HL Deb 29 November 1962 vol 244 cc1320-9

4.3 p.m.


My Lords, I hope this will be a convenient moment for me to make a statement about a supersonic airliner, similar to that which has just been made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of Aviation.

My right honourable friend the Minister of Aviation to-day signed an agreement with the French Ambassador for the development and production of a supersonic airliner. This will be a joint project undertaken by Britain and France together. The aircraft will be a slender wing airliner built mainly of light alloy. It will have a cruising speed of about Mach 2.2—that is, about 1,400 miles per hour. At this speed it would cut the present Atlantic crossing from 7½ hours to about 3 hours, and the flying time from London to Sydney from 27 hours to 13 hours.

The design of the aircraft has been agreed between the French company Sud Aviation and the British Aircraft Corporation. These two firms will carry out the work on the airframe together. They will make two versions of the aircraft, one long-range and the other medium-range. Both versions will be powered by four Olympus 593 turbo-jet engines. This engine is to be developed jointly by the British firm of Bristol Siddeley Engines and the French Sociêtê Nationale.

The first flight of the aircraft is expected to be in 1966; and it should be ready for airline service by 1970. It is reckoned that on stages of about 1,500 miles or more its operating costs will be in line with the best subsonic jet airliners now in service. France and Britain will share the costs, the work, and the proceeds of sales on the basis of equal responsibility for the project as a whole. About two-thirds of the development work on the engine and some 40 per cent. of that on the airframe will be done in Britain. One prototype will be assembled in each country.

The project will be managed by joint industrial management boards set up by the British and French firms concerned. Their work will be supervised by a joint Standing Committee of officials responsible to the French and British Governments. The British share of the costs of development and of jigging and tooling for production is estimated at between £75 million and £85 million. This will be spread over the next eight years or so. It will mainly be met by Her Majesty's Government, but the firms will be making an appropriate contribution.

British Overseas Airways Corporation and Air France will be associated with the project from the beginning. The project is the result of several years of intensive research in industry and Government establishments on both sides of the Channel, Considerable preliminary work has already been carried out in France and Britain upon it, and the project is much further advanced than any other known design for a supersonic airliner. The aircraft thus has every chance, if we press on with it now, of securing a substantial part of the world market for supersonic airliners. This is a chance that will not return. The development of the aircraft will ensure that the British and French aviation industries remain in the forefront of the world's long-range aircraft producers.

It will also have far-reaching consequences—not limited to aviation—in the technologies of metals, non-metallic materials, fluids, electrics, and electronics. Even more significant may be the lessons which France and Britain will learn from working together on every aspect of a joint project of this size. Our two countries were pioneers in the early days of aircraft production. Then they were also rivals. But now the time has come to join forces if we are to hold a leading position on the air routes of the world. That, my Lords, is the statement.

4.7 p.m.


My Lords, on behalf of the Opposition I should like to welcome the statement of the noble Lord, Lord Chesham. I am well aware that there may still be doubters, and, as was discussed in our recent debate moved by the noble Lord, Lord Braba-zon of Tara, in a more perfect world there are other matters to which we would give a higher priority in the expenditure of money of this size. But there is no doubt at all that this project is of tremendous importance to this country in terms of exports, and particularly in the technological possibilities, in getting us in the forefront and helping to keep at home some of those scientists and engineers whom the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, was sometimes worried about our losing to other countries. That is not the least of the arguments in favour of it.

I must say that I like the terms of the Government statement. I think we should congratulate those who are responsible for achieving this agreement, and in particular I have in mind Sir George Edwards, who is the managing director of the firm, and General Puget. It is encouraging that relations appear to be good, and I hope they will continue to be good.

There are one or two questions I should like to ask the noble Lord arising out of his statement. Am I to understand that this aircraft will not be competitive with subsonic aircraft over stages of under 1,500 miles; and does this mean that there will have to be a development of more feeder aircraft? Am I to understand from (the statement that these aircraft are to be used on the Far East route; and does that mean than Zurich and places which are important from the point of view of generating traffic will be cut out? It may be that this will be necessary, but I understand that the French do not wholly share our view. They take a more optimistic view of the economic prospects of this aircraft over shorter stages. I should also like to ask how much the firms manufacturing this aircraft are going to contribute? Obviously there has been some pretty heavy expenditure already. This is not a new project; it has been going on for a number of years. I think Parliament would like to feel that it is not paid for purely by the taxpayer.

There is another point. In our discussion the other day it was suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Waleran, that the Americans were likely to go ahead with a Mach 3 aircraft, and when we pointed out that this was a different type of aircraft he murmured, "Variable geometry". I understand that with a slender delta-wing machine any prospect of converting a Mach 2 aircraft into a Mach 3, quite apart from a hundred other technical problems, is not possible; and it might be useful—it is rather an important point to explain—to get across some of the complicated technical factors that have led to the decision to concentrate on Mach 2 instead of Mach 3. There are many other reasons. I think it is also worth noting that Rolls-Royce are not the only engine manufacturers in this country. This is a Bristol product and it is satisfactory that we have these two great aircraft engine manufacturers.

