HL Deb 01 February 1961 vol 228 cc231-58

5.3 p.m.

LORD BRABAZON OF TARA rose to ask Her Majesty's Government, in view of the change by some Airlines from kerosene to petrol, "what price safety?"; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I hope your Lordships will forgive me for raising a question at this late hour (five o'clock is called "this late hour" in your Lordships' House) but we are all air passengers to-day, and safety in the air is something that is dear to my heart, for in my life I have seen too many of my friends killed. Flight was born of the internal combustion engine, and the internal combustion engine runs on petrol—probably the most objectionable fluid one could ever think of. We have been saddled with that fluid ever since. At one time we tried to introduce diesel engines. Some were made. They were too heavy and lacked boost on take-off; but of course it would have been wonderful had we succeeded, because there is a fuel which is almost non-inflammable. History is full of minor crashes of aeroplanes that have turned into bonfires and burnt the occupants. But we must not overstate the case. Over the course of years we have made aeroplanes flying on petrol safe, and were I not to say that I think I should be overstating the case against petrol. And when one remembers the millions and millions of miles flown per year without accident by aeroplanes driven by petrol, it will be seen that everything has been done to ensure safety and that that form of transport is a sound and safe method of travel.

I want first to make my own personal position clear to your Lordships. I am chairman of the Air Registration Board, and I have been fourteen years in that position. I would stress the fact that it is not in any way a political appointment. The Air Registration Board was set up by Statute. It is a curious body which would exist only in our country. The Board is composed of four people elected from and by the aeroplane manufacturing side; four by the operators; four by the insurance people and four by the general public. The Board has earned an international reputation and is highly thought of throughout the world. because it has done wonderful work. If there were any one criticism I could have of it it is its choice of Chairman; but that is the fault of the members.

To-day I am allowed to speak as a private person, and anybody who disagrees with me on what I am going to say is entitled to ask me: If you are on the Air Registration Board, and if you consider a turbine-engined aircraft running on petrol to be dangerous, why do you grant such an aircraft a certificate of airworthiness?" I must make that point clear to your Lordships. The business of the Board is to see that an aeroplane is airworthy in the air. We see to the strength of the structure, the choice of metal and materials, that the under-carriage is safe and the general design is sound. We also have the responsibility of proving that the aeroplane handles correctly in the air. Beyond that we do not go. What happens on a crash is really outside our province, and the question of the use of petrol in turbine-engined aircraft has never been raised on the Council itself.

Critics might say that the position we take up of not being concerned with crash-worthiness is not quite true; they could advance the fact that we are responsible, for instance, for the placing of sufficient exits in a new design of aeroplane. But we do not go further than that. In the amazing development of the airliner over the last 60 years, unlike motor car engineers, aeronautical engineers have invented a new prime mover in the form of the gas turbine; and for that we have to thank the great Whittle.

Whittle was always anxious that his engine should run on diesel oil so that the fuel then would be practically non-inflammable. His engine can run on that fuel, but at high altitudes, where the temperature is very low, there are difficulties about "gumming-up", and it has never been a success. Kerosene (or paraffin, as one may call it) has been used now for many years and it is extremely successful. The difference between running an engine on paraffin, as compared with petrol, is such that there is no advantage with one or the other. The efficiency of the two fuels is about the same. Experts will say that one has a little more heat value; on the other hand, it has not quite the range of the other. But in flight they are both satisfactory, and it is for that reason that the Air Registration Board is quite right in giving such aeroplanes a certificate of airworthiness. The point I wish to make to-day is a very narrow one, and I hope that your Lordships will appreciate that. It concerns the consequences arising in circumstances of a minor accident on a bad take-off or on a faulty landing when tanks are broken and fuel is spilt. I am not talking about great crashes where aeroplanes go into mountains or fall down from 6,000 ft. and everybody is killed; in such cases it is immaterial what fuel is used. But it is of these minor accidents on the ground that I want to speak to your Lordships to-day.

Your Lordships will appreciate the extra speeds indulged in to-day. When I first flew, my maximum speed was 40 m.p.h., and I landed at 30 m.p.h. To-day aeroplanes take off at 160 knots and touch down at 130 knots. Nothing will persuade me to think that that is really safe, but it works, and there are very few accidents at that speed on touch-down—a very remarkable thing. But what has to be noted is that, as aeroplanes advance in speed and complexity, the business of the pilot becomes even more and more important, because his work requires great precision and nicety of judgment. If your Lordships put yourself in the position of a pilot carrying 150 passengers and coming down at an airport at night, with rain and a side wind, you will appreciate the enormous skill and responsibility which are put upon his shoulders. But the accidents which I refer to are accidents which take place due to a bad take off or due to a swing on landing, when the passengers, by virtue of their belts, are comparatively safe. But when fuel is spilt fire results. It is that type of accident about which I want to speak to your Lordships to-day.

Accidents of that kind should not result in loss of life if there is no fire. But fire, as we know, occurs. It is difficult to say how the first ignition occurs. It may be due to shortage of electric currents, to spark from metal as it grinds along the concrete, or it may be due to the flame from an engine. But the fact remains that aeroplanes in minor crashes usually catch fire. We cannot get away from that fundamental fact. In those circumstances I was very shocked—I repeat, very shocked—to find that some operators were switching from kerosene to gasolene, and in the technical Press I issued a challenge. I said, "Let us imitate the conditions in which an aeroplane crashes on take off;I will go on to an aerodrome and I will spill 40 gallons of kerosene, stand in the middle of it and drop a match, if anybody who advocates petrol will do the same with 40 gallons of petrol". Curiously enough, my Lords, there were no takers. I did not get much support, especially from the Press, over this matter. I do not blame the Press in any way. The Press get great revenue from the big operating companies and from the oil companies, and I can quite follow their train of thought when they do not want to get involved in some riot which would occur between those two very great interests.

