Air Estimates, 1940.

Part of Orders of the Day — Supply. – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th March 1940.

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Photo of Mr Harold Balfour Mr Harold Balfour , Isle of Thanet 12:00 am, 7th March 1940

The hon. Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Garro Jones) has, if I may be allowed to say so, not lost any of his political sense by his translation to the Front Bench. He was right in his anticipation of my first words. We welcome this Amendment, and we are grateful for the opportunity of being able to debate the medical work connected with the Royal Air Force. I suppose that to win the war in the shortest time, in the most positive manner, and with the least loss, is, broadly speaking, the objective of our Fighting Forces. To do that we must achieve superiority in every sphere and in every direction of the war effort against a powerful enemy, not excepting the sphere of physical fitness. I submit to the House that in this sphere of physical fitness so far as the Royal Air Force is concerned we have nothing to concede to the enemy. We are glad to accept in principle the substance of this Amendment, because the medical standards of the Royal Air Force are high.

We have heard to-night various valuable suggestions, all of which will be examined, but I would like to tell the House that I do not believe there is any progressive step in medicine or in surgery during recent years that is not applied to the Royal Air Force medical service. We have endeavoured to keep pace with the advance of medical science since the war of 1914–18. The task of the medical service is twofold. In the first place, it is concerned with the selection of new entrants, both for flying and ground duties, and, secondly, it is concerned with the maintenance of a state of physical and mental fitness of all the personnel required to perform the many duties which the Air Force has to perform in various parts of the world both on the ground and in the air. This work must, of course, cover medicine, surgery, diet, and accommodation. All these things have a direct or indirect bearing on health.

Since the war the Royal Air Force medical service has expanded greatly, and we have been able to get within its ranks many distinguished members of the medical and surgical professions. There has been an increase also in the dental and nursing branches of the Service. I would like to answer at this point a question put by the hon. and gallant Member for Blackburn (Captain Elliston). He asked why we did not employ women doctors. He is out of date in his information. If he were up to date, he would know that we are employing a considerable number of women doctors to look after the W.R.A.F., and that we are also employing women as sick quarter, attendants and in dental surgeries. In regard to all the flying personnel, most careful examination and selection take place, based on the knowledge gained by long research and investigation. Anyone who wishes to become a member of a flying crew, either as pilot or air gunner, has to pass severe tests which, I guarantee, will bring to light any defects.

The House may wish to know the answer to this question: Is the standard for flying personnel lower owing to the war than it was in peace time? I can give an assurance that the standard is not lower medically than it was in peace time. The problems connected with personnel are fascinating and complex. We rely very largely upon a committee which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State established some time ago, called the Flying Personnel Research Committee, of which Professor Sir Edward Mellanby is chairman. That committee deals with research into the medical aspects of all matters conducing to safety and efficiency in flying. Two lines of research are particularly necessary if we are to maintain the efficiency of flying personnel. There is physiological research on the working of the human body, and there is psychological research as to how the mind is likely to react when faced with certain problems.

Parallel with the development of new aircraft there is the problem of making the human frame able to cope with the difficulties arising from the piloting of those aircraft. I think the House will be interested to know that the human frame can stand any speed provided it is in the horizontal plane. It is only when you deflect the human frame from the horizontal plane and try to turn or climb or dive that you come up against some medical problems. This Flying Personnel Research Committee has to look into problems of altitude and speed and other factors connected with modern aircraft. When you realise that the pilot of a modern fighter aircraft has to look after no fewer than 42 instruments, you can realise how the human mind is being strained, especially when the machine may be travelling between 300 and 400 miles an hour. It is the task of various branches of the Air Ministry to produce aircraft to give the maximum performance, and it is the task of medical research to give the crews the best possible aid to get the best out of their aircraft.