May I also ask the noble Lord whether a name has been chosen for the aircraft? I understand that it was suggested that it should be called the "Concorde" which of course, would apply in either language. I wonder whether agreement has been reached. I had heard that the Minister of Aviation had some personal views on it. Certainly, it is a minor point, but it is a joint Anglo-French effort and I should like to know what it is going to be called. Finally, I would ask the noble Lord to say a word again on noise, because there will be anxiety; and it is worth pointing out that this aircraft—so I am informed—will cause less disturbance to those who live near London Airport.

4.12 p.m.


My Lords, I was one of the noble Lords who on the last occasion expressed some doubts on this project. Those who were in the House at the time will recollect that my doubts were entirely confined to the commercial and financial aspects of the transaction: whether it would attract more customers; whether, with all that we have to do to make our industry efficient, this was the best way by spending £75 million or £85 million. Having said that, and I understand that it attracted a certain amount of attention, I should like to make it quite clear that I have never had any criticism at all of this project from the technical side, and if the project is to be undertaken I am certain that it could not be in better hands than the extraordinarily able team who have been working on it and who will, I hope, carry it to a successful conclusion. As we are going forward—and I am very glad we are going forward in partnership—and having been something of a "Doubting Thomas" should like now to wish the project every possible success.


My Lords, I said a few words the other day against this project. Now that it has been decided to go ahead with it, I welcome it in this way: that it is an exciting technical adventure, and when a thing is that, I am, of course, immensely interested in it. In fact, our Air Registration Board are already looking at the machine to see whether it is airworthy right from the beginning. I must say I look upon it rather like a project to make a machine, for prestige reasons, for going to the moon, because there is absolutely no use for this machine at all. You will not get one more man into the air by making this machine, and I should like to ask the Minister whether there was a demand from any operator in the world for this machine, and, when it is produced, who is going to operate it.

My noble friend Lord Shackleton said that he did not think that the extra noise at aerodromes would worry anybody. I have never made a great point about that; it is the sonic boom which is the trouble with this machine, and nobody knows what that sonic boom is going to be. People talk glibly of their ability to reduce the pressure 1 lb. per square foot, which is reasonable; and then other scientists say that because there are curious currents in the air and meteorological conditions, bang it goes up to 10 lb. per square foot—Which will break all your windows. This is a tremendous gamble. Frankly, I like gambling but I do not think you are on to a certainty or something which is of any good at all in this world.


My Lords, I should like to welcome the Government statement. I did not say anything on the previous occasion but I would say now that I think it is an encouraging state of affairs when we see such large-scale co-operation between two major industries, the French and the British, and especially between such important and excellent firms as Sud Aviation and the British Aircraft Corporation. But, having said that, I would take this opportunity to ask my noble friend one question, as he mentioned, I believe, the British Overseas Airways Corporation and Air Fance. Is it true, as was said this morning over the French radio, that the industry in this country—the British Aircraft Corporation—would manufacture the long-range version of the aircraft and the French aircraft industry—Sud Aviation—would manufacture the medium-range and shorter-range aircraft?


My Lords, I should like to congratulate all those concerned upon this venture and wish it luck. And may I ask whether agreement tos been reached, and, if so, what agreement, as to the fabrication of these machines in metres and millimetres or in inches and yards?

4.17 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful on the whole for the words of welcome that have been accorded to my statement on this project. I thought that the words that came from the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, were very generous and I also welcome what the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, said, even if his welcome was somewhat more reserved than the welcomes of those other of your Lordships who had something to say.

May I briefly take the questions? The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, reiterated the points he made at slightly greater length, although by no means at undue length, in the recent past when we had our debate on the subject. I am sure that neither he nor your Lordships would wish me to take up all the points made in that debate all over again at the length at which I found it necessary to tackle them. But if I may get on with the questions, I would point out that the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, asked whether this aircraft was going to be competitive with subsonic airliners on stages of less than 1,500 miles. I have been rather careful, and it is necessary to try to be as careful and realistic about these things in prospect as it is possible to be, and I cannot say that it will be. I said on the last occasion that there was going to be room for the development of both subsonic aircraft for the shorter haul and the supersonic for the longer haul.

If the French optimism to which he referred proves to be justified, I am sure that that would be a very good thing; but on grounds of safety and caution I should not like to try to reassure your Lordships that that might well be so; and I do not think I can add to anything I said before on the competition aspect. As regards the contribution of the firms, I cannot quote any figure as yet, because that is a matter in which the negotiations have not yet been completed with the firms concerned, and therefore that figure is not yet a definite, agreed one. He went on then to talk of the possibility——


My Lords, while the noble Lord is answering that question, could he clarify what was not, I think, quite clear. A great amount of work has been done over the last three years: has that been entirely paid for by the two Governments or has it been contributed in part by the firms?


