the relative's house in this way until the Air Ministry has had the opportunity of taking the ordinary and proper means of communicating the facts of the accident to the relatives. I hope that is not too much to ask and I would further venture to appeal to those noble Lords connected with the Press that they should at any rate give instructions to the staffs of the newspapers over which they have control that this procedure should be adopted. There is no question here of suppressing information, but only of delaying it sufficiently long to allow the relatives to have proper warning and to be spared the added pain of a tremendous shock.

The only other point I wish to make is this. Constantly we see in the papers that there has been an accident, with such headings as "Crash in the air." The general public, not so well informed upon air matters as we should like, is apt to confuse what happens sometimes necessarily through military manœuvring in the Air Force with the general question of safety in the air. Anything, therefore, that the Government can say which can show the wide discrepancy that does and must exist between these two forms of aviation will, I submit, be of great help in giving generally a sense of safety in the air with regard to civil aviation. I am not one of those who think civil aviation is in any way inimical to peace. I think civil aviation should be encouraged in every way possible and that it is as reasonable to take exception to a chemical factory in peace time because it can be converted into a factory for making warlike materials in war, as it is to challenge civil aviation because a civil machine can be reconditioned in other circumstances. I hope that the noble Duke, in his reply, may be able to say something which will allay these various causes of uneasiness, and in putting down my Motion I have had no other thought than to give the Government an opportunity of making such a statement amplifying what fell from the Prime Minister and making it in the more tranquil atmosphere of your Lordships' House. I beg to move.


My Lords, since my noble friend gave Notice of his intention to move for Papers the Prime Minister, as he observed, has given at length in another place results of an inquiry carried out by himself personally during the late Parliamentary Recess. Many of your Lordships, no doubt, have read the Prime Minister's speech. It covered in a certain way practically every aspect of the subject of accident and coming as it did with the weight of his authority and disclosing as it did the care and thoroughness of his inquiries, it does not, I think, leave very much more on that side to be said. I feel sure, too, that it has gone a long way towards allaying anxiety, even if it has not altogether allayed anxiety, both in Parliament and in the country.

The Prime Minister devoted much of his speech to the question of the publication of statistics and of the reports of inspectors after accidents. He expressed himself fully convinced, as Lord Gorell told you, that publication would be a great mistake for many reasons. I am very glad that the noble Lord himself agrees with that view. I do not think those arguments can be controverted. It is obviously essential that the Secretary of State should be furnished with every possible item of evidence concerning these accidents. This, in itself, precludes publication of the inspector's report. How can you expect witnesses, many of them very junior officers or airmen, to give evidence reflecting adversely on their seniors if they know the reports are to be made public? It is too much of a strain on human nature and it cannot be expected. Under present conditions these reports are made direct to the Secretary of State by the Inspector of Accidents, who is a civil official and is free to criticise everyone in the Air Force from the highest to the lowest and to examine any witness he considers may be able to throw light on the accident under consideration.

I would ask your Lordships to put yourselves in his place. His duty is undoubtedly a difficult one. It would be impossible were his reports, instead of being privileged documents, to be published broadcast. After all, what would be gained by publication? Action on the reports can be taken by the Secretary of State and by no one else. He has a skilled Air Ministry staff to assist him and, if necessary, he can and does obtain outside technical and scientific advice, such as that of the Aeronautical Research Committee. Is there any reasonable hope that outside criticism, based on necessarily incomplete knowledge of all the relevant facts and ignorant of much of our past experience, can be of any real help?

Let us take the statistics again. What is their real value to Parliament or to the public? The Air Ministry alone can take action on them, and it must be assumed that the Air Minister, with the full knowledge of a particular case and of similar cases, is the best judge as to what action should be taken. From some criticisms that have recently appeared in the Press and have even been heard in another place, it might almost be supposed that the Air Ministry keep no proper record or statistics but simply accept the accidents as necessary concomitants of aviation. It might even be supposed that the Air Ministry make no real endeavour to reduce the number of these accidents. It is hardly necessary for me to say that nothing is further from the truth. The Prime Minister has satisfied himself that the fullest statistics have been kept since the War, and are being kept, and that the whole problem is under constant review from every angle. It is surely obvious to any one that the Secretary of State and the Air Council, who must presumably have the good and the efficiency of the Royal Air Force at heart, have the very strongest motives for reducing the number of accidents, if for no other reason—and of course there are multitudes of other reasons—than that the accidents are themselves bound to act as a deterrent to recruiting.

