I beg to move (under Standing Order No. 8), "That this House do now adjourn."
I do so on a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, the failure of the Government to take immediate steps to ensure the safety of passengers carried by Transport Command. Just before the House rose for the Easter Recess we were all shocked to hear the Prime Minister announce the lamentable death of a new Minister, the hon. and gallant Member for Hythe (Commander Brahner), who had hardly assumed office when, in the course of his duties, he was killed in an air crash. This accident was one of many that have shocked the House. There was also the case of the hon. and gallant Member for Chippenham (Captain Cazalet) who was killed before Transport Command was set up. This House has since lost three Members and the country has, in addition, lost the services of some very fine officers and other persons travelling for the Foreign Office and other Departments on important national business.
There was the crash which lost to the House the services of the hon. and gallant Member for North Bristol (Captain Bernays) and the hon. Member for Antrim (Mr. Dermot Campbell). Then we had the crash to which I have referred, involving the death of the hon. and gallant Member for Hythe. On the way to the Yalta Conference, there was a serious crash in which many persons connected with the Foreign Office were killed. Three weeks ago there was a crash in connection with a flight from the Azores—I am not quite sure of the date. I understand that between 16 and 19 persons were killed. So far as I am aware, there has been no reference to this accident in the English Press at all. Then there is the crash to which hon. Members will have seen a reference in the "Daily Express" stop press edition this morning and in which I gather that two persons were killed and something like 14 were injured. All those planes were under the control of Transport Command. It is interesting to note that neither on the tape nor in the evening Press is there any reference to this last accident. Whether it is because no important personage has been killed I do not know. It may he that crashes are so common with ordinary aircraft under Transport Command that no news value attaches to them, unless some very important personages are involved.
Let me come back to the crash in which Commander Brabner lost his life. I should like to refer to one remark made by the Prime Minister. He said:
I cannot think anything short of the most intense care and effort have been taken, but such journeys cannot be wholly free from an element of danger."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th March, 1945; Vol. 409, c. 1379.]
I propose, with the permission of the House, to put my finger, as I think I can, on four or five causes which are removable and should be removed, even by orders to-night from the Secretary of State for Air, if he and the House of Commons think there is anything in what I am saying.
I am not quite sure of the date, but I think it was on 20th March, or about three weeks ago, that there was an air liner, a Liberator, landed, in the ordinary run of the schedule, at the Azores. It was piloted by a Czech. He was due to take off at 6 o'clock on the following morning—a Tuesday. The pilot received instructions from the briefing officer, whose name is ascertainable though I do not know that there is any point in mentioning it here, that he had to take off the night before. I do not mean the night of his arrival but before the Tuesday morning, and in the dark. The wind was in a direction which necessitated using an East-to-West runway, the length of which is 6,200 feet. Within three miles of the end of that runway is a small series of hills 800 feet high. He was heard to say that he would rather take off in the daylight. In fact, I am afraid he was almost ordered to take off at night, the terms of the order being: "Unless you do take off to-night, you will have to give your reasons in writing." I understand that the briefing officer at the Azores was the normal representative of Transport Command, and no doubt he was himself carrying out orders.
Well, the pilot took off according to orders. As I say, he was a Czech pilot, and I gather that he had not a very good knowledge of the English language. The control officer in the control tower saw that he was heading direct for those hills and told him to turn to the right. My informant was either there at the time or there very soon afterwards and is a man who has had between 20 and 25 years' flying experience. He tells me that neither he nor any person at that height, with that flying experience and in those conditions, would have taken off with that Liberator on that night, with that load, and in that direction, and that, in fact, senior officers would have refused to do so. As my right hon. Friend no doubt knows, there have been certain refusals by pilots of Transport Command to carry out instructions. Many of them, American civilians, have resigned, for reasons which I do not think I shall go into at the present time. Whether the pilot understood English well enough or not is, of course, not known. What did happen was that he obviously did not turn to the right. Possibly he could not turn to the right. If anything, he was found slightly on the left of his course. I gather that it is quite likely that he might easily have been forced, by drift or something of that kind, to the left, without any action on his part. [HON. MEMBERS "What happened?"] He crashed straight into those hills, and between 16 and 19 people were killed.
I will answer any question afterwards. An inquiry wag held on the island. My information is that the briefing officer was called to give evidence, and that when he gave this evidence, "I told him that he had to take off this night," either that was recorded and expunged from the record, or it was refused and not recorded. That is a serious allegation, by the way. I shall put down a Question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Air to-morrow, asking for details of this matter, and I hope that he will be able to give a satisfactory reply. If the statement is true that that evidence was refused, on grounds I understand, that "after all, this is an inquiry into the cause of the accident, and what you told somebody to do before is not relevant," that does not strike one as being a very fitting inquiry.
I have come to the conclusion that the Air Ministry is the wrong body to inquire into these accidents. In the old days, as the Minister knows, if there had been an accident in civil flying by an ordinary private pilot, an Imperial Airways crash or any other civil accident, there would have been a coroner's inquest, which might or might not have come to the right conclusion, and an inquiry by the accident officer of the Air Ministry. If the accident had affected an Imperial Airways machine, that organisation would also have had its own inquiry. We are now in a position in which every Air Ministry accident is inquired into by the Air Ministry. I hope that, by what I am going to say later, the House will be sufficiently shocked to demand tomorrow—I suppose it cannot be done to-night—that a Select Committee be set up to inquire into what has actually happened, so far as Transport Command is concerned.
I pass to the second heading of my speech. The pilot was accompanied by a co-pilot on this occasion. There is a great tendency on the part of Transport Command to discourage the carrying of co-pilots. At sea, it is incredible that any ship of any size should go to sea without having one or two people who can run the ship while the captain is sleeping, but in Transport Command there is a definite reluctance, as I shall show later on, to employ co-pilots. On this occasion, there was one. He was an Englishman who had done 200 hours' flying, which is not very much. He had never handled a multi-engine machine, or landed or taken off a Liberator. Obviously, he would be able to understand the directions from the control officer, but from what I have been told, it seems very likely that he would not have been able to see sufficiently quickly by reading the instruments, whether the instructions from the control tower were being carried out. I repeat that there is a tremendous tendency on the part of Transport Command to do away with the co-pilot system.
I am making no general statement whatever, but there is a certain proportion of men among the pilots of Transport Command who are ex-bomber pilots. When they had been on bombing raids they did not have a co-pilot and they felt that they were able to get away quite safely from flying over Germany, through flak and so on. There is a tendency for that type of pilot not to feel the need for a co-pilot. A friend of mine flew back exactly a
No, there are hundreds of able women who can fly perfectly well. If the hon. Lady happens to be a blonde, she need not be so excited. I would like to show exactly how the blonde happened to get into this position. My friend, who is an officer of high standing, turned to another man in the plane and said, "This is a pretty shocking position." The other man was a wing-commander coming back from India. There was only one pilot on board, and he was a boy of about 22 years of age. He was flying for 19 hours out of every 24. I can prove this fact, but I am hopeful that a Select Committee will be set up. The pilot, as a human being, naturally wanted to go to the lavatory. In this case, the automatic pilot had unfortunately failed. The pilot put his head in the cabin and asked: "Are there any qualified pilots here to take over while I go into the toilet?"
Now these things are serious and it is part of my case that there is a tremendous reluctance on the part of Transport Command to employ co-pilots. I understand—and my right hon. Friend can check it up if he wishes—that one particular pilot had flown 88 hours in II days in a round trip to India. I understand that it is a rule of the Air Ministry that if a man has done 125 hours in 30 days, he has to have a medical examination. Of course if he has done 124 hours in 29 days, he does not. As I say, I think there is a certain desire on the part of the Air Ministry to see that men such as these are medically examined, but I would argue that for a boy of about 22, flying 19 hours out of 24 and in sole control of an aircraft, to be forced to say to his passengers that his automatic pilot has gone wrong and that he has to ask for assistance because he wants to go somewhere, indicates a serious position.
