HL Deb 20 January 1954 vol 185 cc316-8

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, asked a question earlier to-day and I said I would read a statement to be made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation. I will repeat it in his own words. It is as follows:

"As the House will know, a Comet airliner of B.O.A.C., on scheduled flight from Singapore to London, crashed into the sea to the south of Elba on January 10. Of the twenty-nine passengers and crew of six, all lost their lives. The Italian authorities promptly organised search and rescue operations and fifteen bodies have been recovered, together with small portions of wreckage. On the following day, the Chairman of B.O.A.C. informed me that the Corporation had decided to suspend their normal Comet passenger services for the purpose of carrying out a detailed examination of the aircraft of the Comet operational fleet in collaboration with expert representatives of the Air Registration Board and the manufacturers. Subsequently, experts from the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, were also associated with the investigation. I fully concurred with these arrangements and arranged for the appropriate authorities in France and Canada to be informed. The French Airlines—Air France, and the Union Aeromaritime de Transport —which operate the Comet, likewise withdrew their aircraft from passenger services, but the Royal Canadian Air Force, not being engaged in public transport service, did not consider it necessary to do so. The detailed examination of four of the B.O.A.C. aircraft has already been completed but nothing has yet emerged from this examination to throw any light on the cause of the accident.

"Immediately following the accident, the Italian authorities appointed a Commission of Inquiry with which Mr. Nelson, the representative of my Chief Inspector of Accidents, was associated. The preliminary investigation established that the accident took place outside Italian territory. The Italian Government, therefore, handed over to Her Majesty's Government the subsequent conduct of the investigation, and I have announced that there will be a public inquiry. The Italian Government have kindly consented to appoint two accredited representatives to assist with the investigation. My right honourable friend the First Lord of the Admiralty has made available units of the Mediterranean Fleet for the search and, we hope, the salvage of the aircraft.

"I myself attended the moving and dignified funeral and memorial services in Elba and thanked the Minister of Defence, the Italian Navy and all concerned for their invaluable assistance and co-operation. I saw at first hand the widespread sorrow of all Italians on the mainland and in Elba, and I am sure that this House will join with me in thanking them and in expressing cur deepest sympathy with the relatives and friends of those who lost their lives."


My Lords, we on this side of the House join with the noble Earl and his right honourable colleague in another place in expressing our sympathy with all the relatives of the people who lost their lives in this sad disaster. We should like to join him also in thanking the Italian authorities for the great help which they have afforded in the search and in the other activities which have taken place since the Comet was lost. We commend the grounding of the other Comets by the B.O.A.C. We believe this was a very proper measure to take in the circumstances. I should like to ask the noble Earl whether it would not be better for all persons officially concerned with this matter to refrain from indulging in conjectures about the cause of this accident until the Committee of Inquiry has taken place, and also to refrain from making comments upon the wreckage found until this Committee has reported. That has been the custom in the past, in the case of all Governments. I think the comments that have already been made are somewhat unfortunate in the circumstances.


My Lords, arising out of the Minister's statement, may I ask him two questions? First, would he ask B.O.A.C., when the examination of all aircraft has been completed, whether they would issue a comprehensive statement covering the examination of the total fleet? Secondly, would he accept a further commendation from myself, which I believe has a large measure of public opinion behind it, of the wise and courageous step which the B.O.A.C. took in suspending operations?


My Lords, I should like to thank noble Lords for what they have said. May I correct the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, on one point? The Comets have not been grounded in the sense of taking away their certificates of air worthiness. These aircraft have only been withdrawn from passenger service, and indeed, they are on training flights at the present time. The suggestion which has been made by the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, I will report to my right honourable friend and see whether a statement of that sort can be made. I appreciate that it would give a sense of confidence, if it could be done. All I can say is what I have said already, that nothing has emerged so far from this examination which would suggest, the cause of the accident. I should particularly like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, for what he has said about making guesses of what might have been the cause of the accident. It is most undesirable that anyone should do that; they should wait until all the evidence has been gathered and properly sifted. It is only then that a reliable estimate can be made of what has been the cause of this deplorable event.