The Prime Minister in his speech dealt at length with the causes of accident. He showed conclusively, I believe, that those due to what he called remediable causes were a very small proportion of the whole and that no particular type of machine and no special station or unit is more prone to accidents than others. This is proved by the statistics of the last six years. It is a sad fact, but a fact nevertheless, that aviation does and, so far as one can see, must for many years to come entail accidents. Man has conquered the air to the extent of being able to fly, but he has not overcome the law of gravity nor the liability of human nature to occasional error. Accordingly it is too much to hope that accidents can be entirely eliminated. The real question is whether their number can be successfully reduced—in other words, whether unnecessary and possibly avoidable accidents do take place.

The real criterion in this respect is surely our own experience and that of other nations. As regards our own experience, leaving out the War years when conditions were totally different, there was a constant improvement from 1921 to 1925 in the ratio of accidents to hours flown, whether fatal accidents, or accidents involving injury to personnel, or accidents only causing material damage to machines. As we were told yesterday in the debate on National Expenditure, figures are proverbially misleading, but the ratio of accidents to hours flown provides, I think, a reasonable basis of comparison. The actual number of accidents, irrespective of the amount of flying, is not a fair basis of comparison, nor is the actual number of lives lost. The comparison with other countries again, does not suggest that our accident rate is excessive. The information received on this point is confidential and I am not at liberty to state the actual figures, but I can assure your Lordships' House that they most assuredly do not show that our record is worse than that of other countries. In some respects—for instance, in accidents due to mechanical causes and maintenance—our record is a good deal better than that of other countries.

I do not, however, wish your Lordships to suppose for a moment that the Air Ministry is content with the improvement that has taken place or with the fact that the accident rate is no higher than in other countries. Nothing could be further from the truth. Continual efforts to decrease the number of accidents are being made in every direction that seems even remotely capable of producing results. The Prime Minister dealt exhaustively with the psychology of pilots and indicated how narrow was the border line between enforcing reasonable precautions on the one hand and, on the other hand, imposing restrictions that would inevitably undermine the pilot's morale and destroy the fine spirit existing to-day. Short of crossing this border line, every precaution is taken. Unnecessarily dangerous flying is forbidden and the prohibition is enforced. Pilots are constantly under supervision, both by se[...]r officers and by the Royal Air Force Medical Service. The Medical Service is fully alive to the necessity of detecting any incipient physical unfitness, strain, or staleness before harm can be done. Also a thorough system of maintenance and inspection of aircraft is carried out, and its effectiveness is proved by the small proportion of accidents that are due to mechanical defects.

Training is progressive and not hurried. Its thoroughness is shown by the fact that pilots have, on an average, 100 hours' flying experience before they graduate and are posted to squadrons. Every pupil begins with a spell of dual control on a training aeroplane, under the same instructor in each individual case. No pupil is allowed to undertake his first solo flight until he is considered fully capable of doing so both by his particular instructor and by his Flight Commander. Should there be still any doubt, the Senior Flying Instructor at his school judges as to his capabilities. He is subsequently given a further period of dual instruction, to correct any faults that may have developed, and further instruction still when he is promoted from the training type to the Service type of machine.

It is, perhaps, unnecessary for me to tell your Lordships that abstemious habits, so far as possible, are enforced by regulation and inculcated by example. There is no more cruel libel on the officers of the Royal Air Force as a whole than to accuse them of over-indulgence in alcohol, as I am told has been done in certain quarters. After all, among a body of more than 3,000 officers, human nature being what it is, there is bound to be an individual case of intemperance now and then. But any suggestion that this is a contributory cause of accidents is absolutely without foundation. In not one single case has indulgence in alcohol been proved to have caused or contributed to an accident in all the years covered by these statistics. The average wine bill of pupil officers of the four training schools in 1926 was well under £1 a month. There is not much margin here for intemperance. The average wine bill of squadron officers is little in excess of that figure.

