HL Deb 19 June 1972 vol 332 cc34-8

4.15 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my honourable friend the Minister for Aerospace about the tragic accident yesterday to a B.E.A. Trident aircraft. The Statement is as follows:

"B.E.A. Trident I, G-ARPI (Papa India), on flight BE 548 from Heathrow to Brussels, crashed yesterday just South of the Staines By-pass a few minutes after takeoff at 1609; 109 passengers and nine crew all lost their lives as a result of this disaster. I am sure the House will wish to join me in expressing deepest sympathy with the friends and relatives of those who were killed in the first major accident that has befallen a Trident aircraft in commercial service. The Chairman of the British Airways Board, Mr. David Nicolson, has also asked me to tell the House of the deep sorrow of himself, the Chairman of B.E.A., Mr. Henry Marking, and all their colleagues for those bereaved in this terrible accident.

"The aircraft took off normally from Heathrow and cleared initially to 1,500 ft. After take-off the pilot received and acknowledged clearance to 6,000 ft., which was the last message received from him.

"The flight data recorder has been recovered from the wreckage undamaged and a preliminary readout shows that the undercarriage and flaps were raised normally; that the autopilot was engaged at about 400 ft. in accordance with normal procedure; and that the aircraft reached a height of about 1,750 ft. at a speed of 160 knots. At this stage the wing leading edge droop mechanism started to retract and the aircraft entered the stalling regime. Almost immediately afterwards, the autopilot became disconnected and a high rate of descent began to build up while the aircraft assumed a very marked nose-up attitude. Its angle of descent during the last 500 ft. was greater than 60 degrees, and it struck the ground in an almost level attitude.

"The calculated stalling speed of this aircraft in this configuration and weight was about 178 knots. The normal speed range for raising the leading edge wing droop is 225 to 250 knots. The effect of removing the droop is consistent with the flight path of the aircraft as determined from the flight recorder and confirmed by eyewitnesses.

"The investigation continues to try to establish the reason for the droop being removed at such a low speed and altitude. A comprehensive team of experts from the Accidents Investigation Branch and the operator commenced work on the site very shortly after the accident, and they will probe every aspect of this disaster, including the circumstances in which a fire broke out during the attempted rescue operations.

"In view of the gravity of this disaster and of public concern, the Secretary of State has decided that there should be a public inquiry. The Lord Chancellor is being invited to appoint a Commissioner and Assessors for this purpose and a report will be published. In the intervening period, any factual information of importance to the safety of Trident aircraft which emerges from the preliminary investigations will be passed immediately to the appropriate safety authorities."


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord for repeating this Statement, and I would take this opportunity to join with him in expressing sympathy for the relatives of those who have suffered loss. I appreciate the great strain which a tragedy of this kind can impose on staff at all levels in the operating company, and I therefore express my sympathy to the members of B.E.A. in the loss of their fine safety record.

I have not the slightest intention of speculating about the causes of the accident. I can only say that I am glad that the Government have decided to appoint a public inquiry.

My Lords, there is one other thing I would say. Because of a failure to reach agreement on a pay dispute, the pilots have been compelled to say that they will withdraw their labour at the end of this week and that the Corporation will come to a standstill. I have spoken this morning both to the representatives of BALPA and to the representatives of the Corporation and I know their feelings. I hope very much, and I believe, that an effort will be made to see if this stoppage of the Corporation can be avoided in the circumstances. I should have thought that something like a moratorium could be declared. If any further encouragement by Her Majesty's Government can be given in the efforts to reach a postponement of the dispute, at any rate it would be in accordance with the sense of mourning which we all feel.


My Lords, on behalf of the noble Lords on the Liberal Benches I should like to add our sympathy with the relatives of the passengers and crew who have been killed in this tragic disaster. I am quite sure that we all share the feelings expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, about the strain that it must impose on the Corporation's staff and how extremely sorry we are and how much we sympathise with them. I am glad that there is to be a public inquiry, because if we do not get to the bottom of a disaster of this type it leaves a very uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty about what the cause was. I hope very much that the public inquiry to be set up will be able to find a reasonable solution to the problem of why this tragedy occurred.


My Lords, I most certainly welcome the helpful comments of the noble Lords, Lord Beswick and Lord Amulree. In response to the specific remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, I may say that I took careful note of his constructive suggestion about the postponement of the proposed industrial action which was forecast for the end of this week and I will most certainly see that it is brought to the immediate attention of my right honourable friends.


My Lords, arising out of the Minister's reply, may I ask him one question: can he give an assurance that the public inquiry will be set up in the very near future? As the noble Lord on the Liberal Benches said, the sooner the inquiry comes, the better for restoring confidence in this very fine aircraft and in this very fine Corporation, which I know, having served for many years on the Board and having had a special responsibility for safety during that time, is very conscious indeed of the need for protection of the passengers it carries and of the crew which operate the aircraft. The maintenance of aircraft from the point of view of safety is admirable. May I finally support what the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, said, and hope that this unfortunate industrial difference between the aircrews and the Corporation may be reconciled, permanently I trust, but temporarily in any event.


My Lords, I have taken most careful note of what my noble friend says. I know his experience in these matters. In the circumstances, certainly the public inquiry will be set up with all possible speed. One must, however, have regard to the large amount of very detailed preliminary investigation which is necessary to establish the facts on which such an inquiry can proceed. The important thing is that meanwhile the technical inquiries, as they proceed, will be most carefully sifted, recognising that the main purpose of such an investigation is to find out the circumstances and causes with a view to avoiding similar accidents in the future. Of course, the investigation is not concerned, except in an entirely inci- dental way, with an ascertainment of blame.


My Lords, it is quite clear that the House and the country is shocked by this tragic accident. May I bring to the notice of my noble friend the fact that in the last year B.E.A.'s record for punctuality has surpassed that of any other European airline. I would support the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, as he and I are Vice-Presidents of the British Airline Pilots' Association, in all he has said. The Corporation, both employers and the staff should try to get together at this very moment. Without in any way prejudging what the court of inquiry is to do, I would ask my noble friend whether they could be asked to look at the Noise Abatement Regulation, whereby aircraft throttle back very soon after take-off, thus reducing their power. I am not prejudging in any way at all, but with the advancement of aircraft and all-up weight it is important that this matter should be reviewed at frequent intervals.


My Lords, may I deal with the point dealt with by my noble friend, in case there should be anxiety about it? I understand, from information available so far, that the initial noise abatement cut-back would have taken place well before the point at which the flight recorder indicates that the droop reaction started, and in those circumstances it is most unlikely that there could be any connection between the two. It must also be remembered that the pilot has the overriding authority ultimately to disregard the noise abatement procedure in the interests of safety. As regards my noble friend's tribute to the record of British European Airways, it is most appropriate that we should acknowledge it at this time and record our own sympathy with them.