Anyhow, to my surprise, the great British Broadcasting Corporation rang me up and said, "Will you give a comparative exhibition of this on television?" I got my friend Mr. Rickard, who is a great expert on all questions of fuel, to attend with me—and he has been a tower of strength the whole time—and we repaired to Wembley and did the thing on a minor scale. We spilt eight gallons of kerosene and we attempted to light it. We threw matches into it; we had a blow lamp; nothing would make it burn—to our fury. At last we had to light a rag and put it into it and then it started to burn. But we did the same with petrol, or J.P.4 as it is called in this case. Very wisely, we did not approach too near. We threw a match and there was one "pfff" and a bonfire. That was with eight gallons. As I reminded people on that television service, if an accident occurs to a Boeing 707 on takeoff is not a question of 7 gallons; it is a question of 17,000 gallons. That would be a proper bonfire. Do not let us pretend that kerosene does not burn: of course it burns: the point is that the rate of propagation of the flame is so much slower than that of petrol. It gives one time to get out before the fire really gets going.

Let me give your Lordships examples of three recent accidents. There was a Lockheed-Electra which crashed at La Guardia. Something went wrong with the engine; it has not been decided what it was. Anyhow, it got into trouble and came down on its back. The tanks were burst and the fluid caught fire. But it was kerosene; it did not burn very quickly. We can imagine the state inside that aeroplane when it was upside down and people were trying to get out. But although it caught fire, all the 70 passengers and the five of the crew got out, with no casualties at all. We have the case of the Boeing 707 which swung off on coming down at London Airport. It did not catch fire, although the fire service there said that it was a marvel it did not, as kerosene was pouring out of one of the engines. Ninety-five passengers got out, and 12 of the crew.

Recently, again, when a Douglas DC.8 caught fire 102 occupants got out alive. Four of the crew were killed, but that was due to percussion, not to the fire. One hundred and two survived. I had a letter from someone in that aeroplane, Mr. Rushen, and he writes to me and he says: Mr. Mitchell and I were two of the British passengers in the Mexican Airlines DC.8 jet which crashed at Idlewild, and we are both utterly convinced that we owe our lives, as do all the other passengers, to the fact that this particular aircraft was powered by Kerosene and not by J.P.4 or any similarly volatile propellant. These things are, I think, very remarkable and I hope that we shall not have to wait for an accident with an aeroplane using petrol to prove the point of the extra safety of kerosene. The point arises—and I suppose it is a legal point—as to whether if an aeroplane were fuelled unnecessarily with a more dangerous fluid it would constitute negligence; because, if it constituted negligence, claims, of course, would be unlimited and a case for manslaughter would arise. Those are very serious thoughts indeed. I am very proud of the two British Corporations. After all, they do everything they can for safety, and for running their enterprises satisfactorily; and neither of them has ever used, or has thought of using, any other fuel than kerosene—and we thank them very much for that splendid example of considering the safety of the public.

Your Lordships will ask me: what is the incentive to change from kerosene to petrol? The answer is very curious. I have to quote something said by Mr. Hagrup, who is a prominent member of the technical side of an organisation called I.A.T.A., which is a body made up of all the operating companies. Talking about the two fuels, he said: It is not possible to say which is the safer fuel. Nobody can say that one is safer than the other. They just cannot.

I entirely agree with that; but that applies in the air. From an operating point of view, that is perfectly true. But listen to what Mr. Hagrup says after that: The point is that if J.P.4 tends to become cheaper—it is not now, but it may become cheaper—then we must be ready for it. I consider that remark to be very cynical, with no consideration for passengers, or anything at all; just a matter of whether it is cheaper. At present, it is about a farthing a gallon cheaper, which means, on a trans-atlantic flight, £15. It might well become a penny cheaper, and the difference would then be £60. Spread over 120 passengers, that is not a lot extra to pay for added safety. That is what I put in my Motion —"What price safety?". How much are we prepared to pay for the little extra safety it gives when there is the question of a crash? That is what we have to consider.

Your Lordships may well ask: what are we to do about this? The question is: what can we do about it? The great British companies behave themselves, and are an example to the world. The offenders—I name them, and I am not afraid to name them—are Sabena, T.W.A., Trans-Canada and Pan-American. They are the offenders. The oil companies are inclined to push them towards J.P.4 or petrol—for this reason: that, out of a barrel of oil you get more J.P.4 than you get kerosene. It is true to say that if all the air forces of the world used kerosene there would be a shortage, but it is up to the oil corn-panics to produce more kerosene out of a barrel of oil. So far, they are concentrating, by cracking, only on getting very high-volatile spirits for motor cars and such like. That is one of the urges that are going on to-day.

The Government could not possibly say that it is dangerous to fly any of these machines on petrol. That would be quite ridiculous, because more than half of the airplanes of to-day, of the piston type, fly quite satisfactorily on petrol. They cannot therefore do that. In fact, putting myself in the position of the unfortunate Minister who has to reply, I can see nothing that can be done. But what I do say is that it is a good thing to have this question voiced in this House, because passengers may realise that this danger exists. And if, when they buy their tickets, they would ask whether they were to be flown on petrol or kerosene, that would have a very big effect upon the running of the airlines by the operators.