In the matter of design and research, also, efforts are being made towards greater safety. These are necessarily discounted to a great extent by the growing size, and especially the growing power, of aeroplanes and aeroplane engines, but, despite this fact, the steady improvement in the ratio of accidents to hours flown shows that much has been accomplished. I do not want to weary your Lordships with a detailed survey of the whole subject, but I would ask any of your Lordships who is interested in aviation and who has not done so to read the Prime Minister's speech and to remember that it records the impressions of a layman with no experience of flying, no preconceived ideas either one way or the other, with no bias in any direction, and with no axe to grind. If I may say so, after reading that speech, the impression conveyed is that of a man of common sense, of sympathy and understanding, whose sole endeavour was to arrive at the truth. I do not think there can be any doubt, in the minds of reasonable men, that the Prime Minister's verdict was more worthy of acceptance than vague charges, however well meant, which have been made by irresponsible critics from time to time. I am very glad to think that the noble Lord who has raised the matter does not associate himself with those critics, but on the other hand that he supports the Air Ministry, and that he approves, as I understand, of nearly every word spoken by the Prime Minister in his speech.

With regard to the one or two more technical points which he raised, and which he said were not covered by the Prime Minister, I shall endeavour to deal with them now. I am very glad to think that the noble Lord has raised the question of the announcement of fatal accidents in the Press without time being allowed for the next-of-kin of the dead airman to be informed by the Air Ministry. The Air Ministry has had many representations on the subject and your Lordships can readily imagine, as the noble Lord has told you, that unnecessary pain is caused to the wife of an airman who has been killed, if the first intimation which she receives is a visit from a Press representative asking for a photograph for publication. As the noble Lord has told you, such cases have actually arisen, although it is the Air Minister's practice to telegraph to the next-of-kin immediately the news of a fatal accident is received in London.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for what he has said on the matter, reinforcing the many complaints that have been made to the Air Ministry on the subject. My right hon. friend the Secretary of State for Air made an appeal in another place some time since to the Press, to agree to a short delay in the publication of fatal accidents, in order to leave time for the next-of-kin to be officially informed. I earnestly hope, in view of what the noble Lord has said, and considering the strong public feeling on the subject, that it may be possible, in consultation with the Press, to devise a procedure which will save the needless pain and anxiety to the next-of-kin of flying personnel which is too often caused them. I would emphasise that there is no question in this of concealment of accidents. An official communiqué is and will continue to be issued in the case of every fatal accident which occurs in this country. All that is required is a short delay in the publication in the Press, and I do hope that such an arrangement will be possible. Other plans of a more technical nature for dealing with accidents have been and are being considered daily and hourly by the Air Ministry.

Here is one of the points—strengthening the establishment of squadrons. Additions to establishments have been approved which will ensure that each flight has in addition to N.C.O.'s one fitter and one rigger per machine. Previously corporals were also individually responsible for one of the machines in the flight, a fact which gave rise to difficulties if they had—in the absence of their senior N.C.O.—to take over the duties of N.C.O. in charge of fitters or riggers, or even N.C.O. in charge of the flight. An addition has also been approved giving one storekeeper to every flight. This will relieve the Flight Sergeant and Flight Commander of a certain amount of office work and should assist them to carry out their duties of supervision of flying and aircraft maintenance. Aircraft hands (cleaners) are also to be allowed at a rate of two per single-engine machine flights, and one per twin-engine machine. This should relieve the technical trades of some purely manual labour and ensure a higher standard of both technical work and general cleanliness of machines.

The question of increasing the number of Flight Lieutenants and senior flying officers is under review but is a very difficult one and no decision can be reached hurriedly. Our present organisation cannot give us more than we have now, and the question is how to modify it to produce the desired result without either congesting the permanent list or adversely affecting the short service scheme. The subject of cutting down courses for junior officers has been very thoroughly considered and is still being examined, but it is extremely difficult to affect any sensible reduction. Air officers commanding and unit commanders are continually demanding more and better qualified specialist officers—namely, air pilotage, armament, signals, etc. They obviously cannot have it both ways. If specialists are to be provided they must be trained and the necessary training can only be given at courses.

Coming to methods for better control of machines at low speeds, the Savage-Bramson gear has been referred to. This gear imparts a "kick" to the control column when the machine approaches stalling speed. It has been found in air tests to be unsuitable for twin-engine machines (Virginias) but suitable for Bristol Fighters. The Home Army co-operation squadrons are being supplied with one set each for service trials; and fitting has already begun. A slot and aileron device has been tried successfully on the Bristol Fighter. This type is obsolescent, the necessary modification to all machines would take a long time, and it is certain that, by the time it was carried out, their would be a new type of machine to replace the Bristol Fighter. Other types which are in process of modification for test are the Woodcock, Atlas, and Bison. The Harrow and Henley include this device in their design, but they have not yet been adopted as Service types.