I am not going to make any general attack on any body of men but I think it is true to say, and I am not afraid to say it in this House, that a large number of men who may have been first-class and most courageous bomber pilots are not fitted, in outlook, to be transport pilots in control of transport planes. I have heard this myself and I am sure hon. Members also have, that for some time pilots have been taken off operations and transferred to Transport Command. Transport Command has done other things besides carrying passengers. It tows gliders, drops paratroops and goods, and so on, but so far as carrying passengers is concerned, you can hear bomber pilots saying to one who has been transferred, "What are you doing now? Are you just a chauffeur to some of those civilians?" It is quite natural and typical for people of that kind, particularly for those who have been through great danger and have fought over Germany, to have a joke at the expense of a man transferred to Transport Command. Also, some of us have heard, and I think it is quite true, that these bomber pilots have what might seem to be a reasonable objection to carrying live cargo, as opposed to bombs. A large number of persons connected with the Air Force agree that, mentally, pilots such as these have to readjust themselves to realise that their job is to carry people carefully, comfortably and safely. I think, to some extent, that has been lacking. There is a natural ebullience in men who have experience in bombing Germany and so on, who feel they are able "to take it," who do not want to bother about a co-pilot, and who believe they can take off in any kind of weather.
This leads me to the point where, according to a letter in "The Times" the right hon. Gentleman was led to say that the pilots really had the final word as to whether they took off or not. The gentleman who wrote the letter to "The Times" thought that was quite wrong, although I differ from him. He thought it wrong that the pilot should be the captain of his ship in matters of this kind. He thought the pilot should be directed by some person on the ground, because he apparently had been an aircraft manufacturer at some time, and he only allowed his pilots to take off, if he himself was satisfied with the conditions. He added that he had had no accidents fatal or otherwise. I think the House would take this view of the matter, as also would experienced people, that the captain must be captain of his ship; that he must decide whether, having regard to all the known factors, the weather factors and so on, he should or should not take off. I understand it is very unlikely that you could ever force a pilot to take off if he did not want to, but if there is any real or good reason why he should not have taken off, then I say there should be no objection to Transport Command or B.O.A.C. asking him exactly why he did so. But it must not be done like a military order, That is the fundamental thing. The gentleman who wrote to "The Times" seemed to think that there was a tendency on the part of the pilot to take unnecessary risks, because he might be thought to be frightened. That might be so, but if so, then that kind of person was not fitted by experience to be a transport pilot. He might employ two years very usefully in being a second pilot, with experienced and older pilots.
The next thing I want to refer to is the condition of the aircraft. I am told that some of the aircraft of Transport Command is, in the words of some people, "trash." I am told also that there is a lack of equipment and replacements. Another thing, and I am not casting any aspersions at all, is that, naturally, it takes some time for British personnel to understand American transport and the aircraft engine, and the maintenance is done, I am told, rather more by rule of thumb than by an intelligent understanding of the machine. I have heard this phrase used and I must put it on record, because I am trying to give the House as clear a picture as I can of the information I have received. It is that owing to the lack of suitable aircraft, pilots have to "plug what we have." That is not a very happy phrase for pilots to use, or even for pilots to get into their minds.
The whole thing is wrong, so long as there is a military hierarchy in charge. I am perfectly convinced that if the Air Council took advice from people who, perhaps, have had more experience with transport pilots than they have, they would come to the conclusion that there ought to be a change of method in this matter. Of course so long as transport is under the R.A.F. and the Air Ministry, then we are bound in the very nature of things to have a general military set-up. I feel this very seriously. I have tried out these ideas on a very diversified crowd of people in one walk of life or another. I can assure hon. Members that I have said to them: "Have you anything else you wish to give me in order to help me to say everything concerning these things?" They have told me "No, you have covered all the points; you have got everything."
I think it is quite wrong to command a pilot to take off against his will, particularly in the circumstances that obtained on that dark night in the Azores to which I have referred. I think it quite wrong that the pilot should not have with him an experienced second pilot and I think also that care must be taken to choose the pilots, who, despite their great bravery over enemy territory and their ability to fly bombers, should be made to understand that this is quite a different job. I go on to say that the conversion course is not satisfactory. Some other kind of test should be given. I find that the courses are rather theoretical. A friend of mine took off from Canada or Newfoundland not long ago. When he got to about 800 feet the engine began to drop back, and although he had his hand on the wheel, he was forced to ask one member of the crew what had happened. Here I must interpose that there is a tendency not to keep the same crews together, a tendency which I think is wrong. As I say, he asked a member of the crew what had happened and he was told that when they got to a certain height he had one job to do and that was concerned with throttling back the engine. The pilot told the man to go back and fix his eyes on the instruments, and read them every hour, and that would keep him out of mischief. I repeat, the pilots' conversion courses are not satisfactory. Something should be done to make sure that there is some kind of psychological test of the men who are being trained to take over transport planes, particularly to find out whether they are fitted, mentally and otherwise, to be in charge of passengers.
Finally I would say—and this is my main point—that it is quite wrong for the Air Ministry to inquire into its own accidents. I hope the House remembers the great number of accidents which have happened recently. I have had some appalling figures which I have not quoted and some of accidents which have never got into the Press, for instance that in which 19 lives were lost. There was one in the paper this morning but it will not be mentioned any more. I think that the time has come for the House to say that it is concerned about what is happening in Transport Command. The House should set up a Committee to inquire into what is happening. That is the only way in which the House can satisfy itself and, at the same time, allay the very great anxiety on the part of the public generally, on the part of civil servants who may be flying to San Francisco in the course of the next few days, and on the part of many hon. Members who themselves may have to go. I appeal for this inquiry because it needs to be on a very much larger scale than the ordinary departmental inquiry. I hope that after to-night, if the Minister and the House are convinced that these things can be put right, the Air Minister will order a change, and that the position in the future may be infinitely better than it has been in the past.
Mr. Moelwyn HuÃÂ£hes:
I have pleasure in associating myself with the Motion moved by the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles) and I hope that the House will accede to his request for a Select Committee to inquire into the doings of Transport Command. Without entering into the specific details of all the matters which the hon. Member has brought to the attention of the House, I would beg leave to summarise the incidents which have taken place in recent weeks and commend them to the House as sufficient grounds upon which some action should be taken by this House.
There was first the incident in which two hon. Members of this House lost their lives. In the second place, there was the incident in which a number of important civil servants, on their way to a most important conference, all lost their lives. In the third place, there was the accident in the Azores, to which my hon. Friend drew attention, in which a machine carrying a large number of people had an accident, and some of them were killed and most of them were injured. In the fourth place, there was the accident in which a Member of His Majesty's Government and a number of important officials met their death; and finally the accident to which my hon. Friend referred, which was reported very meagrely in the Press to-day.
These are five accidents that have happened within recent weeks. We listen to the reports on the wireless, we read the reports in the Press, and we hear from time to time that there has been an attack upon Germany by Bomber Command with so many hundred machines, so many escorts. The same thing is reported the next day. We also hear recounted now what happened in the years gone by, in regard to the efforts of Fighter Command, but it is a most astonishing thing that nowhere in the reports of all these accidents, whether the reports were on the wireless or in the Press, is it ever stated that these were accidents of Transport Command. Not a single reference is ever made to Transport Command in respect of the accidents which have happened within the last few weeks. I ask myself, and I hope the House will ask itself, Why is it that those who are responsible for the conduct of these affairs do not, when accidents take place, show themselves prepared to take the responsibility for them? Why is it that the Air Ministry, or the Command itself, does not show that it is Transport Command which is, in fact, responsible for the machines in which these accidents have taken place?