If the, Government were prepared to go so far as to say that, within the very narrow limits of 'what I have been speaking about—that is, the danger of spilt fuel when there has been a ground accident—there is extra danger in using petrol instead of kerosene that would be, to me, quite satisfactory. Because if they said that, then that statement would hang over the head of any operator using J.P.4, and it would indeed be a very unpleasant situation to be faced with at any inquiry into a catastrophe concerning fire. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

5.16 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, not for the first time in his distinguished life, has followed an individual path; but on this occasion, I hope, this individual path, this rather lonely battle which he has been fighting, will become less lonely. It is a fact that he has fought this particular battle with surprisingly little support and surprisingly little reaction from people who ought, think, to have jumped in on the cause in which he has interested himself. We have an opportunity to-day in this House, and the Government have an opportunity, to make a contribution— not a very spectacular one (the noble Lord was extremely moderate in the presentation of his case), but a contribution to safety which may, sooner than we think, and certainly at some time, be responsible for saving some people's lives.

I think it is clear that the use of this alternative fuel—J.P.4 or petrol, or whatever we may want to call it—is not essential. The noble Lord has dealt with some of the arguments that have been used. I have heard of other arguments. It has been argued, even, that there is a danger of kerosene being less satisfactory at very great heights; and it is true that, under certain conditions, there may be little to choose between them from a safety point of view. But it is not in regard to those conditions that we are concerned: it is simply on this narrow point of a minor accident on the ground.

I am sure your Lordships all remember the first Comet crash before the disasters that really overtook the Comet which were essentially design disasters—the crash, I think at Rome Airport, where the Comet either overran or the nose-wheel collapsed and there were thousands of gallons of kerosene spread over the ground. At that time, the newspapers all pointed to the fact that on this occasion the passengers escaped because they had the advantage of flying in an aircraft, a modern jet, which was fuelled by kerosene. It seems extraordinary that we should contemplate for one moment throwing away the advantage that this fuel gives us. It is all the more surprising because the gains to the operators, in financial terms or in operational use, from using other fuel are so very marginal. They are marginal in the way that the noble Lord has said, when one compares the millions of pounds spent annually on maintenance, repairs and depreciation in a modern airline with the few thousand extra pounds, at the outside, which would be spent on using a safe fuel.

My Lords, the days of speed or of unrestricted competition in transport are gone. The public demand safety. They would not even tolerate some of the habits in some of the great railway races of the last century. Let us consider an alternative proposition. Suppose somebody came along and said that it would be cheaper, and aircraft would be faster, if they were to use yet another fuel—something which is, I agree, not practicable—like high-test peroxide or one of the really unstable fuels. We should all laugh at the suggestion. But because these two fuels are so narrowly separated, it seems possible they may use the more dangerous, as the noble Lord has mentioned, whenever they think they can get away with it. We do not think they are mischievous or unconcerned; they have merely decided—a hard, operational decision, they might argue—that they must use what, to them, seems the most efficient fuel. I am sorry that no one has yet taken up the noble Lord's challenge. It would be a pleasant spectacle to see the noble Lord standing in the middle of his 40 gallons of kerosene tossing matches around. We can all think of other people who might be candidates for the other test!

This seems to me to be an absolutely clear-cut case. When we are spending such prodigious sums to-day on safety, when every day we read in the newspapers of some particular Safety Campaign, it is astounding that the newspapers, who claim, at any rate, that they have the public interest at heart, have not taken this matter up. I think this is an occasion when this House should give a lead, and I hope that the noble Earl who is to reply will give that lead. We appreciate that it may not be possible for him to say everything we want him to say, but we hope that he will at least make it clear that he is going to do something about it and make further representations, because I suspect that this is not the last time we shall hear from the noble Lord on this subject. I must say that the noble Lord will find a growing team of supporters who will accompany him, if necessary, on his special test-piece to prove the case that he is making.

This is an urgent matter. It is not one that we ought to spend a long time over, but it is something about which the Government ought, I believe, to make representations, whether through I.A.T.A. or through publicity of one kind or another. And, above all, they should make a really forthright declaration that they strongly support the policy followed by British airlines in using a safer fuel; that they deplore the presence on British airports of aircraft which do not use the safer fuel; and that they will, if necessary, bring pressure to bear on, or at least have talks with, the oil companies to find out what the true facts are with regard to any drive they may be making to use J.P.4. In particular, we should like to know how far the R.A.F. are using an unsafe fuel. I do not want to pursue that subject to-day, because we realise that we cannot go so far as we should like. But we should like to know, for instance, whether Transport Command are using J.P.4, or whether they are using kerosene.




The noble Lord has answered my question. If Transport Command are using kerosene, this seems to strengthen our case.

One of the most famous of last words among householders in days when fires would not light was, "Put a little paraffin on the fire". Provided it ignited at once it was not too dangerous. The danger with paraffin on those occasions was that it filled the room with an inflammable gas and ignited later. But it was far more dangerous when people put paraffin on a fire, and then found that it was not paraffin but petrol. I have known this happen with Primuses on expedition, as well as in people's houses. Yet we are prepared to play, not with small quantities of fuel, but with these vast amounts which the noble Lord has mentioned. I am sure your Lordships will expect a very forthright answer from the Government; and I am also sure that your Lordships will agree that the noble Lord, again not for the first time in his remarkable career, has rendered a service to the community.

5.25 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, put his case very mildly indeed. In some ways I think he put it too mildly. He certainly did not exaggerate it and use language which, like petrol, was inflammatory. The position, as I see it, is that it is largely a question of safety against availability. The noble Lord has said that he thinks the reason that there has been no support for him in his campaign is that the Press, having in mind its advertisers, did not like to offend either the oil companies or the aircraft companies. I should think that perhaps this is an unfair attack to make on the Press; at least, I hope it is. I, for one, cannot believe that the Press as a whole would, for those reasons fail to report a matter of this importance. I think the reason is that, as the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, has said, no one came forward to support the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara. As I will tell your Lordships in a minute, I had very much the same difficulty, and it is because of that that the Press have probably held back.