With regard to checking needlessly reckless flying, during last year three letters were issued to all commands:—(1) On June 30, 1926, dealing with responsibilities of commanding officers; (2) On November 5, 1926, dealing with the marking of machines so as to assist in the identification of offenders; (3) On November 8, 1926, dealing with the dangers inherent in (a) carelessness, (b) loss of skill, and (c) emulation. Since last summer four pilots have been court-martialled for reckless flying; two were convicted and two acquitted.

Officers have been appointed to the Staff of the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief and Air Officer Commanding Fighting Area to act as travelling examining officers with a view to assisting officers commanding to pick out pilots who require refresher courses. The Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief's examining officer is to deal also with the bombing area. A committee is now visiting stations with a view to making concrete suggestions for cutting down the office and paper work of commanding officers.

There were several other points with which I do not think I need trouble your Lordships, but the main point, I think, that Lord Gorell raised was that of safety fuel tanks. In 1921 the Air Ministry organised a competition to discover the best form of safety tank for aircraft, offering a substantial prize for successful designs. The competition was held at Farnborough at the end of that year and concluded in February, 1922, the winning design being designed and submitted by the India Rubber Gutta Percha and Telegraph Works Company, Limited. Their design was at the time considered to be the best form of safety tank obtainable, as a safeguard against fire both in a crash and from incendiary ammunition. In the latter respect it was by no means perfect. Nevertheless, in the marking adopted by the judges it obtained 44 per cent. more marks than the second best competitor. The Air Ministry accordingly determined to develop the India Rubber Company's design with the object of removing the imperfections still inherent in it. Further experiments had to be made by the firm to prevent the serious danger of corrosion, which may take place out of sight beneath the self-sealing cover which forms the protection of the tank.

The bulk and weight of safety tanks are greater than the standard tank normally used in the Service. In the India Rubber Company's design the weight was 1.8 lbs. per gallon as compared with 1 lb. per gallon for a normal tank of the same capacity. As the usual capacity of the tanks of a two-seater aircraft is 60 to 100 gallons, the disadvantage of extra weight to the performance of the machine becomes of great importance. The undesirability of corrosion and any other factors which increase the difficulty of maintaining and repairing petrol tanks under active service conditions in the field has also had to be taken into account before the safety tank can be finally adopted. The India Rubber Company have had great difficulties in the development of their design, and in spite of the fact that many experiments and tests were carried out by the Department on their behalf, definite proposals were not received from them until 1925. A development order was placed immediately for twelve tanks for experimental purposes, but it is believed the firm has been in difficulties with subcontractors responsible for the design and construction of certain parts of the tanks. In spite of considerable pressure by the Department it is not anticipated that the twelve tanks will be delivered for another two months. It should be noted that the Department has made every effort to assist and encourage the firm.

Service tests will take place immediately the twelve tanks have been received and, being primarily concerned with their durability, may be expected to last for six months. If these tests are entirely satisfactory it should be possible to decide as to the adoption of the tank within a year from the present date. In the meantime the Department is testing two other designs which have since come forward. The first is an ordinary tank wrapped in a fabric cover. It is unlikely to be adopted as the covering appears capable only of stopping small leaks, and the tank does not appear to be either crash-proof or bullet-proof. The second is a design submitted by Major H. H. Evans, which is also claimed to be proof against incendiary bullets. Tests on both these designs are proceeding. It would be premature to give any indication of their capabilities at the present moment. The Department is making every effort to obtain a tank which will give adequate security both in accidents and enemy action. Criticism of the Department has usually tended to suggest that no attention is being paid to the toll of lives taken by the ignition of the fuel in an aircraft that has crashed to the ground. Nothing could be further from the truth. The difficulty is to produce a tank which, while possessing the qualities necessary for safety, is not less efficient or easy to repair and maintain under Service conditions than those already in use, and does not unreasonably burden the aircraft with additional weight.