The explanation is, I submit to the House, a reasonable one. Transport Command has to fulfil a number of different functions which really ought never to be combined within the same Command. In the first place, Transport Command, as a section of the Air Ministry, is quite properly concerned with the transport of effective fighting forces. That, I suggest, is its major and primary duty. It tows the gliders, it provides the aeroplanes from which parachutists are dropped. That is an essential operational function necessarily linked with the Air Ministry and with the operation of our Air Forces. In the second place, Transport Command is charged with the duty of carrying goods and materials for operational purposes or for semi-operational purposes. It has performed, within recent weeks, the heavy task of supplying, at long range, our forward troops with munitions and materials, and Transport Command and the Air Ministry are entitled to the highest praise for it. If it had not been—with the American Forces as well as our own—for the effective organisation of Transport Command in supplying our forward troops, the speed of our advance in Germany would not have been anything like what it has been. That is a perfectly proper function for Transport Command. In the third place, Transport Command is responsible for moving individuals connected with the operations of war, not only those who hold military rank, but those engaged in a civilian capacity in the war effort. It has the duty of carrying them to the appropriate spheres where their duties may be carried out.
Fourthly, Transport Command takes upon itself the duty of moving individuals who are not directly concerned with operational affairs. This is where I think Transport Command is exceeding its proper functions. It is in this sphere that Transport Command has failed to carry out its proper duties, and laid itself open to the strictures which my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton has placed before the House. It is carrying out a function which ought not to be carried out by an operational machine. It is engaged in an operation which ought to be entirely divorced from the military organisation. The Air Ministry has shown in this case, as it has shown in every case, its desire to hang on to as wide an air jurisdiction as it properly can. [An HON. MEMBER: "State control."] It showed it in respect to civil aviation in general. The fight to get civil aviation out of the hands of the Air Ministry had to be fought on the Floor of this House time after time. Again, it was against the will of the right hon. Gentleman and against the will of the Air Ministry that a Ministry of Civil Aviation was ever set up. It was only because this House, in Debate after Debate, urged that civil aviation should be separated from the military machine that a separate organisation for civil aviation was set up.
Here we come across the same attitude, the same approach. The cases which have been cited to the House should have been under civilian control but have, in fact, been retained under military or air domination. We ask that this House should set up a Select Committee to inquire into the reasons for these accidents, to inquire why control over the movements of individuals, which ought to be under civilian domination, is still retained under military domination. Because we ask for that we plead with the House that a Select Committee should be set up.
I rise to support the plea that a Select Committee be set up on this question. The hon. Member who has moved the Adjournment said he did not want to mention figures. I wish to do so, because I have them in front of me, and they are appalling. It is quite right to say that Transport Command is operating over areas where the war is in progress, but the major part of the operations of the Command take place across the Atlantic, in the Middle East, in Australia and elsewhere, I think the Minister will probably be able to agree that not 5 per cent. of the operations of Transport Commend actually take place over areas where fighting is in progress. If we take passenger-miles as a basis of calculation, and take as datum line the record of American private-enterprise run airlines, on the basis of passenger-miles, we find in the period from 1938 to 1943, that for one corpse turned out by the American lines, Transport Command manages to turn up 80 corpses. I want hon. Members to realise what that figure means. This means that Transport Commend is at present, on the basis of its passenger-miles, killing a passenger for less mileage than the mileage covered by an aeroplane every time it flies once round the world. A big transport plane, used continuously, would fly round the world probably in a week. These figures mean that Transport Command kills one passenger every time one of its aeroplanes flies round the world, whereas American lines under similar operation of once around the world a week would operate for a year and a half before they killed a passenger. These figures are dreadful and give a true picture of the high relative number of accidents in Transport Command, according to the manner in which it is run to-day—one death per 21,000 passenger-miles.
Why does this happen? Has the Minister some explanation? There may be some, and perhaps he will tell the House why we should have this enormous number of casualties. Let us just stop to think. In America 1,680,000 passengers are flown for one fatality. According to the American passenger-mile standard an American transport plane can go round the world once a week for a year and a half before it turns out a fatal casualty, against the turning out by Transport Command of a fatal casualty once a week. An accident was reported this morning which took place in Canada. There were 18 persons on board, II of whom were passengers, and it is reported that four were killed and 14 gravely injured. We were reminded of the same question just before the Recess, when we were informed of the death of the hon. and gallant Member for Hythe (Commander Brabner). In the case of which I am speaking it was reported that an oil leak took place, and that the plane, a Liberator, wirelessed to home base what was happening. That gave probably a great deal of time before the plane finally dived into the sea. Had that plane been a flying boat it is possible that it could have ridden on the waves for hours, even days, depending on the weather. I wish to ask, Have we abandoned completely the use of flying boats on these long-distance flights across the Atlantic and Imperial Ocean Routes? I make a strong plea for the Minister to go again into the question of using flying boats for this special work, I know it is stated that speed is gained by using land planes, but safety is just, if not more, as important a factor as speed. No better flying boats have even been built than the Empire flying boats built in my constituency by Messrs. Short Bros. Short Bros. were pioneer aircraft builders in this country. They constructed the first machines ever built in this country for the Wright Bros. They were also the pioneers of flying boats in this country.
What is happening about passenger planes? Are we ordering them now? Vast factories are being allowed to stand by and close when we could turn out these useful flying boats. Are we building proper aerodromes for Transport Command? America has built two aerodromes at which both land machines and flying boats can be accommodated—the La Guardia Airfield and Edelwild Airport. We are just struggling along with Heath Row, where no provision is made for accommodation for flying boats. At Heath Row the question of fog has to be considered, because planes about to land there will have to fly over London. What does this high rate of accidents in Transport Command show? We are given a forerunner of the result of the proposed White Paper, with its triangular chosen instrument. We can see just where monopoly is carrying us. Safety is being thrown overboard. This shows how necessary it is to open the routes of civil aviation to every one who is willing to operate according to rules and without subsidy so that it will be Great Britain competing against the rest of the world, not only the chosen men of the chosen instrument. The safeguard of a licensing authority is all that is needed. We can then, but then alone, hope to reach the safety of the American lines. I wish to support the setting up of a secret Committee of Inquiry on the operation of Transport Command.
I propose to tell the House something which I think will be of interest. I have never spoken before about this, for reasons which will be obvious, but I think the time has come to say what was my personal experience, and why I am grateful to the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles) for bringing this matter before the House. Some time ago I was selected as a member of a Parliamentary delegation, consisting of six Members of the House of Commons and two Members of another place, to go to Canada, the United States and Bermuda. The tour lasted six or seven weeks. I had been acting as a kind of secretary to the delegation, and after the other members had returned by Clipper I was left alone in Montreal, and arrangements were made for me to fly home on a four-engined Liberator. I got to the airfield at about 10 o'clock in the morning, and I was then, for the first time, given a parachute and verbal instructions on how to operate it, in the event of anything happening to the plane. I could not see the sense of it, because we had been flying over considerable tracts of land without any parachutes, and it was only on the last flight home, when a parachute seemed to me useless, as we should be flying over the Atlantic, that I was given a parachute and instructions to count 10 and then pull it open—" and," said the attendant, "if it does not open you can send in a complaint."
We got on to the Liberator at something after 10 o'clock in the morning. After having stayed inside for three-quarters of an hour, we were asked to go out again, because a pipe was leaking, and had to kill time for half an hour. After half an hour we were told to get some lunch, because it would probably be early afternoon before we could get away. At some time in the afternoon we set off, intending to fly to Gander, in Newfoundland, and then to make the big flight to Prestwick in Scotland. Before we had got very far the landing wheels came down, and would not go up again. The pilot decided to come down on an airfield called Dartmouth, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was found that there was no equipment there by which the defect could be repaired, and we had to stay overnight. About noon on Sunday, the defect having been attended to in a way, we started again, and this time we flew to Gander airfield in Newfoundland, where there were said to be certain instruments by which the landing wheels could be repaired. The House will forgive my lack of technical knowledge—I can only tell in a plain way of my experience. At Gander the pilot asked us to get up into the nose of the plane, and to go down on our hands and knees, to make as much weight there as possible, because, as he explained to me afterwards, there would otherwise be a danger that the tail of the plane would land first, and we should break in two. We landed all right and had a meal while the Liberator was loaded up with enough fuel to make the journey to Prestwick.