So far as I am concerned—and, I have no doubt, so far as other Members of your Lordships' House are concerned — once the Motion was on the Order Paper we waited until it came up, so that we could give what views we have to your Lordships' House instead of expressing them outside. I think that is the right course to take. There seems to be no doubt whatsoever that kerosene—the highly-refined kerosene which aircraft use in these turbine engines—is much safer than petrol when an aircraft crashes to the ground. I should have thought that that had been proved beyond any shadow of doubt. Indeed, when I had an official connection with the Department concerned with these matters, and one of the great virtues of jet and turboprop aircraft adduced in those early days was this very fact, that if an aircraft crashed on the ground it would be very much safer if kerosene were used. The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, has instanced several recent cases where there have been crashes with aircraft using kerosene, with few resultant fatalities, and in some cases no fatalities occurred. I can give him another instance where the same thing happened, and that was the case of the South African Boeing 707 which crashed in Nairobi and which the noble Lord probably remembers.

My Lords, I gather that the R.A.F. do not any longer use the J.P.4 petrol; they use kerosene. Also, the Fleet Air Arm will not allow any J.P.4 on a carrier; they insist on kerosene being used. So it looks, at all events, as if the Service Departments, the Admiralty and R.A.F., arid the two State Corporations, are quite satisfied about the safety of kerosene. That is, I imagine, a great mark in its favour. But it is not only kerosene and petrol which are at issue. There are other fluids in aircraft. For instance, there is the hydraulic brake fluid. There are non-inflammable brake fluids, but, for some reason, quite a number of operators will not use them but instead insist on using an inflammable brake fluid. These may be quite as dangerous, in some ways, as the fluids of propulsion which the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, has mentioned.

I have been trying to find out why companies insist on using J.P.4 petrol. It is so obvious to us, why is it not obvious to them, that kerosene should he used? It is very difficult to find out, but I understand that it is not so much a question of price—indeed, very little a question of price— as of availability. It appears that the oil companies have not organised a world-wide supply of kerosene, as they have organised a world- wide supply of petrol, and therefore it is often difficult for operators to obtain kerosene in places where they would like to do so.

Why are the oil companies not organising this world-wide supply? That is the real question that we have arrived at in our process of elimination. Is it more expensive? Is it more difficult? Why are the oil companies taking up this attitude? If it is just a question of saving money on their part, it would be perfectly dreadful to think that they were risking the lives of people in this way for the saving of what, to them, must be a comparatively small sum. If that is so, I think it would 'be worthy of our greatest condemnation. But we have not heard their point of view, and I think they are entitled to tell us why they do not make kerosene available on the world-wide scale that is desired.

I suggest to the noble Earl that he holds an inquiry—if he wishes, a departmental inquiry; I do not mind what sort it is so long as it is held by competent people and so long as its results are published. I have had great difficulty in getting any of the authorities concerned to give me any facts upon this subject. The position in the minds of many of the authorities is not so clear-cut as we have put it to-day. When I asked questions they hedged their answers around with all sorts of qualifications. There was this and that to be considered. And I could not get any of the authorities officially to come out into the open, although they would sometimes do so unofficially.

Here is the view that I got from the aircraft insurance companies. One would think that they were pretty well concerned in this matter. I have cut down what was said because it was rather lengthy, but I do not think I am doing them an injustice. This is what they told me this morning. The insurance companies will support Government regulations, while reserving the right to make their own estimate of risk in fixing rates. So far, they have not noted firm rules as to the difference between fuels in air safety. Secondly, accidents lately suggest that in survivable crashes more people have continued to survive when kerosene is used. Thirdly, it is too early to say whether the situation is due to inherent physical difficulties, as so many complex factors are involved in ignition. Fourthly, since fire and survivorship are only two of the factors in overall airline risk rating, so far these factors by themselves have not made any significant changes to premium rates. That is the considered opinion of the insurance people.

In these circumstances, and in view of the fact that I have not been able to get clear-cut opinions from the authorities I have consulted, I suggest to the Minister that he would be doing a great service to airline operators, to the oil companies, to the travelling public and to the crews as well, if he held an inquiry on the lines I have suggested, so that we can clear up the facts, and the public, the authorities and the crews alike will know exactly what the risks are.

5.35 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, has rightly asked the question: what price safety? But I do not think that we should single out one particular factor involving the safety of passengers. Whenever one boards an aircraft there is an element of risk, and this risk is made up of a number of considerations. The type of fuel can be one of these considerations, but there are others, such as climatic conditions, possible mechanical failures, certain stresses that may develop, associated with metal fatigue. And these considerations cannot be overlooked. I think that they all form part of the risk in flying nowadays.

All forms of travel carry a certain risk—safety ratio, if I may put it that way. No doubt, due to conditions of taking off and landing, and to the simple fact that in the case of difficulty in midair one cannot just halt an aircraft and remain poised there, flying has a higher risk-safety ratio than earth-bound forms of travel. In matters of safety in modern means of travel, I agree that ail reasonable precautions should be taken; but, as in all things, a proper balance has to be maintained. One body of opinion may stress one aspect of safety precautions, while another body of opinion may consider some other aspect to be a greater risk.

If I may, I would quote some examples which have a certain bearing on the matter in hand. It has been stated that Transport Command use kerosene when operating from this country, but it is equally true to say that they are prepared to use kerosene or J.P. fuel, and it may well be that abroad they would use the other fuel. The noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, referred to availability. I am advised that the question of availability has something to do with the siting of refinery plants. Another aspect of safety is rearward-facing seats. Transport Command Britannias are fitted with these, while Comets are fitted with forward-facing seats. In all these matters there are various elements which affect safety, and they can be viewed from different angles. For instance, with regard to airlines, Air France planes will take on J.P. fuel only if kerosene is not available, and at the first possible opportunity will empty the tanks of the aircraft and take on kerosene. On the other hand, Trans-Canada Air Lines use exclusively J.P.4 fuel in their D.C.8 aircraft and in their Viscounts. With regard to the latter aircraft, the Viscount, these have been in service since 1955 with conspicuous success. There are other airlines—for instance, Sabena, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, Pan-American Airways and T.W.A.—which use either fuel.