In regard to parachutes, which I do not think the noble Lord specially mentioned, I should like to make one point clear. It has been adopted as a general policy that all personnel in the air shall carry parachutes. This policy has already been put into force throughout a large I part of the Force. It will, however, be appreciated that only in certain circumstances can the parachute be instrumental in saving life. In collision, fire in the air or aircraft failure at a certain height it affords the means for personnel to reach the ground safely. On the other hand, in cases of stalling or spinning at low altitudes, there may frequently not be sufficient time for the pilot and other personnel to get out of the machine in time for the parachute to open fully. In 1926, four lives were saved by the use of parachutes, two of those on the occasion of a collision in the air. On the other hand, there have been two occasions recently when the lack of height has prevented the successful use of the parachute.

The Air Ministry does realise the importance of impressing upon the public the difference between civil and military aviation. The Air Minister went very fully into this subject and showed quite clearly how much safer civil aviation must be than military aviation. For example, the civil aviator flies every day the same course in the same direction. He is used to the place, he knows the air currents and the places to land. He has the lie of the land in his mind. Yet the military pilot has to fly day after day over different portions of country in different directions and very often in close formation with a large number of other military aeroplanes. From this alone it will be clear to your Lordships and to the public at large how very much safer civil aviation must be than military aviation.


My Lords, like everyone else who has been associated with the Air Ministry I have lived rather under the shadow of this toll of human lives due to accidents, and I am only intervening in order to give my own conclusions on the subject after eight months' experience during which there were a very large number of fatal accidents. I do not propose to go into any sort of detail, but merely to give your Lordships my general impressions and to state what were, in my view, the causes and what were not the causes of those accidents. I will begin with what were not the causes in my view. In the first place there is drink. That charge has been made in several places. Only last night it was referred to in another place. Of all the accidents that occurred during my brief tenure of office not one could be directly or indirectly attributed to drunkenness on the part of the pilot. I am not here to say that the pilot is a paragon of virtue; but he is a highly capable and intelligent man, respectable without being dull, and a person who, for his own sake, has to be temperate. The standard of our pilots from that point of view is at least as high as that of any other set of men in the world: I think I may say without reproach to my own profession at least as high as that of Army officers. I remember inspecting the mess accounts when I was Secretary of State. They were not high, they were a good deal lower than they were in the Army in my day.

The next point to which I wish to refer as not being a cause of accident—in my view again and I am no expert—is the use of old machines. I have it on the very highest authority that, apart from the reliability of engines, some of the older types of machines are quite as safe as anything that is new. There are masses of figures on this subject. They would be misleading, I think, if published and read by the ordinary members of the public. To me they are largely unintelligible, but they do give one the satisfaction that it is not a question of machines where these fatal accidents are concerned.

There is another point which has been raised in the Press and to which I am rather glad to refer, and that is the attempt which has been made to explain accidents in the Air Force on the ground that the senior officers at the Air Ministry were not experienced airmen. Quite obviously whoever wrote that report was writing in ignorance, and misapprehended the question altogether. No senior officer at the Air Ministry but is a trained airman. Men who have joined the Air Force, I will not say late in life, but in advanced middle age, some of them, were plucky enough and patriotic enough to learn to fly. Not one of them but is what may be described as a practical airman. I say I am glad that point was raised, because one frequently sees suggestions about handing over the Air Force to either the Admiralty or the War Office, when the direction of that Force would not be in the hands of experienced airmen: and then I should tremble as to what might happen in the way of fatal accidents.

My last point among those which are not the causes of accidents is one to which my noble friend Lord Gorell has referred, and to which the noble Duke has given a very full answer, and that is the omission to use devices which automatically prevent crashes and stalling. Now, there is a point on which it is most necessary to have a very good perspective. We have all heard of these devices, and they are exceedingly interesting and ingenious. If anything could make flying for a military airman safe I suppose some of these devices might. But it is sufficient for me to say here that those devices have been given full attention. I do not yet know of any foreign Air Force which has fully adopted them. And I think it is true to say that science in the matter of safety devices is not keeping pace with the enormous and rapid development in aviation. The machines that are used by our Air Force are prodigious things. Continually new devices are being introduced to make them swifter and more powerful, and the safety devices which might be perfectly applicable to an old type machine do not quite keep up with these developments in speed and power which are necessary to keep our Air Force on an equality in point of efficiency with foreign Air Forces.