My Lords, I understand that the noble Earl is referring to the figure I gave last time, of something like £3 million already spent on each side of the Channel. I understand that the firms concerned have contributed a part of that, but I cannot at the moment be specific as to exactly how much. The noble Lord then turned to the Mach 3 aircraft and wondered whether that might not be a better bet. It was not assessed to be. It seemed that, with the technical problems involved to which he referred, which are considerably more difficult, it would be considerably more expensive. In terms of getting to New York or Sydney, the amount of time it would knock off is not significantly very much greater, as I pointed out to your Lordships before. The thing that is important is to out the time from 7½ hours to 3 hours, and not to cut the three hours to 2½ hours or something like that.

The name I am unable to confirm to your Lordships at the present moment. It has not, I understand, been absolutely finally decided, because it is thought important that the name selected should be truly representative and equally acceptable to both sides as being indicative of the joint Anglo-French nature of the project.

I am glad the noble Lord raised the question of noise again, as of course did the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara. I do not think I can do better than repeat what I said on the last occasion, that on the aerodrome itself at the side of the runway it is thought that the noise on take-off will be greater than existing jets; other than that, while climbing I understand that the noise level is not anticipated to be greater, and the flyover noise can be controlled, including the very important matter of sonic boom, which can be kept, by operating techniques and not flying supersonically below certain levels, below the point at which it would become unacceptable. I said this before, because it is of very great importance. If these problems cannot be solved, the project would become a ridiculous one. We simply cannot, in order to achieve speed, have aircraft that fly about breaking everybody's windows and making life intolerable. If there were not reasonable indication that these problems could be overcome, together with certain others that we discussed before, this project could not sensibly go forward. It is with a reasonable prospect that the noise level will not be unacceptable that we want to go on with the project.

The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, asked what was the demand for this aircraft and who is going to operate it. I would say to him that if the case I have put forward, both in the statement and, in greater detail, on an earlier occasion, is anything like correct, and the thinking is that it is correct, it will be used by the majority of the major airlines of the world. He says, what is the demand—who has asked for it? I do not think anybody has asked for it, because they know perfectly well that without some project such as this—which is a very large one and can be developed only by Government aid: it is beyond the capacity of private industry—it is no good their asking for it, because they would not get it. I think, for all the variety of technological and other reasons which have been welcomed in the House this afternoon, one has to take a view into the future, to produce something which there is reasonable evidence to believe will be required as a method of transport.

The noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, asked a question about one nation producing one version and the other the other, and I believe that is not necessarily the case at all. It may as a matter of management possibly turn out to be like that, but I understand that that is not the planned progress of production. The noble Lord, Lord Fraser of Lonsdale, asked me something, and I cannot read the note that I wrote.


Has agreement been reached about metres and yards?


I said there would be joint boards to manage this thing, and I have no doubt we can safely leave it to them in their deliberations to translate each other's measurements to each other in a comprehensive way. I know what the noble Lord is getting at, and I am not going to be drawn on it. I think I have covered the questions. As I say, I appreciate, by and large, the welcome your Lordships have given to this announcement.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister two questions? First of all, what plans the French and British Governments are making, in view of this development, to speed up the time it takes from the airport to the centre of Paris or London as the case may be. It took me 35 minutes a few weeks ago to get from Paris to London by air and one hour from London Airport to the air terminal. Is it not absurd to go on increasing the fantastic speeds of these aircraft and when you get to the ground very often to have this virtual seizing up of any sort of movement? The second question is what is being done with the Eurocontrol Convention, the Act in respect of which we passed last year in this House. That deals, as the Minister knows, with air safety and air control in the upper air and this is very important in view of this development. Are the countries who have not yet signed the Convention about to do so?.


My Lords, I do not know quite how far I am justified in considering the whole matter of civil aviation; I do not think your Lordships would wish this subject to be extended over the whole field. I would very briefly answer the noble Lord, but I thought he would have known by now that a motorway is being built with a spur to Heathrow in order to speed up that access. For the French Government I cannot answer, and on Eurocontrol may I refer him to the Answer I gave to the House quite recently on that subject, of which I will send him a copy?


Very unsatisfactory.


The noble Lord always regards any Answer I give which is not the one he wants as unsatisfactory.


My Lords, I must draw your Lordships' attention to a very ingenious and ingenuous remark by the Minister, in which he said that to avoid sonic boom the aircraft would, over large parts of the country, fly beneath the speed of sound. That is what we are doing now. It is only when we go above the speed of sound that we get the sonic booms, and that is the purpose for which we are making this machine.