In the last few months the technical Press has rightly been devoting a number of columns to the fuel aspect of safety. There is a body of opinion that believes, with regard to the Mexican D.C.8 airliner which crashed on the night of 19–20th January, when taking off from Idlewild Airport, that had the aircraft been using J.P.4 fuel the number of passengers who would have escaped may not have been so great. But that has not been proved.


Would the noble Lord tell the House also whether there is any body of opinion that takes a different view from that?


What I am trying to stress is that in this case it has not been proved that if the aircraft had burned J.P.4 fuel a similar number of passengers would not have escaped, because, in effect, the aircraft exploded; and I understand from Press reports that it exploded when passengers were within 50 feet of the aircraft. I am only saying that it has not been proved that had the aircraft been fuelled with J.P.4 a similar number of passengers would not have escaped. But, unfortunately, some of the aircrew—four I believe—were burned to death. The point I am trying to make is that there is no evidence available that had J.P.4 been used, a similar number of people would not have escaped.

Also on the question of safety, who can assess or deny the effect of taking off under conditions of a blinding snowstorm on the safety of the aircraft? It is not long ago that a B.E.A. Viscount was completely burnt out at London Airport. But in that case it was not the fuel that was responsible; it was the fluid of the hydraulics system which ignited on spurting out after the crash. Therefore, I think there is insufficient evidence available to dictate to the airlines whether they should use one fuel or another. I think it should be left to them to decide which fuel they wish to acquire, but, naturally, in consultation with the research departments of the main petroleum companies.

With regard to one or two of these companies, the official reaction of the one approached first, a British company with Dutch affiliations, was, "No comment." An American supplier was more forthcoming, and thanks to their co-operation I was able to appreciate the extensive research carried out and to note that particular care was taken by their research and engineering section to bring to the attention of the airlines concerned the important variations in the fuel properties that exist between the fairly light J.P.4 and the heavier kerosene.

I do not wish to weary your Lordships with technical details, but this comparison, which was based on a world-wide fuel survey, went into such aspects as energy content, burning quality, inflammability limits, cleanliness, static electricity and flashpoint. Here I should like to quote an extract from one of their journals, which is headed, "Some important characteristics of aviation kerosene and J.P.4." The writer says: The differences of particular interest to an airline are in the energy available from the fuel, the combustion quality of the fuel, its inherent cleanliness properties and the safety considerations associated with flammability limits and with unusual ignition sources. Therefore, I think it can be said that the petroleum companies have taken this question very seriously, and I should imagine that the advice they can give to the airlines on this matter is of the greatest importance. I believe it is right that the airlines, with that technical information which is available to them from highly qualified persons, should be allowed to decide for themselves what they prefer to do.

The question of the economic aspect has been touched on by other noble Lords, but, as is mentioned in the editorial of Flight on January 13 of this year, a significant economic factor which must be borne in mind, apart from the question of cost, is that operations are more often weight-limited—that is payload—than tank-limited. As has been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, J.P.4 does give off more heat energy—I believe in the region of 100 B.T.U.s per lb. Another important economic point, I feel, is that a far greater proportion of J.P.4 is extracted from crude oil. For instance, Saharan crude has a surplus of the lighter fractions; that is to say, petrol. That is an economic consideration. Other crudes will have various proportions, and all that has a bearing on the economic position. I assume, therefore, that if there were an exclusive demand for kerosene it might tend to put up the prices of this fuel. So it would seem to me, as I have said, that the airlines should be free to decide, so that a natural balance can establish itself; that is to say, a balance which would be regulated by normal supply and demand.

Finally there is one point on which I heartily agree with the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara. I do not think that many passengers take into account fuel considerations when they are booking a seat on board a plane, but in view of the noble Lord's Motion, I am wondering whether airlines might consider advising travel agents as to which aircraft, on the one hand, carry rearward-facing seats, which is a safety factor, and, on the other, which aircraft or flights carry the lighter or heavier spirit.

5.50 p.m.


My Lords, it must surely be one of the greatest advantages of your Lordships' House that an expert such as the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, can come here and, without fear or favour, give his opinion to your Lordships, and, indeed, to the whole of the world. Before I go further, I must say that I regret that at some points my speech has to be a little technical, but I will be as non-technical as possible.

The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, who has initiated this debate, fully realises that there will be people throughout the world who will be awaiting the opinion of Her Majesty's Government with regard to the content that my noble friend has brought forward. I want to congratulate the noble Lord upon bringing this matter before your Lordships. We all know that he has devoted a lifetime to the service of aviation and to the aircraft industry, and, as he has told us, he is now Chairman of the Air Registration Board. I want to congratulate him and his comrades on the Board on the great services they have given, in particular, to the interests of safety in the air. We know that the noble Lord is also the holder of the first pilot's certificate issued by the Royal Aero Club, and I have no doubt that, remembering those days, my noble friend specifically brought out the hazards which face the pilot of a great commercial aircraft in these modern times. The noble Lord has a reputation for being forthright and for saying exactly what he believes. No one, if I may say so, navigates the slippery slopes of expert argument with greater precision, gallantry or success than the noble Lord, whether in your Lordships' House or in many places overseas.