Now let me turn to what I believe are the fundamental and main causes of accidents in aviation—military aviation, because civil aviation, after all, is one of the safest propositions that modern man can face, far safer than crossing most of the London streets with one-way traffic. The first cause of accidents is that military aviation is inherently dangerous. I do not believe that, with all the ingenuity in the world and all the effort, you would ever make it safe. After all, it is 90 per cent. of the dangers of warfare in time of peace. And remember, your Air Force is an insurance against war, and these young fellows who come into it know what they are in for, and they have got to be trained to concert pitch, and live at concert pitch. A bad military airman is a gift to a skilful airman. If our airmen are not trained so that they are at least as skilful in the air as anybody who is likely to be opposed to them I would go so far as to say that it is hardly worth while sending them up. One of the most deplorable features of the end of the late War was the impossibility of giving sufficient training to those gallant youths who volunteered. There has been a good deal of criticism of that. In my view it was inevitable in the circumstances.

But our men must be trained in the most dangerous evolutions, otherwise they would suffer themselves, as well as the country. They have got to be trained to fly together in close formation. Do you think that all this magnificent drill that you see at Hendon—machines going forward like Grenadiers—is accomplished without intense training and considerable risk to those trained, not to mention considerable anxiety to those who train them? But if an airman is not trained like that to fly in company in close formation, he is very liable to be butchered when flying by himself and caught by the enemy. And it is in his own interests that he has to go through these tremendous risks in time of peace. The Air Force asks of the young men who go in for it a great deal, and it cannot give them too much in the way of reward.

The other point that I think is really important in this connection is the psychology of the airman himself. I had a certain experience of them when I was Secretary of State and if we are the product of our experiences many of the pilots who flew me had had experiences which were almost fabulous. One young fellow who flew me in Iraq had brought down eleven German aeroplanes during the War. He must have gone through eleven quarters of an hour which very few of us experience. And I am told—and I know it from personal observation; one cannot live with these lads for any length of time without noticing it—that some of them are very highly strung. They are extraordinarily intelligent. They have courage of the most remarkable kind, and in a way the more highly strung they are the better pilots they are in war, the better they are for this particularly dangerous sort of work. Those are their qualities—courage, skill, quick decision; and, like most people, they are rather apt to suffer from the vices of their qualities. A great many of them are reckless, there is no question about that. They are rather like young thoroughbred horses, most difficult to handle; they are a constant source of anxiety to those in charge of them; but no one denies that they are one of the glories of the race. It is to my mind a proof of the virility of our race to-day that we can find every year such large numbers of young men ready to take on the work of military airmen.

Those are the causes of these accidents. And now I would like, in conclusion, to turn to the question of publicity and how it affects the general situation. I know you cannot avoid publicity, but I think that the demand for the publication of official inquiries into Air Force accidents is misplaced. My noble friend Lord Gorell has given some of the reasons why such publication would be undesirable; I would like to draw your Lordships' attention to another reason and it is this: We have to consider the men who train these pilots. If every official inquiry that takes place is afterwards to be published you would have their names mentioned, and you would have a lot of ill-informed criticism of them in the Press, based on half or incomplete information. These men who train our pilots, the Air officers commanding Air stations and the training staffs have not only to have high professional qualities, but they also must have some of the qualities of a physician. They are dealing with these highly strung young fellows and they have to watch their health and their state of mind, for if either be at all defective at any given moment that may make all the difference between a successful air evolution and a fatal crash. It is in the interests of those men that I think we should be very chary about giving publicity to reports.

Finally, let me say that at the back of all our minds there is one feeling. What is going to be the effect of these accidents on recruiting for the Air Force, which is the first line of defence against the first attack that will be launched on these Islands if there should ever be another war? What is the effect on recruiting? As far as the lads themselves are concerned I do not think it makes the least difference. The Prime Minister said so in another place the other day and I entirely agree with him. But one has also to consider the parents and that is where the Press can help. I remember receiving one of the finest letters I ever got in my life from a parent to whom I had written a letter of condolence on the loss of his son in one of the air accidents. It was a particularly tragic accident and the son himself was somewhat to blame for it, or so it would appear. Six people were involved, five were killed and one was injured for life. That parent certainly made me feel very proud of the fact that I was an Englishman and a countryman of his. In my view he put the thing right. He said that he was quite prepared to sacrifice his son provided the accident was completely unavoidable and his great regret was, so far as he could gather, that his son had been to blame and that other lives had been involved. But where we have magnificent people like that, where we have this magnificent material for pilots in the country, surely it is the duty of the people and the Press to give them every encouragement that is possible.