Then we started away. After we had gone about 400 miles, which, according to my calculation, meant that we had covered 1,200 to 1,300 miles of the journey between Montreal and Scotland, the landing wheels came down again, and would not go up. A good deal of swearing went on between the pilot, the second pilot, the engineer, the radio man, and the navigator. The pilot, whose responsibility it was, decided that, with the resistance created by the landing wheels, he would not have enough petrol to get to Scotland; so he turned back. After having been 1,200 miles on my first flight across the Atlantic, I had to go back. The weather broke, and we had to go 21,000 feet up for five hours. At last we got back to Montreal, in a terrific thunderstorm, and an S.O.S. was sent out. I had the pleasure, which I never want to experience again, of seeing the fire engines and ambulances coming out and lining up, as we looked down in a thunderstorm. The astonishing thing is that, thanks to the pilot, who told us again to lie down in the front, we managed to make a safe landing, and in half an hour I was back in the hotel at Montreal. This was at midnight.
A few hours later they rang me up to say that a car would call for me, to take me back to the airfield, and that they were off again at 10 o'clock in the morning. I found, to my surprise, that it was the same plane. I had by that time almost given up hope that I would ever achieve the ambition of my life, of flying the Atlantic. The pilot seemed to be quite cheerful. Off we went, and we made a landing this time at a place called Sydney. The object of that, as was explained to me, was that instead of having two stops and then going to Prestwick, we were stopping at Sydney and loading with oil. Then, about 50 miles out to sea, on what proved to be the last hop home, the landing wheels came down again. Fortunately, this time they responded to certain treatment, and went up and remained up. The weather was perfect, and we made a perfect landing at Prestwick. There an official came to me, and said: "Is this the aeroplane that has been lost?" I said, "I do not know, but I have just arrived on it." I had not intended to take part in this Debate, but I felt that the House would like to hear in plain words about the experience I had, as a member of a Parliamentary delegation, and about the haphazard organisation. Similar things occurred when we flew to the other places. I think that, taking this into account, in conjunction with what the hon. Member from Nuneaton has said, a case has certainly been made out for a full investigation. I am no authority on aeroplanes, but I have told, in plain language, my experience as an ordinary Back Bench Member of Parliament, and how I managed to fly the Atlantic one and a half times.
Sometimes it is the lightest and most enjoyable speeches which constitute the gravest indictment of an Administration. It may well be that the story we have heard from the hon. Member for North Tottenham (Mr. R. C. Morrison) will carry more conviction with some Members than anything that has been said about the disasters by some Members who spoke.before him. At any rate, we have all enjoyed his speech, because he has returned to this House, which has not been the case with all our colleagues who have gone overseas. This is the third time in eight weeks that this matter has been raised in Debate on the Floor of the House, and on each occasion it has been on account of a fatal accident in Transport Command. My right hon. Friend will forgive me if I say that on the first occasion when it was raised he thought that a panegyric of the Royal Air Force would be a suitable substitute for an answer to the Debate. The second occasion will be memorable to all of us, for that was the last occasion when the hon. and gallant Member for Hythe (Commander Brabner) addressed the House; and it was the irony of the situation that on that occasion he was seeking to reassure us as to the adequacy and efficiency of the arrangements made by Transport Command. In these circumstances, and in view of the very great difficulty which we all have in obtaining any reliable facts, I think that the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles) has made out a case for some kind of inquiry.
I turn, first of all, to the question of the equipment of these transport planes. On 15th February, the Secretary of State for Air did vouchsafe this information to the House:
It is necessary during war-time that priority should go to the other Commands, whose impact on the enemy is more direct."—
[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th February, 1945; Vol. 408, C. 520.]
The Under-Secretary of State on 6th March confirmed what had been the position in the past by saying:
Although it was formed two years ago"—
that is Transport Command—
it has unquestionably not had the same priority as the operational commands."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th March, 1945; Vol. 408, c. 1987.]
When we consider that these are large transport planes carrying large crews and very important personages, it does indeed seem strange that it should not until now have enjoyed a priority in obtaining equipment. It is at any rate arguable that Sir Trafford Leigh Mallory's impact upon the enemy was as great as that of any airman in the Royal Air Force. On a previous occasion, on the strength of letters which I have received, I referred to the aircraft which were used for transport purposes in S.E.A.C., but I did not obtain any answer, and we do not know whether the Air Ministry consider that those planes are reasonably safe for this purpose.
No one in any of these Debates has called in question the quality of the air crews, but some doubt has been expressed with regard to the special training which is required for this special kind of flying and whether the kind of training which is given to operational pilots when they are transferred to Transport Command is suitable to enable them to discharge their new duties as efficiently as their old ones. On the last occasion the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Tree) did say he felt it would have been greatly to the advantage of Transport Command if B.O.A.C. had been incorporated with it and had therefore made available the experience gained in transport flying. After all, in transport flying, safety is the primary consideration, which it obviously is not in the operational Commands.
I would like to follow what was said by the hon. Member for Nuneaton concerning the authority of the pilot. It is difficult for a pilot who is carrying important personages to refuse to take off if in his opinion the weather conditions are unsuitable or if the aircraft is not airworthy. A case was reported to me of an air officer who had an appointment in S.E.A.C. with another highly placed officer, and the aircraft arrived late in Cairo owing to the breakdown of the radio apparatus on three occasions between this country and Cairo. The very important personage who was being carried was anxious not to be late in arriving to keep his appointment, and he wished to take on an extra pilot in Cairo and to fly at night as well as by day. On that occasion the flight lieutenant refused to do anything of the kind which he regarded as more than the aircraft could stand. The right hon. Gentleman might say that that is an example of a pilot who was able to stand up to pressure brought to bear upon him by a senior officer, but we do not know how many pilots have had their judgment overruled and have not been able to come back and tell the story. The same pilot said that on some occasions his aircraft would have carried an excessive weight if he had not checked the matter and insisted on there being a reduction.
Now I come to the question of the training of ground crews and of maintenance. In the last Debate on this subject, the Under-Secretary of State said that the maintenance all through the Air Force was very excellent and that in the case of Transport Command maintenance was on a different basis; it was what he called planned maintenance. But he did not continue, and those who are not expert in these matters are not in a position to say whether this planned maintenance is as satisfactory as the maintenance provided in the operational Commands. He said:
We are putting new blood into this thing"—that is Transport Command—" and it is now getting a much higher priority than it ever had before, both technical and human."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th March, 1945; Vol. 408, c. 1987.]
We find some kind of admission that in the past these points which have been said to be unsatisfactory were unsatisfactory. I would like to ask whether anything is now being done to ensure that the maintenance on airfields overseas is as satisfactory for transport planes as it is for operational planes. The same sort of information suggests that many of the meteorological stations are unsatisfactory and therefore the weather reports are inadequate. On i6th February last, when my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg) and I raised the question of the accident in
which two or our colleagues, Captain Bernays and Mr. Campbell, were killed, it was stated that at the place where the aircraft took off the weather conditions were excellent but the aircraft flew into bad weather, and it would appear in that case that there had been some short-corning in the matter of the weather reports which might have influenced the pilot to turn back before he got into the bad weather conditions which resulted in disaster.
Finally, I come to another matter which is perhaps not so important in itself but which may have a considerable effect upon the efficiency of the air crews. It is said that at a number of these stations overseas adequate arrangements are not made for the accommodation of air crews, and that after the important personages have gone to their hotels the crews are left for as long as an hour on the airfield before a lorry arrives to take them to their humbler dwelling place. In the case of one pilot, on his return from a flight from the Crimea he was obliged to draw a blanket for himself and to find a bed. It is not a matter of great importance but it does add to the discomfort of the men who fly for long hours. I believe everything is done quite properly to prevent pilots from discussing with members of the general public the conditions under which they are expected to do their work. We have now had a melancholy record of accidents. It is of the utmost importance for the future as well as for the present that British transport planes should obtain in a high reputation for safety and reliability. I hope that the Secretary of State for Air, on this third occasion that the matter has been, raised in the House of Commons, will be prepared to go further than he has done in the past and will assure us in the first place that he is conducting a closer inquiry into Transport Command in order to ensure that it shall be provided with the best and safest equipment and aids to safe flying, and also that he will meet the request of the hon. Member for Nuneaton for a Select Committee of Inquiry.
