HC Deb 15 January 1980 vol 976 cc686A-D W
Mr. Bill Walker

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he is now in a position to make a statement on the Harrier air crash at Wisbech on 21 September; and whether he will undertake in future to publish the reports of such inquiries.

Mr. Pattie

The investigation into the accident involving two RAF Harrier aircraft on 21 September 1979 has been completed. The inquest into the cause of death of the three people who tragically lost their lives when one of the aircraft crashed on houses in Wisbech was concluded yesterday. The jury returned verdicts of accidental death.

The two aircraft in question came from No. 1 Squadron at RAF Wittering; one was piloted by the squadron commander a very experienced pilot, and the other by a flight lieutenant from the squadron, who was fully trained and experienced for the planned sortie. They were flying a medium level air combat training sortie which had been properly authorised to take place in the airspace west and south of Wisbech. The first simulated engagement passed without event and in good weather conditions. During the second engagement, which was initiated about 8 miles south of Wisbech, both pilots were employing thrust vectoring in forward flight (VIFF).

As is well known, the Harrier is unique in having the facility to rotate the engine exhaust nozzles. It is this that gives it its ability to take off and land vertically by deflecting the exhaust thrust from the full aft position to the vertical, while the element of reverse thrust that can be obtained by rotating the nozzles beyond the vertical is normally used to assist braking after a conventional landing. However, rotation of these nozzles to various degrees can also markedly increase aircraft manoeuvrability in flight; and, in particular, selection of the braking position can so rapidly decelerate the aircraft as to force a pursuing fighter to overtake. This gains a tactical advantage and also allows the Harrier's own guns to be brought to bear. Because in war Harriers would be likely to be opposed by enemy fighters, their pilots must be trained in all aspects of evasion and, if evasion fails, they must be capable of manoeuvring to turn the tables on the enemy. Thrust vectoring for these purposes is, therefore, a standard part of a Harrier pilot's squadron training.

In what became the final part of their second engagement on 21 September, the leading aircraft, flown by the squadron commander, climbed to about 8,000 ft from a dive and employed thrust vectoring to reduce his speed. At this point his aircraft apparently yawed left and then right. The pilot of the second aircraft, who had followed the first aircraft in the preceding dive assumed that this aircraft was turning to the left and so continued on his original course. The first aircraft then yawed to the right and a collision occurred. At this point both aircraft were some 2 miles south of the centre of Wisbech. Both were severely damaged. The squadron commander saw his complete starboard wingtip and outrigger torn off and was obliged to eject almost immediately: his aircraft fell almost vertifically, crashing on open land about 2 miles south of Wisbech. The other aircraft suffered severe damage to the port wing; its pilot managed to retain control for a few seconds, but then it went into an uncontrollable dive and he too had to eject. By this time his aircraft had arrived over Wisbech and it crashed into the town destroyed three houses and, tragically, killing three civilians. Neither pilot was however seriously hurt.

After careful and thorough investigation including examination of the wreckage and consideration of all available evidence, with statements by both pilots and civilian witnesses, the accident investigation has concluded that there was no mechanical defect in either aircraft prior to the collison and that a likely cause of the accident may have been an error by the pilot of the second aircraft in misjudging the speed at which he was closing with the first. The air officer who would be responsible for convening any court martial in respect of this incident has taken legal advice and has decided that the admissible evidence does not support any charge against any person.

I should like to assure the House that this type of training is not intrinsically more dangerous than any other form of RAF training; this was the first accident in such circumstances in the United Kingdom for 10 years. It is conducted over the less densely inhabited areas but it is not permitted below 5,000 ft, nor over towns or heavily populated areas. As an interim precaution following this accident new rules have been introduced requiring Harrier pilots to be above 8,000 ft when engaging in this training, specifying a minimum speed of 150 knots when using VIFF and increasing minimum separation distances between aircraft. I have considered whether regulations should be introduced to require air combat training to be undertaken further away from towns, but from altitudes of 5,000 stand above out of control aircraft can travel a considerable distance before crashing; my professional advisers have concluded that placing a restriction of say 5, or even 10, miles around every built up area would be impractical and of no value and there is no uninhabited area in the United Kingdom large enough to guarantee that when an aircraft most regrettably does crash, it will always do so on open land. Nevertheless in the majority of cases it will and the risks to the public from this cause are really very small. The Wisbech accident was a tragic exception and I should like to record my own personal sympathy, and that of the Chief of Air Staff, to those who suffered loss as a consequence. I should also like to pay tribute to the excellent work of the emergency services on that day: the fire service, the police, and all the hospital services.

Although I was very impressed at the speed with which the families concerned received immediate help with interim cash payments and offers were made to the local authority of RAF accommodation for those made homeless, I must confess to being concerned by complaints that the MOD was being slow to pay compensation. In fact every possible step was taken on the very day of the tragedy to inform likely claimants of their rights, and the procedures that should be followed. Advance payments were made in cases of immediate need. However, I accept that the process of negotiating settlements of the formal claims once they were submitted took longer than I would have liked and I have taken steps that should ensure that in any future such situation there will be no grounds for any complaint of undue delay. In future, potential claimants will be made fully aware of their rights and will be treated swiftly with sympathetic consideration.

I, like my predecessor, am very conscious of the interest being taken by the House and the general public in the causes of military flying accidents. On the occasion of a major accident it has usually been judged necessary to make a full statement in this House. The question has frequently arisen as to the desirability of publishing the proceedings of boards of inquiry. Boards of inquiry are not courts of law. Witnesses are encouraged to be full and frank in their evidence and the board includes experts well able to evaluate both expert and inexpert oral and written evidence including technical findings. Boards of inquiry cannot themselves initiate any disciplinary action and publication of their proceedings could both inhibit witnesses in their evidence and prejudice subsequent disciplinary action, if appropriate. The scope for more routine releases of information on accidents has, however, been under consideration for some time now and I have decided that in future we will publish a full summary of the circumstances and causes of each military aircraft accident involving loss of, or serious damage to, the aircraft. This summary will contain as much information as possible, broadly to the same detail as this statement, and will apply equally to accidents to Royal Navy and Army aircraft.

This is an entirely new procedure which is a considerable step forward in the general release of information by Government and will come into force today. I should emphasise, however, that for the reasons I have just described, the actual proceedings of Service boards of inquiry are, and must remain, privileged.

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