I wish to lay stress on what my noble friend Lord Gorell said and to which the noble Duke referred in his reply. I wish to add my appeal to theirs in regard to the Press and the reports of air accidents. Only on Saturday last, in the evening newspapers, there were staring lines announcing a crash at a certain aerodrome. No names were mentioned and a vague and horrible disquiet was left in the minds of all the parents and all the relatives of the men employed at that aerodrome. No further news was given, there was no chance of softening the blow, no possibility of giving details. Many, perhaps hundreds of people were disquieted through this inconsiderate action of simply publishing in broad outline an accident somewhere, another air crash. I am sure a good deal of suffering could be avoided if the Press were more considerate in this matter. I should like to thank the noble Duke for his very full statement. He went into a great many technical details which I do not understand but which appear to be satisfactory. As a layman who takes a deep interest in the Air Force I should like to say that perhaps the most satisfactory part of his statement was the fact that the ratio of accidents to miles flown is steadily decreasing. My information is all that way and I am quite certain that so far as the Air Ministry is concerned, in their own interests and those of humanity and the country at large they will see to it that accidents are reduced to a minimum.


My Lords, it is not my intention to trespass upon your Lordships' indulgence for more than a few minutes. I feel we owe a debt of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Gorell, for having raised this matter in a very temperate and moderate manner and having given an opportunity to the Government of amplifying, if I may use that expression, the speech that was made by the Prime Minister a few days ago. It is quite true, as the noble Lord said, that there is a certain amount of uneasiness all over the country in regard to the accidents, which perhaps obtain a larger notice in the Press than do accidents in other walks of life. As one who has been connected with the Air Ministry, I feel that the wonder is not at the number of accidents but at their fewness. I should like to pay this tribute to the organisation of the Air Ministry who are responsible for the working of the Air Force throughout the country. I feel that it is due to their energy, foresight and knowledge that the Air Force finds itself in the successful position in which it is at the present moment. The noble Lord who has just spoken and who, if I may be allowed to say so, has made a very interesting speech, referred to the fact that all those in high position at the Air Ministry are practical airmen, and I feel sure your Lordships will agree with me when I say that accidents are reduced to the very minimum.

The noble Lord to whom I have just referred spoke of the devices which have been brought forward from time to time for the purpose of minimising accidents and the noble Lord who introduced this Motion gave as a reason for introducing it that the Prime Minister had not fully touched on this subject. I think the noble Duke has given us all the information that it is possible to receive and we are grateful to him for what he has told us. Your Lordships are allowed a certain amount of latitude in discussions here and I should like to take the opportunity of saying something with which I feel sure your Lordships will agree. I think we owe a deep debt of gratitude to the Secretary of State for Air for his pioneer flight a short time ago. I am sure that the flight which he made, accompanied by his wife, is one which has done more good to aviation, both civil and military aviation, than almost any other action at this time could have done, and I feel that we owe him a debt of gratitude for going out to India in the way in which he did some few weeks ago. It has shown everyone how feasible and possible are these flights. I am sure we all hope that a great many of those who can take these flights for shorter distances will follow the example which he has set.

Noble Lords have spoken of the question of the Press and publicity. This certainly is a very difficult matter and I feel that the only step which we can take—or the Air Minister perhaps could do it better than we can do it in this House—is to approach the editors of all newspapers. We know well the persistence and the ubiquity of the Press and we know that the Press reporter has to earn his livelihood like everyone else. These importunities, which appear to us to be heartless actions on their part, are really part of their everyday work. But I feel that if editors would take this matter up and enjoin on all their representatives to act slowly in this matter—because it is one in which in most cases no good can be done to those concerned—I feel we shall have taken all the steps it is possible to take. I should like to join with other noble Lords who have spoken in expressing to the noble Duke our gratitude for the very full statement which he has made.


My Lords, I think after what has been said it only remains for me to thank the noble Duke for having given us very full and detailed information. As I imagine that there are no Papers that he would wish to lay before the House, I withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.