I desire to speak only on the subject of maintenance, about which my hon. Friend the Member for The High Peak (Mr. Molson) has just spoken. It is a subject upon which I have some personal knowledge from my experience in this war. But before coming to that, I would like to say it appears from the speeches which have been made that accidents, generally speaking, can be divided into two categories. We have accidents which are associated with errors of judgment, or with judgment being overruled, or defective meteorological information. Then we have the second class of accident which is associated with engine failures and defects, and we know less about those than we do about the first category, because they nearly always lead to the total destruction or disappearance of the aircraft. I would like some information as to the proportion between those two classes of accidents.
It is only with regard to the accidents arising from defects that I would like to say a few words because it has a bearing on maintenance. My hon. Friend stated that when the Under-Secretary last spoke he referred to planned maintenance, and my hon. Friend said he did not know what it meant. I can tell him. During the years I was at Bomber Command as a technical officer, I had something to do with the work of drawing up plans for planned maintenance, which consists of drawing up elaborate schedules to decide which type of overhaul should take place at certain intervals. The most depressing thing about that was that I knew perfectly well that the elaborate schedules I was assisting in drawing up would not be carried out. There was an alarming shortage of technical personnel in the Royal Air Force. As far as I know, since I left two years ago the position has not been alleviated in any respect. In addition to drawing up these schedules, it was also part of my duty to visit Bomber Command aerodromes and inspect the work for myself. The same complaint reached me everywhere I went. One would be shown a beautiful form with plenty of signatures on it, but, in point of fact, the work was either skimped or inadequately done, because there were not sufficient airmen in the technical trades to carry out the work. I do not suppose Transport Command is any better than Bomber Command was at that time so far as maintenance and inspection are concerned. I take it that Transport Command is suffering from the same shortage of man-power and that consequently there is the same skimping in inspections.
While planned maintenance is all right on paper, it is useless if it cannot be carried out. On the other hand, I might say that the position with B.O.A.C. certainly seems to be a good deal better. I think they have improved in a good many respects since the early days. B.O.A.C. sets itself a very high standard of maintenance just as the Royal Air Force does, but the fundamental difference between the two seems to be that B.O.A.C. is somehow or other able to carry it out, whereas the Royal Air Force, through shortage principally of fitters and riggers, is unable to maintain the very high standard which it sets for itself. Therefore, I think this is a point to which sufficient attention has not been paid. I think we should ensure that Transport Command does not attempt to carry out more flights than those for which it can do the maintenance.
The hon. and learned Member for Carmarthen (Mr. M. Hughes) made a great deal of heavy weather about the different jobs for which Transport Command was responsible. I see nothing wrong in that. There is no reason why one Command should not be capable of carrying out different functions even if some of them are operational and some of them are not, provided it has adequate and sufficiently well trained personnel. Much complaint was made on a previous occasion when we discussed this matter because it was said that certain accidents—and I believe the case of the accident to the aircraft flying to the Crimea was quoted—occurred because the crews did not know the routes. I would point out that to fly an aeroplane is not the same thing as to drive a train; there are no roads, gradients and that sort of thing. It is, of course, important that you know the points of call and the terminal points, but as long as you have a crew which is thoroughly well versed and trained in aviation, there is no danger, apart perhaps from unexpected mountains and other obstacles; and if there is efficient equipment, there is no reason why the crew should not be able to fly a course of which they have not had very much previous experience. I understand that in the case of the accident in the flight to the Crimea Conference, the cause was partly a defect in the radio and partly a defect on the part of the navigator. That accident, therefore, covers both the categories I have mentioned, that of defective equipment on the one hand, and that of defective judgment on the other. As I am confining myself to the first class of accident, all I would say is that in any inquiry which is set up, the most important factor to which attention should be drawn is the shortage of manpower for maintenance.
Let, me, in the first place, associate myself with what fell from the mover of the Adjournment about the sad loss which we have all suffered, and the very sad loss which the Air Ministry has suffered, in the death of our colleague, Commander Brabner. He had shown an extraordinarily quick grasp of the problems with which he had to deal in the Air Ministry, he had thrown himself with wonderful zest into his work there, he was naturally greatly admired for his splendid war record, and, as we all know, he had a great future before him. We feel his loss very deeply. May I add, too, as my hon. Friend made the reference for which I am grateful, that we lost a number of other devoted servants of the State who had helped to build up the Royal Air Force during the war. I will not say anything about the causes of the accident. My hon. Friend referred to the oil leak, but, as hon. Members who have done any flying know, that is not a thing which is by any means abnormal, and it certainly on this occasion seemed to inspire no alarm.
Another hon. Member did. It caused no alarm, and, whatever the cause, it is impossible to state what it was until the accident has been thoroughly investigated by the Court of Inquiry. From what I know of the case I think that even then there may be great difficulty in ascertaining the cause. The hon. and gallant Member for Chatham (Captain Plugge), in his interesting speech, seemed to me to travel a little outside the purpose of the Motion in referring to flying boats and airfield's. What we are concerned with is the safety of Transport Command in using the aircraft it has at the present time. These interesting and important questions about the kind of air- craft that should be used, whether flying boats or land aircraft, and whether we are pursuing a wise or unwise airfield policy, are matters for the future and, as regards civil air transport, are matters for the Minister for Civil Aviation.
I come to the causes which my hon. Friend referred to as being some of the principal causes of the accidents of which we have lately heard. He referred, in the first place, to the accident about three weeks ago in the Azores. Until the report of the inquiry has been thoroughly studied I am not prepared to give the House an opinion on the cause of that accident. Several Members raised the important question of the overruling of the pilot's judgment on whether it was wise to embark on a flight or not. All I would say about that is that the pilot was very experienced, with a considerable number of hours' flying, and that he was instructed that after he took off he should turn right. He was given that instruction on his briefing and was reminded of it just before he took off. In spite of that, for some reason or other, he turned to the left, with the disastrous result which my hon. Friend has described.
I do not want to make any unfair accusations against anybody. I said that he went slightly to the left off his course, but I did not say he turned, because it would have been impossible to turn the machine at that speed. He probably drifted to the left. Has my right hon. Friend anything to say about the evidence of the briefing officer?
No, but I have something to say about the pilot's right to decide whether he takes off or not. The first cause of accidents which my hon. Friend gave was interference with the pilot's judgment on whether it was safe to start upon a flight. The second cause, he said, was the use of bomber pilots, which led to a rather careless or, if you like, a daring view of standards of safety. I do not think that is true. My own experience of air crews and other men who are accustomed to face danger is that they are not foolhardy. Men who are accustomed to face risks and have had to take risks are not men who foolishly run into danger. I assure my hon. Friend that it is quite untrue to say that a great number of these crews regard it is unpleasant or contemptible work to go into Transport Command, or that the phrase "becoming chauffeurs to civilians" represents their real attitude to their work. It is the kind of phrase which, as we all know, young men often use. I have no doubt that they have some similar phrase to describe their work in Bomber and Fighter Commands—some similar jocular phrase to describe it in ordinary conversation.
I think that most young pilots who have done an operational tour in some operational Command are keen and interested to take on Transport Command work. I have known personally an enormous number of young men who are keen, and I have never met anyone who took that view, except possibly a certain number who were longing to get into an operational Command and were posted to Transport Command before they had had a chance of fighting. I am sure that this is not true of bomber pilots or that they are resentful of carrying passengers. It would be a deplorable thing if it were true, because it is from Bomber Command that we must get a great part of our crews for Transport Command. It would not matter in the least whether we ran this great transport service under military command or under a civil corporation, there is only one place from which to get their crews, who must be men of the right age and experience, and that is from those who have been trained to go into Bomber and other operational Commands and who have done their operational tours.
My right hon. Friend said that there were a number of bad aircraft in Transport Command. I do not think there has been any time when that was less true than it is now. I know they are not all brand new aircraft of the latest type. Obivously, we have to take some of the older types in use, but we have been steadily improving the equipment of Transport Command, as the Under-Secretary was quoted as saying, and I can say with absolute assurance that at no time during the war has Transport Command been so well equipped with good aircraft as it is at the present time.