For the Record, I must make quite clear the differences between three fuels which have been mentioned in your Lordships' House to-day because, unfortunately, the terms that have been used mean many different things to our friends overseas, and to our competitors in the air transport field. First of all, there is the high-octane fuel which the piston engine uses. The noble Lord called this petrol, and he went on mentioning petrol. For that reason, I must make these differences plain. High octane fuel is really a super high-grade motor car fuel. I am going to call it gasolene. I regret that term but, unfortunately, to our friends, particularly on the other side of the Atlantic, gasolene does mean and does include this particular type of piston-engine fuel. Unfortunately petrol does not mean the same thing to them or to many other people. So when I say "gasolene", I mean piston-engine fuel.

The next fuel that we deal with—and this is what we are really concerned with in the noble Lord's Motion—is turbine-engine fuel, either paraffin or kerosene. Those are slightly different, and I am going to use all through my speech the term J.P.1, which your Lordships will have heard the noble Lord use at times. J.P.1 is really aeronautical paraffin. The second type of fuel (and this is the fuel with which the noble Lord is especially concerned) is what our American friends call wide-cut gasolene; which is different from petrol as we know it; different from gasolene as the Americans know it and different also from kerosene—in other words, J.P.1. In English language it would be somewhere between the lowest grade of motor car petrol and what we call paraffin. For aviation purposes it is called J.P.4, and I shall always refer to it as J.P.4 when I mean this wide-cut gasolene.

There are differences in the two fuels. The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, and the noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, described some of them. The main points your Lordships will be interested in is that J.P.1—that is, the paraffin-type fuel —has a higher flash-point, as it is called, than J.P.4. That means that J.P.1 needs a higher temperature to make it burn and, because of this, normally burns much more slowly. That is really the difference between the two fuelswith which the noble Lord is concerned, and it was the difference of burning of which he gave such a dramatic demonstration upon television. Nevertheless, as the noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, showed, J.P.4 is claimed to be more reliable—an element of safety in aircraft operation—in certain technical circumstances. One of these circumstances is claimed to be in conditions of cold. It is also claimed that J.P.4 has a higher output of heat per pound weight of fuel carried. That is also claimed to be a very important technical advantage with regard to modern aircraft.

I confirm that the difference in price is really negligible at present. The noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, mentioned this point in his speech, but there is only a negligible difference. Only in certain places is it difficult to get one fuel or the other. In most aerodromes both fuels are available.


That is not quite the point. What these companies are afraid of is that there is not a worldwide availability in sufficient quantities—that is to say, if everyone were to use it. That, I gather, is their fear.


That could be so if everybody used it. However, if that should happen, no doubt it would be possible to make more of it. As the noble Lord has made that interruption I will go on to a point I was going to mention later. B.O.A.C., who are probably one of the largest users of such fuel, find no difficulty at all, I am informed, in obtaining it at all the major aerodromes. It is where airlines operate principally from the Service aerodromes that there may be difficulty. I confirm what the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, has said; that jet engines run perfectly well with equal operational safety on either of these two fuels, J.P.1 or J.P.4. I think it is an important point to emphasise to ordinary air travellers. In fact, there is no reason at all, in so far as operational safety is concerned, why these two fuels should not be mixed together. Sometimes they may have to be mixed, and it makes no difference to the safety of the operation of those engines, as indeed the noble Lord told us. It is the narrow view of the crash which the noble Lord has described that we are concerned with to-day—the crash where large quantities of fuel are spilled and yet passengers live. The question is, which fuel is going to give them the greater chance of escape before there is burning or before there is an explosion?

The first point which all airlines and air operators have to bear in mind in considering this problem is that all fuels used in aircraft engines are highly inflammable and represent a potential fire hazard. In normal operation the actual risk to the passengers and crew has been almost eliminated by careful attention to the design and construction of the aircraft that is where the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, and his Board are especially concerned, as he described. Piston-engined aircraft, which must use gasolene, still exist in very large numbers throughout the world.

I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, to give a lead. I do not think he will expect me exactly to go the full way that he would like me to do, but I should like him to note the words I am going to say next, because I believe that when they are considered they are as strong a lead as I can possibly give to your Lordships to-night, All British operators use J P.1, together wih the major world airlines. Only a few foreign airlines use J.P.4 for some of their operations with turbine aircraft. There is no difficulty to B.O.A.C. in obtaining the J.P.1 that I have described. If that is the opinion of our two great airlines with the support of my right honourable friend, that goes a fair way, I think your Lordships will agree, in giving the opinion of Her Majesty's Government with regard to this question which the noble Lord has brought up. However, I agree with the noble Lord that there is no appreciable difference in safety as between the two types of fuels while in actual flight; and the noble Lord described the reasons for that.

I have indicated, as the noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, also indicated, that there are various technical arguments for and against the use of J.P.1 and J.P.4. These arguments are derived from the known properties of the two fuels and the empirical evidence of known accident cases, where the use of J.P.1 has appeared to give the better chance of survival. The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, described some of those accidents most graphically.

It is clear that this is a subject of great technical complexity, and the noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, mentioned some of those problems about which there is still considerable controversy among aviation experts. This has been shown by the considerable space given to the matter in aviation magazines and in the Press in recent months in articles concerning the respective merits of the two fuels. With your Lordships' approval, I will place in the Library the fully collected cuttings that have appeared in the technical Press and other places with regard to these two fuels. The noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, and the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, mentioned how difficult it is to get hold of both sides of the argument, and I think probably this is the first time it will have been done, to have both sides in one sheaf. I much regret that it was not possible to have these in the Library before, but I am afraid that I removed the only copies available.


My Lords, may I intervene? I did not say that the difficulty was in getting hold of the argument, but in getting anybody to make up his mind and give a definite opinion.


I think I have given a pretty considered opinion about what B.O.A.C. and B.E.A. and other English operators consider. When the noble Lord sees these articles he will see that there are pros and cons; and I have mentioned some of the difficulties with regard to J.P.4.


