HL Deb 27 October 1982 vol 435 cc481-3

2.42 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will state the ages of each of the Andover type aircraft operated by the Queen's Flight; and when it is intended to replace them.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Viscount Trenchard)

My Lords, the Andover aircraft of the Queen's Flight entered Royal Air Force service between September 1964 and March 1965. They are extremely safe aircraft, and have years of useful life left. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced in another place on 7th April 1981 (Hansard, col. 219) that the replacement of these aircraft had, with reluctance, been deferred for the time being.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, in fact, he has not answered the Question on the Order Paper, in which I asked him for the age of each of these individual aircraft? However, in the light of his general commentary on their vintage, is he aware that, although everyone would accept that the maintenance of the Royal Flight is superlatively done, these aircraft are of an age which must raise some doubts as to their safety? Is he also aware that aircraft of the same model—the HS748—have had one or two very alarming accidents in the last year or two?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, my noble friend asked me a similar question last year and I am afraid I must say to him straight away—perhaps in order to discourage him from asking the same supplementary questions—that I have nothing further to tell him beyond what I said in July 1981. On the particular point of the age of the aircraft, I am informed that two of the Andovers were manufactured in 1964 and one in 1965. On the safety record of the aircraft, bearing in mind all incidents that have taken place and the special standard of maintenance, together with the hours flown by these aircraft—which are considerably fewer than the hours flown by standard RAF Andovers—and their suitability for landing in small airfields, which is not very easily done by a number of modern aircraft, we are entirely satisfied that there are many years of useful and entirely safe life left in these aircraft.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, is the noble Viscount's answer that the aircraft have years of useful life ahead of them rather discouraging? Is it contemplated that these planes should be used to infinity, whatever may happen in between?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that question and perhaps adjuster of my answer. Certainly there was nothing in my previous Answer, nor that of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, to say that without question these aircraft will go on for an indefinite period. We shall keep the matter of replacement of these aircraft and of those in the communications squadron under review. Various modern aircraft made in this country are obviously candidates when the day comes when we believe that this becomes a real priority.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, is it not rather strange that Her Majesty the Queen, who, after all, is this country's greatest ambassador and unofficial salesman, should be travelling in aircraft 20 years old instead of advertising and proclaiming the best and the newest of British aircraft?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, as I have said in answer to these questions before, whenever Her Majesty flies abroad on any long-distance trip she travels in a VC.10; whenever she wants an HS125 for a particular visit, she has it. Taking account of the nature and frequency of the journeys that the Queen's Flight is called upon to make and the aerodromes at which it is called upon to land, together with the current equipment backed up in the way I have suggested, the particular aircraft in the Queen's Flight are not unsuitable for the task.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, the noble Viscount is aware—as he has just said—that Britain makes the most advanced aircraft in the world. But does he not also agree that it is much more difficult to convince the world of that while our Head of State is flying in these elderly aircraft? Can he give the House one company in this country that would send its chief executive around in such outdated communications aircraft—just one company? Finally, is the noble Viscount aware that the 146 starts on a very important sales tour in the Far East and Australia this week? Would it not give an enormous boost to that sales effort if the Government could say that the Queen is about to adopt this British aircraft?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his supplementary question. I value his contributions, with all his knowledge of the aircraft world, and I share his wishes for the support of the launch of the 146, which I believe is an excellent aircraft and which, as I have already said, is certainly a candidate when the day comes to consider aircraft for either the communications squadron or the Queen's Flight.

If I may say so, I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, listened to my previous answer to my noble friend. When Her Majesty goes abroad almost invariably she does not travel in an Andover. There are times when other members of the Royal Family go abroad, in particular where small airfields are involved—and I think it would be in order to say that some members of the Royal Family like piloting themselves and being able to land at small airfields—where the Andovers are taken abroad because they are suitable for the kind of tour that the Royal Family envisages making.

Lord Gridley

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that a few years ago I travelled on an aircraft of the Queen's Flight to visit the British Army of the Rhine and as we were approaching to land there it was found that we were straying over the eastern part of Germany, that the navigational equipment had gone wrong, and we had to return to base and get a fresh aircraft?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I was not aware of that. I am lucky enough to be able to use, whenever aircraft are not required, aircraft of the Queen's Flight and I have never had any such episode occur. I have travelled in the greatest comfort with the utmost speed and reached my destination—bearing in mind the kind of aerodrome one lands on—as quickly as I would in a modern aircraft.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, would not the reverse of what my noble friend Lord Beswick said be the case—that for Her Majesty to fly in old aircraft shows how long these aircraft last?

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, can my noble friend answer the question of the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, as to what companies, if any, send their chief executives in aircraft of this age? Can he also add the name of whatever other Head of State travels in aircraft of this vintage?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I did not answer that question for the specific reason that, when the Head of State travels abroad, she rarely, unless it is definitely required for the purpose concerned, travels in an Andover aircraft. She in fact travels, as my noble friend believes his chief executives always travel, in a suitable aircraft for the job. I should think that there are chief executives of companies in this country who do travel in everything down to their own small aircraft which they can pilot and land where they wish to go.

Lord Leatherland

My Lords, would the noble Minister agree that it is unfair to criticise something merely because of its age?—otherwise this very ancient House would be open to severe criticism.