In view of what my right hon. Friend says now, why did he say previously that I went wide of the point in referring to flying boats? Why are Transport Command not using flying boats? Why have they been discontinued and hundreds of men discharged at Shorts' in Rochester? That is an important point in regard to the equipment of Transport Command which bears on safety.
I think that the House wishes to discuss the use by Transport Command of the equipment that it has at present. What the equipment of the Command should be in the future is a different matter. We could have an interesting discussion on that point, but supposing that, as the result of it, we decided that there should be flying boats and decided to give an order for them now, it would be a long time before we got them. I am, therefore, addressing myself to the efficiency of Transport Command and the efficient use of its present equipment. I say that it has never been better than it is now.
My hon. Friend who introduced the Debate questioned the training of the maintenance men. All I can tell him is that they are most carefully trained. They are trained in Technical Training Command and are remustered into more skilled trades as time goes on. Some who are to be employed on American aircraft are sent to America to undergo courses, and they give courses of instruction on their return. It is perfectly true, as was said in the interesting speech of my hon. Friend the Member for South-East St. Pancras (Sir A. Beit), that we have had immense difficulties in finding the necessary numbers of highly skilled men owing to the Royal Air Force expanding with such astonishing rapidity since the beginning of the war.
That, of course, is a question of where the men are most required for the conduct of the war. We have to make the best use we can, and my submission to the House, and all I am responsible to the House for, is that we are making the best use of the bers of men which we are allowed to take into the Royal Air Force. That we are doing, and we are giving in men, in materials, in navigational aids and in all that is required to raise the standards of safety for Transport Command, an increasing priority to the transport service, which is taking an ever increasing part in the conduct of the air war.
The hon. Member also said that another cause of accidents was a tendency to break up crews. In using the word "tendency," the hon. Member obviously intended to imply that we like breaking up crews and that there was some reason why Transport Command, or somebody else, frivolously or without sufficient cause, broke up crews. That really is not true. The opposite is the object of all Commands—Transport Command, Bomber Command and Coastal Command—who employ crews on a large scale, and the one thing which they hate having to do is to break up crews, but, of course, it frequently happens to be necessary. One member of a crew may be wounded or killed or go sick, and it frequently happens that crews must be broken up, but it is the last thing that any commander would deliberately agree to do and it is certainly the last thing that we want done.
Then the hon. Gentleman told us about an aircraft in which the second pilot was a lady—a blonde from South Africa. I am sure he is misinformed about that. There are, in fact, no women employed in Transport Command.
That, of course, I find extremely difficult to believe, but, if my lion. Friend will send me particulars, I will make inquiries. I assure him that it would be absolutely contrary to the rules that a pilot should take a lady friend with him It would be absolutely contrary to the rules but if there is such a case—and I wish hon. Members would treat me with frankness in these cases—and the hon. Member will let me know, I will swiftly investigate. If he will send me particulars, an immediate investigation will be made.
As regards second pilots, they are employed in all four-engined aircraft and in all aircraft engaged in long flights, and it is quite untrue, I can assure the hon. Member, that Transport Command has any prejudice against the employment of second pilots.
Now I come to what I feel the House, and certainly I myself, feel is the most important of the alleged causes of accidents, or would be, if it were true, and that is the suggestion that pilots are prevailed upon to take off on flights against their better judgment. The rules have always been that it is the pilots who decide, but subject to the overriding authority of the Station Commander to say that he thinks the pilot, if he took off, would be taking an unnecessary risk. That is the rule, but it is not easy to apply it in practice. You may have a very junior pilot who has a very strong feeling that he does not want to start, but who has a General or Admiral with him who tells him that it is of the highest operational importance to get from A to B and get there quickly, and that he is prepared to take the risk. In those circumstances, it is not easy for the pilot, and we have had some instances of that in the past, and we have, therefore, from time to time ruled that the pilot's judgment must be accepted.
I mean that, when I have heard of the trouble, when it has been suggested to me that a case has arisen in which a pilot has been overruled, or in which it has been suggested that the Royal Air Force has been slow in responding to a request to get an important man from one place to another, I, with the full support of the Air Staff, have said that the pilot's judgment must prevail. A little time ago, it was mentioned to me—I think in Debate, but also privately by one or two Members of Parliament—that they had heard of cases in which the pilot had been overruled. Therefore, to make assurance doubly sure, I had this letter despatched from the Air Ministry:
The captain of any aircraft is responsible for the safety of his passengers but the captain of a transport or communication aircraft may on occasions find himself under pressure from a passenger who is a Very Important Personage or au officer of his own or another Service senior to himself in rank, to take off under conditions which in his own judgment are not suitable. In such circumstances, it is the duty of the captain to stand his ground, and, if necessary, to appeal for support to the Commanding Officer of the Transport or Communications Formation or Unit, or to the Senior Royal Air Force Officer on the Station or even to the Air Officer Commanding, and the Council wish it to be understood that in the event of such an appeal being made it is the duty of the senior officer to support it.
Does the right hon. Gentleman realise what he is saying to the House? It is plain that, first of all, a potential passenger has to be sufficiently concerned and thinks he is sufficiently well informed enough to say "I do riot think this machine should take off." The House will realise that the passenger, if an important person, may say, "I do not think we ought to fly." The second point is that the pilot must himself be a sufficiently strong-minded person to say, "I do not think, in these circumstances, we ought to fly." In other words, he has to resist all kinds of circumstances before he can state his own point of view, and that seems to me to be a very bad situation, from all points of view.
I think my hon. Friend has got it wrong. I think the House has understood that the position is that the pilot, who is captain of the aircraft, decides whether the aircraft takes off or not. If he is subjected to pressure, he has been told—every pilot has been told—that he will be supported by his senior officer in resisting that pressure. The only interference with the judgment of a pilot that would take place is when the Station Commander thinks that a pilot who is prepared to take off is taking a risk and refuses to give clearance to the aircraft.
Could it not be laid down that no passenger, no matter how important, has any right of any kind to make any suggestion or bring any pressure of any kind upon the pilot? It is inconceivable that, on board a ship in a fog, the most important mart who ever lived could go to the bridge to the captain and tell him that he was in a hurry and that the captain must speed up the ship, fog or no fog. Could not conditions be laid down, and a strict rule made, that no passenger of any kind has any right to make suggestions to, or interfere with, the captain of a plane?
It would depend what the pressure was, but, if the pressure was undue, it would be reported to the senior Air officer concerned. I think the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) does not realise the variety of circumstances that may arise in the course of the war. You may have a very junior pilot of Transport Command in a very out-of-the- way place, and a senior officer coming to him genuinely believing that the success of operations, and perhaps the lives of the troops, depended on his reaching a particular place quickly. It is not an easy situation, and the hon. Member must realise that there are great difficulties in it, but I am sure that we have got the right answer now that all pilots have been authorised to stand their ground, knowing that if they do they will receive the support of their senior officers.
Supposing it is the directions of the briefing officer to the pilot that has led to the inquiries? All these statements that have been made are from Transport Command. How will the right hon. Gentleman ever know what took place in the Azores in this case when the briefing officer told the young Czech pilot to take off when he did not want to?
If the Czech pilot had said "I refuse to take off," he would have been supported by the station officer on that occasion. The hon. and learned Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Hughes), who does not seem to be in his place, suggested that I was unwilling to take responsibility for accidents. I think, if I may say so, that that is not a fair suggestion to make. I have always been at the service of the House and I have never shirked responsibility for any accidents, except only for one which was not the responsibility of the Royal Air Force at all. Certainly, I accept full responsibility, but I do not think it is necessary to indicate which Command or which unit or group is responsible for the accident. I am responsible to this House, and I would only say that I think that, unfortunately, the truth is not that Transport Command is debited with fewer accidents than occur under its responsibility, but the fact is that if is often debited with more. For example, two accidents have been mentioned in this connection, that in which Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory so lamentably met his death and the other accident in which we lost our two colleagues in Italy, neither of which are in any degree the responsibility of Transport Command.