Perhaps I may interrupt the noble Earl. I was not quite sure whether he had finished giving the lead he had promised. Have we now had the lead, in the sense of the Government's opinion on this matter?


The noble Lord has had the lead; I think I made it quite clear that the opinion of B.O.A.C. and B.E.A. and the other operators—backed by my right honourable friend; obviously it must be backed by my right honourable friend—was that they would not be carrying out the policy complained of. The noble Lord will hear a little more in a moment or two.

In view of the technical controversy that we have just been talking about, which has still to be resolved, we must be careful in making premature judgments on the evidence which is at the moment available, and some of that evidence will be seen in those cuttings. An empirical study of accident cases, however, does point to the probability that in certain cases where passengers have survived impact J.P.1. has afforded a better chance of escape, either because it has not ignited —that is, the fuel has not ignited—or because the spread of the fire has been slow; and that is exactly the point the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, so dramatically demonstrated. That is the second part, I think, of the lead showing the way my right honourable friend is thinking. In a moment I think the noble Lord will see that there will be another, too, in conjunction with the opinion of the noble Lord.

This tentative conclusion must be tempered by the fact that the number of these accident cases is too small to provide convincing statistical evidence in favour of J.P.1. And I certainly hope, my Lords, that we shall never have an accident to a plane using J.P.4. with such results as the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara and others of your Lordships envisage. That would be tragic. Many cases are known where piston engines using gasolene, which is probably more dangerous in these conditions than either J.P.4. or J.P.1., have crashed heavily and yet have not burst into flames. That is not an inexplicable point. It has happened many times, as your Lordships are aware, that an aeroplane using this gasolene has not burst into flames. But far be it from me to use that as a reason why the noble Lord's experiment should not be of vital interest regarding the two fuels, J.P.1 and J.P.4. Amid this welter of technical argument and counter-argument which has abounded in the present controversy, perhaps the only conclusion which the average air passenger can draw is that the J.P.1 fuel has, as the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, has dramatically demonstrated to us on television, a theoretical safety advantage over J.P.4 in the limited type of crash which the noble Lord considered to-day. It is significant that in a statement in the Aeroplane, a technical magazine, on January 6, a spokesman for one of the major airlines using J.P.4 also agreed with this conclusion, but in the following words: In the type of accident that results in fuel being spilt on the ground J.P.4 is more likely to ignite if there is a spark above it than kerosene, and this is all that Lord Brabazon is talking about. That is a point of view. The article then went on to say Unfortunately it is far from the whole picture. Then the writer advances the various technical counter-arguments, some of which the noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, has put forward.


My Lords, is not that the kind of argument which history records was used against the Plimsoll Line?


My Lords, I have not said whether I agree with this argument or not. I am saying only that there is a most technical argument taking place and that there are always two technicians with two different ideas. I should not like it to be thought that the case is simple or clear-cut, as possibly might be thought from the results of the noble Lord's dramatic experiments. It is much more complicated, and that is why I beg to put that piece of evidence on the other side before your Lordships.


My Lords, may I intervene for just one moment? I think the noble Earl was not doing the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, full justice just now in saying that the quotation he read out said that the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, was concerned solely with the likelihood of ignition. I do not think the noble Lord was concerned solely with the likelihood of ignition; he was also much concerned with the rate of spread of the fire if there was an ignition. His point was that if there is an ignition kerosene causes a much slower rate of spread of fire.


I thank the noble Lord for what he has said. I hope he appreciates that in what I read out it is not myself speaking; that is an expert opinion from the other side. It is exactly what the noble Lord is saying—that is the opinion of the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara. For that reason, I think the noble Lord will be pleased with what I have to say in a few moments.

With the high approach and take-off speeds of jet aircraft which the noble Lord mentioned, these types of accidents are likely to occur at take-off and landing with a heavy load of fuel. Due to the public interest and concern, largely due to the words and actions of the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, the Government have carefully considered the argument that in these limited circumstances—that is, in the circumstances of an accident such as the noble Lord described, and the circumstances which the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, mentioned just now—J.P.1 fuel may have a safety advantage over J.P.4.

The Government have also consulted the Air Registration Board, whose statutory duty it is to advise the Minister on airworthiness and safety matters, as indeed the Board's Chairman has just told us. The Council of the Board have recommended to my right honourable friend in the terms that the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, has already mentioned. However, the Board recognise that, in certain limited circumstances only, after an accident has occurred, J.P.1 may offer better prospects of escape. This is the considered advice of the Board. That, with the limited evidence at present available, has therefore led Her Majesty's Government to conclude that there is a prima facie case that in certain limited circumstances after an accident has occurred the use of J.P.1 fuel may offer the better prospect of escape to passengers who have survived the impact, because of its lower volatility and higher flash-point. That is exactly, in technical words, what the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, has just said.

I think there is a third lead which the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, will be pleased with—at least, I dare to hope so—and, above all, that the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, may be pleased with. It must be remembered, however, that considered statements by some of the airlines using J.P.4 have said that in certain conditions J.P.1 is less safe than J.P.4, and that, taking all factors into account, J.P.4 is the safer and the more reliable fuel. That goes against what the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, said, but it is derived from some of the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Merrivale.


My Lords, I do not think I dealt with that point at all. I do not recall dealing with the in-the-air comparison between J.P.I. and J.P.4 at all. I will look at Hansard, but that is not my recollection.


The noble Lord gave me the impression that he did not believe that there were any factors in favour of this J.P.4 fuel.


I said that there were no factors in favour of J.P.4 as compared with J.P.1 when it came to a crash on the ground; that was the point I was making. After all, this is the limit which the noble Lord has to some extent introduced into this debate. We are not discussing the relative factors in the air.


I am afraid that there are many factors. I am only trying to do my best to draw the attention of the noble Lord to what experts on the other side of the J.P.1 fence have to say with regard to this other fuel.


