HC Deb 25 April 1956 vol 551 cc153-5W
Mr. Stokes

asked the Secretary of State for Air whether he will make a further statement about the loss of the six Hunter aircraft on 8th February.

Mr. Birch

The facts revealed by the court of inquiry are as follows:

The aircraft concerned were Hunters Mk. 1 of the Day Fighter Leader Squadron, Central Fighter Establishment, West Raynham. The accidents occurred when they were returning from an air exercise on 8th February, 1956.

At 0830 hours weather conditions were considered to be unfit for the exercise but the meteorological forecast indicated that an improvement was likely. A special weather reconnaissance flight was made by a pilot from West Raynham in a Hunter aircraft at 0930 hours. This flight confirmed that the weather had improved sufficiently for the sortie to be undertaken. It was therefore decided that the exercise should take place.

The first aircraft took off at 1050 hours. The Ground Control Approach bad weather landing aid at West Raynham was unserviceable but those at Marham and Waterbeach were serviceable; these two stations were the diversion airfields given to the flight leader.

Bad weather procedure was in force from the commencement of the exercise and pilots had been briefed before the flight to return overhead West Raynham at 20,000 ft. by 1115 hours. This timing took into account the endurance of the aircraft. Sufficient time was allowed for controlled descents to be completed by 1130 at the diversion airfields.

By 1100 hours the weather at West Raynham had deteriorated, and it was therefore decided by West Raynham that, at the end of the exercise, the aircraft should be diverted to Marham, where visual landings were then practicable. The aircraft returned overhead 20,000 ft. West Raynham in accordance with their flight instructions just after 1110 hours. When they started to descend from this altitude under the control of West Raynham the weather was, in fact, still suitable for visual circuits and landings at Marham.

Visibility deteriorated very suddenly during the few critical minutes when the descent and handover of ground control from West Raynham to Marham were in progress. This rapid change in the weather made Ground Control Approach landings imperative, but insufficient time was available to make the necessary change in procedure. The pilots were already approaching Marham prepared for, and committed to, visual landings, and were consequently so closely spaced that it was impossible to effect individual identification and to establish effective Ground Control Approach control. At this stage there was no time or fuel left to bring the aircraft under Ground Control Approach control in order to carry out the landings.

At the time of the accidents the weather conditions at Marham were cloud base 600 feet with visibility 800 to 1,000 yards in slight rain and drizzle with fog, and deteriorating. As far as it is possible to tell, the sudden deterioration was due to the presence of an extensive sheet of stratus cloud which spread into Norfolk unexpectedly from the sea during the late morning.

The evidence taken at the Court of Inquiry indicates that the accidents were primarily caused by the sudden and un expected deterioration in the weather. The question then arises whether, notwithstanding the deterioration that had taken place at West Raynham, the decision taken to divert the aircraft to Marham, spaced for visual landings, was correct. This diversion was ordered on the assumption that visual landings would be possible.

The Court of Inquiry came to the conclusion that this assumption constituted an error of judgment on the part of the Control staff at West Raynham who failed to appreciate that, because of the relative positions of the two airfields, it was probable that any deterioration in the weather at West Raynham would affect Marham shortly afterwards, thus necessitating Ground Control Approach landings there.

After a review of all the facts, the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Fighter Command, has decided that certain disciplinary action is justified against officers who were concerned with the Control of Flying at West Raynham at the time. One officer has been reproved and removed from his present appointment and three other officers have been reproved. I am in agreement with the action taken by the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief.

I am satisfied that, having regard to the meteorological forecast, confirmed by a special weather reconnaissance flight, it was a proper and reasonable decision for the exercise to take place. I am also satisfied that the pilots were competent to undertake the flights; that the aircraft were serviceable and had adequate fuel for the exercise, and that the endurance of the aircraft had no direct bearing on the accidents—this factor having been provided for in the flight arrangements. No modifications have been made to the Hunter Mk.1 (or to any other mark) which have reduced the total amount of fuel carried.

Forward to