I listened, as indeed did the whole House, with immense zest to the story which the hon. Member for North Tottenham (Mr. R. C. Morrison) told and his account of how he kept coming up after one shock after another and how he came back every time and eventually got to Prestwick. There, again, I say to him, and I would say to every Member of the House—I had hoped they had understood it without my saying it—I wish hon. Members would come to me with experiences of the kind at the time and I would get on to the matter right away. I will make inquiries now, but I gather my inquiries will be rather belated; I will make inquiries into the experiences of my hon. Friend. I wish he had told me about them at the time. I cannot offer an explanation because this is the first I have heard of his much-interrupted journey.
The hon. Member for The High Peak (Mr. Molson) mentioned the transport aircraft in South Eastern Asia. I happen to have made some inquiries about that, and I asked the retiring Deputy Air Commander-in-Chief, who came back home the other day, and who has now gone to command the Royal Air Force in the Mediterranean and Middle East—I refer to Air Marshal Garrod—and he told me that he thought they were entirely satisfactory for their purpose. One hon. Member referred to what he called the admission of the Under-Secretary of State the other day and the admission which I have made, that in the past priorities in material and personnel were unsatisfacfactory to Transport Command. It that is an admission, I certainly repeat it. I do not think it is an admission. I do not stand in a white sheet about it at all. At the time when we were fighting for our lives and very short of every form of combat aircraft it was absolutely indispensable for the success of our operations and for the lives of our pilots and crews engaged in heavy fighting with the enemy, that they should receive priority in the supplies of equipment. This equipment has not been easy to come by. We have had an enormous expansion in the production of every sort and kind of equipment but rigid priorities and allocations have had to be made in order to obtain it at all. It was right, in my judgment, that we should give the priorities to the Commands who had direct impact with the enemy. Now we are able to do and are doing much more for Transport Command in many fields, by the provision of aircraft, of crews, of maintenance, and improvements of scientific aids to navigation. We are able to do very much more which is reflected in the flying results of the Command. That covers too what my hon. Friend the Member for South-East St. Pancras told the House about planned maintenance. The weather service is, I am assured, in every way good—and I have made more than one inquiry into this—having regard to the great difficulties we have experienced in the past owing to wartime conditions in the Mediterranean and in France. One of the great difficulties about our weather service is the signals communication and the flying control organisation. All that has been gradually improved over a series of months. The big improvements which have long been planned and require a great deal of organisation are now coming into effect in flying control in the Mediterranean area.
The hon. Member who introduced the Debate said that when accidents occurred, the Air Ministry was the wrong body to inquire into them. I suggest to the House that that is not the right view. Really I do not think that there is any Member of the House who has as much responsibility and therefore as much interest and keenness as I have in reducing the accident rate. The Royal Air Force is determined to reduce, and is at this time reducing, the rate of accidents in Transport Command, and, I am glad to say, generally throughout all the Commands of the Royal Air Force. Nobody is as sensitive as the Air Ministry to the need to reduce these accidents, and no one has the same intimate knowledge of all the conditions as the Commands. We have taken a great many steps to reduce the rate of casualties. I have mentioned some that we have taken, and we are continuing to push forward at the present time. I would only add from the Air Ministry's standpoint the appointment of which the House was informed about 18 months ago of the Director of Accidents Prevention. His business is the study and analysis of accidents that occur, drawing the lessons from them and promulgating them to all Commands of the Royal Air Force. I would ask the House to consider the results of all this work which has been done.
With great respect, I do not agree. The outlook of Transport Command is not specifically military or civilian. Its reputation depends on the safety with which its operations are conducted. Safety is the objective at which it is aiming and if there is a great expansion of civil air services after the war, it is on Transport Command and on the officers who are now running Transport Command, and on its own flying control and flying organisations, and on its maintenance men and air crews, that the civil bodies will depend for their expansion. In judging results, I would reject entirely the comparison suggested by an hon. Friend of comparing results with civil air lines in America. You might as well compare sculling down the Thames with navigating a fishing boat in a rough sea. In America you have your whole civil organisation, with great beams of radio in lanes all across the country, and there is no comparison whatever with the conditions under which our crews are operating on these long routes to the Azores, through the Mediterranean and on to India.
One has to make some comparison with figures that are available. I quoted the American lines' record as a datum line. Can my right hon. Friend give the comparative figures between the American Transport Command and our Transport Command? Do they work out in the same proportion? He cannot challenge my figures.
Might I put a comparison much nearer home to the right hon. Gentleman? May I ask him if it is not the case that the accident rate is startlingly higher among aircraft carrying V.I.P.s and ordinary passengers than among the aircraft which have brought back hundreds of thousands of wounded men from France; and does not that suggest that the importance, or the supposed urgency, of these missions is allowed to push the pilots beyond the limits of safety too often?
No, I do not think that is true. If it is true, if it has been true in the past, then this letter which I have read not only expresses my own views and the views of the Air Ministry on the problem which my hon. Friend has raised but will certainly check any such tendency in the future.
Now I will ask the House to consider the enormous increase and the enormous scale of the activities of Transport Command, and it is against that background that the number of accidents must be seen if they are to be viewed in perspective. The number of aircraft employed in Transport Command now runs into many hundreds and, if you include communications aircraft in all the different Commands, they run into thousands. The number of passengers carried doubled in the last half of last year. As the Under-Secretary of State observed in the last Debate which took place, if you have more flying, you will have more accidents. You need not have more in proportion and, as I shall show the House, we are not having them, we are having fewer in proportion. If, however, you have more than double the number of aircraft flying and the number of passengers carried, you are bound to have more accidents.
That cannot possibly be accepted; I must protest. The figures I gave were in passenger-miles and therefore they are not affected by the number of aircraft flying or the expanse of the command. On the contrary, the more passenger-miles flown, the less tendency towards accident per passenger-mile there would be.
I am not referring to my hon. and gallant Friend's figures, I am referring to the fact that if you have a certain number of aircraft flying and you double that number, you are bound to have more accidents, though you need not have double the number of accidents. As I have said, we are not having double the number of accidents, we are reducing the rate at which they occur.
You might have double the number of planes flying but have double the experience and better planes and therefore have less accidents. There have been plane crashes where there has been no real reason why there should hove been a plane crash or why the passengers should have lost their lives. That is the thing to take up.
I think that the hon. Member is speaking academically and I am speaking of practical facts. If, in fact, very suddenly in the course of a few months you double the number of aircraft, if yod double the number of crews employed on transport work, you are bound to have more accidents. However, you are not bound to have a higher rate. We have a lower accident rate than we had when we had fewer aircraft flying and fewer crews employed. But, of course, flying is a dangerous business especially under war-time conditions, with wireless silence and imperfect navigational aids and, so long as these conditions last, you will not be able altogether to avoid accidents.
Then there is the human factor, and the price for any failure in the human factor in flying is higher than in the case of road traffic, though, as we know, even in the much simpler case of road traffic there are serious accidents and people lose their lives. In the case of flying, the human error sometimes enters. One reason for keeping the examination of the causes of these accidents in the hands of the people who bear the main responsibility for safety, in the hands of the Commands, to conduct these inquiries in secrecy is that it results in shrewd criticism by comparatively junior officers, sometimes of senior officers, sometimes of different aspects of the organisation, sometimes of a technical breakdown. These courts of inquiry are quite invaluable, but their value rests very largely on the fact that their proceedings and their findings are confidential.