I am much obliged. The noble Earl has been most courteous. I just want to say that it is not my argument. I do not say that it is not an argument, but it is not mine. It was for this very reason that I asked for an inquiry. I think that is the only way to settle it.


My Lords, we fully conceded that of course there are factors in the air that had been put forward. The noble Lord mentioned that and I mentioned it. I wonder whether we can be told what the arguments are in favour of J.P.4 from a safety point of view in the air?


That would be a most technical thing to have to do. But one of the arguments in favour—I do not by any means say that it is an overwhelming one—is in regard to water in J.P.4. There is much less water, and therefore much less to freeze. Therefore there is less likelihood of a filter blocking. There is also the argument that there are little bits deposited inside the fuel tank in J.P.1, rather than in J.P.4. There is also static electricity, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Merrivale. I mention that only in deference to the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton. But I am quite certain that the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, was not convinced that there was anything in favour of J.P.4, and it was for that reason that I brought his name in, to do my best to show him that there are, in fact, technical opinions on the other side.


My Lords, the noble Earl would agree, I suppose, that the factors which he has mentioned do not prevent either B.O.A.C. or B.E.A. from using J.P.1?


It is the opinion of B.E.A. and B.O.A.C. and that of other operators. Far be it from me to say that that is the only opinion that exists. I do not think I can go further in regard to what other operators may do. I can only put forward an indication of the factors with regard to the two fuels. After that digression, in view of this prima facie case which I have mentioned in favour of J.P.1, and in order to verify the precise significance or size of this possible safety margin, which the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, has mentioned, in favour of J.P.1., the Minister of Aviation has decided that further technical studies will be necessary to establish the actual position. These studies are now being put in hand. I think they will go a long way to please the noble Lord. Lord Ogmore, and also the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, who mentioned an inquiry. I cannot say how long this will take, or how the results can be published; but no doubt the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, will not be slow in putting down a Question in due course with regard to that.


My Lords, this is a most important statement which the noble Earl is making, as he and we all realise. It is most important to all of us to know, first of all, that there is to be an inquiry—he can, if he likes, call it a study; it is the same thing—by competent people (as I am sure they will be); and secondly, that the results will be published. I think that is equally vital. If the noble Lord would go so far as to say that, it would be most comforting to us.


I will go so far as to say it is going to be a most detailed technical study, and my right honourable friend has himself personally instituted this study which is about to take place at this moment. With regard to publication, I would rather the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, asked a Question on that at a reasonable time in the future.

Her Majesty's Government also considered whether any immediate action is necessary, either nationally or internationally. As I have already said, no British operator is using J.P.4 except on the very rare occasions when J.P.1 is not available. Therefore, there is no need for my right honourable friend unnecessarily to use his regulatory powers with regard to the issue of a certificate of airworthiness for aircraft registered in this country. The Air Registration Board will continue to recommend for certification to the Minister aircraft fitted with turbine engines using either J.P.1 or J.P.4: and as I have indicated, and as the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, mentioned, that is perfectly safe during flying operations.

A further important consideration in reaching this decision was that refusal to certify British manufactured turbine engines for use with either fuel might adversely affect the export of aircraft and engines to countries where J.P.4 is in use. It had also to be borne in mind that on rare occasions on world routes aircraft may be forced to use J.P.4 because J.P.1 is not available. That point was covered by the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore.

With regard to the international situation, Her Majesty's Government have no powers, except those of persuasion, over the choice of fuels by foreign airlines. The Government have raised this issue informally at recent conferences of the International Civil Aviation Organisation which the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, mentioned, and tried to stimulate interest among representatives of other countries, but without finding any positive support. In the present climate of opinion among international aviation authorities and foreign airlines, it is clear that any attempt by this country to secure effective international action will depend principally on whether the detailed technical analysis which my eight honourable friend the Minister of Aviation is to carry out enables us to present to I.C.A.O., the international body, and to world air lines a more convincing case than can be presented at the moment. The Government will, however, pending the Outcome of these technical studies and whenever it is possible, do their best to explore international opinion on the possibilities of international action, on the lines I have indicated.

In finishing, I want to thank the noble Lord and those who have participated in this debate. I thank the noble Lord for bringing this vital subject, a subject of life and death for the future. before your Lordship? House. I assure the noble Lord that his efforts do not go in vain. As I have indicated, it is a subject at present uppermost in the mind of my right honourable friend.

6.24 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank very much noble Lords who have rallied round me in this particular debate, and especially the noble Lords, Lord Shackleton and Lord Ogmore. Lord Ogmore brought up a point which I must say slipped my mind: that of availability. which in this particular case is a very good one. But the noble Lord said I attacked the Press. I did not mean to do so in any way. I have never accused them of any unworthy motives in this matter. All I wanted to point out was that they were in great difficulties and consequently did not quite know what to do.

The noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, made a very interesting speech but not actually about the subject; because the subject is the very narrow one of spilled fuel in a ground crash, and we must not go outside that. I am very obliged to my noble friend Lord Bathurst. I must say I kept on thinking of what I should say were I in his shoes; and I could not have bettered what he said, because he slipped over the difficult ice in a most remarkable and accomplished way.

The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, asked me what were the points in favour of J.P.4. I could make my case, because I know the subject from both sides, but it is a question of the order of magnitude of the points. When we come to the experts they will say, "That point is in favour of this and this point is in favour of that". But what we poor passengers have to consider is: are we going to be burned when we arrive by a bad crash, or not? If paraffin is being used we have a chance of escape, but with J.P.4. there is "not a chance in hell", and no amount of inquiry or anything else will disabuse me of that conviction. I have pleasure in asking leave of the House to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at twenty-seven minutes past six o'clock.