One or two hon. Members have said that crashes are common in Transport Command. The fact is that they are not. There is this huge number of aircraft flying, a very large proportion of them carrying important passengers, many people whose names are household words. Nobody flies to-day unless they have some important work to do in connection with the war, consequently a very high proportion of them are people whose names are famous. If the House wishes to know the number of crashes in Transport Command trunk routes and feeder lines—and these feeder lines include such lines as those to which the Under-Secretary of State referred when we were last discussing this subject; the feeder line to Yugoslavia, for instance, where there was an accident a few months ago on a frightfully bad airfield—the number of accidents involving death or serious injury to pas- sengers on the Transport Command trunk and feeder lines last month was three; the month before it was one; in January it was none. The facts are that we have worked hard to reduce this accident rate in Transport Command and we have worked not unsuccessfully. In December of last year and in January of this year the accident rate was less than half of what it was in January of last year. We have worked hard and successfully. We are continuing to work hard to reduce this accident rate. I claim that I have the greatest interest, and the Command and the Air Ministry have the greatest interest in the reduction of this accident rate. We are determined to reduce it still further and I ask, therefore, for the confidence of the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles) deserves, I think, the thanks of the House for having initiated a Debate which has enabled many hon. Members to give expression to the deep anxiety which the whole House feels, and which I think the whole country feels, at the repetition of accidents which cost us valuable lives and which have in every case no assignable cause. Speaking for myself, I am bound to say that the speech of the right hon. Gentleman has done nothing whatever to allay an anxiety which is felt in all parts of the House over these matters. No one knowing the right hon. Gentleman would for a single moment think that he was not himself deeply moved by these matters, and I suppose that it was his enthusiasm in defence of his Department that lent that character to his speech which many of us would describe as almost complacent. I have no doubt at all, I repeat, that he had no intention of being complacent, but I assure him that the character of his defence seemed complacent to many of us, and unduly so.
My hon. Friend suggested five possible auses of these repeated accidents. The Sight hon. Gentleman dealt with all of them and found nothing in any of them. He did not believe that there was anything in the point about the absence of co-pilots. He did not believe there was a reluctance on the part of Transport Command to have co-pilots. He did not believe there were any appreciable defects in the machines. He did not believe the crews had insufficient conversion training. He did not believe that there was any real lack of skilled pilots. Apparently none of the reasons which my hon. Friend advanced to explain these matters are reasons which he thought deserved an inquiry—
I think the hon. Member is not quite fair to me. I did not deal with some of the points he has mentioned, for instance, the number of skilled pilots. We are doing everything we can to increase the number of skilled pilots, but when we are expanding as rapidly as we are that is a problem. We are tackling it as hard as we can. I am far from saying that that is not an important point, or that the other points which the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles) raised were not important.
It is precisely that part of the right hon. Gentleman's speech which so alarmed so many of us. The right hon. Gentleman said: "Of course, we are always searching for more skilled pilots," but when he was challenged, in an intervention, about the drafting of skilled men from the R.A.F. into other branches of the Armed Forces, what did he say? He said that he had no complaint to make about it, that he was not worried about it, that there was no indication that any representation had been made by the Air Ministry against transferring skilled people from the R.A.F. into other branches of the Armed Forces while there was a lack of skilled pilots. My hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton made a point about the military mindedness of people who have not had sufficient skilled conversion training. In this and practically all other matters the right hon. Gentleman found nothing disquieting. He gave no explanation of what is causing him so much uneasiness, and the rest of us so much alarm.
I do not want to prolong the Debate or deal with points which have already been dealt with, but my hon. Friend did make two requests. First, he asked that there should be a Select Committee of this House set up to inquire into the causes of these accidents. That suggestion was supported, unless I am gravely mistaken, by every speaker in the Debate, from all sides of the House. The right hon. Gentleman would be doing his Department a service, as well as satisfying the united demand of the House, if he would concede that request. But no, he said nothing about it at all, and one must presume from his silence that he does not propose to set up such a Select Committee.
In this case I am afraid that silence means refusal. Had the right hon. Gentleman any intention of consenting I think he would have made a shorter speech, and made that announcement at the beginning of it. I do not know what my hon. Friend intends to do, but if it Were my Motion I would divide the House and let it decide whether the Minister is right or wrong in refusing such an inquiry. My hon. Friend also said—I would like the right hon. Gentleman's attention, because he did deal with this matter—that if there were inquiries into accidents as and when they occur they ought not to be inquiries by the Air Ministry. I think that opinion is widely shared in this House. The right hon. Gentleman himself was careful to say: "I am responsible to the House for all these accidents," and so indeed he is, but if he goes on to say: "I am responsible to the House for the accidents and I am going myself to inquire into the causes of the accidents, so I can decide for myself what exactly my responsibility was," then he makes nonsense of the inquiry. He makes himself judge in his own court, and when he adds to that, as a virtue, that the inquiry by the Air Ministry is confidential then he makes matters a hundred times worse.
How can we allay public anxiety—and there is much anxiety about this matter—by having a series of secret inquiries so that nobody knows what evidence is taken, what evidence was available, or how the published conclusion of the inquiry is related to the evidence which was heard? Take the point which my lion. Friend made about the Azores accident, and none of us know whether it is true or not. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to tell us, perhaps to-morrow. Did it indeed happen that the briefing officer told the pilot: "You must go off to-night, and if you refuse to go off to-night you must give your reasons for refusing to go in writing"? It is very important when estimating or investigating the cause of that particular accident to know whether it happened or not. How is the right hon. Gentleman ever going to know whether it happened or not if it is not on the record, if somebody said that it was irrelevant on the absurd ground that what matters is what caused the accident at the moment it occurred, and not what caused the aeroplane to be in the air at all at that moment? With a public inquiry the evidence would be available to us all. It would not be purely an ex parte affair. Not merely would the Air Ministry know all the facts, but the House and the country would know all the facts, and would not that be a better thing, when the whole country has been so alarmed at the repetition of these disasters? I think the right hon. Gentleman ought to go very much further than he has done to satisfy the anxiety expressed in this Debate, which has already lasted over two hours. He has refused a Select Committee to inquire into all the accidents, he has refused an independent inquiry into any of them. He has told us that everything is all right, that there is nothing to worry about, that accidents just happen because the human factor fails, and we have to take it from him because he has had—
That is a travesty of what I said. I said I was deeply concerned about these accidents, and that I was determined to do everything possible, with the full support of all Commands and staff.
The right hon. Gentleman will recall that I began my few remarks by saying that I wanted to concede at once that he was deeply moved by these matters, and would do anything in his power to prevent them. We all appreciate that, but what I am saying is that he would be serving his desire, and the desire of the House, very much better if he did not obstinately refuse every suggestion for an inquiry into the causes of these accidents, with a view to finding some remedy. He wants to keep it all to himself, he wants an ex parte inquiry, he wants no one else to know what the evidence is, and he wants us to accept the results he communicates to us, ex cathedra, in that way. I do not believe for one moment that this House will be satisfied with that kind of attitude to these matters.
It seems to me we have now reached a very strange situation. I do not know whether the House realises that this is only the third or fourth occasion in 20 or 25 years on which Mr. Speaker has allowed the Adjournment of the House to be moved in these circumstances. It has always been very difficult to persuade Mr. Speaker to allow the Adjournment to be moved in order to call attention to a matter in this way. On this occasion he has done so, and I am a little bit uneasy about the decision, because although Mr. Speaker evidently thought the matter to be one of immediate urgency and public importance, that view is apparently not shared by a very large number of hon. Members; they are not present at this moment, although they were earlier, and I think it is rather a serious thing.
This subject has been raised at Question Time over the last three or four weeks, and on each occasion the Prime Minister, with the assistance of the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Air, has resisted any inquiry, except the inquiry conducted by the Department, into the accidents in Transport Command. I would not have intervened were it not for the fact that a large number of civil servants have spoken to me in the last fortnight on the matter, and they are very worried indeed. There is a conference about to take place at San Francisco, and in addition a number of preliminary conferences will take place. I am bound to tell my right hon. Friend that high-ranking civil servants are by no means pleased with the idea that they' are going to be transported to those conferences by Transport Command. On the contrary, they are very anxious.
I am not satisfied at all by the reply which the right hon. Gentleman has given. What he has said is that he is very concerned about making Transport Command efficient. I am quite sure he is, but sincerity has never yet been a test of efficiency. No one suggests that Transport Command itself is not anxious to try to obtain the highest marks for itself, but its own eagerness is by no means a substitute for objective investigation, and that objective investigation we are being denied. I find myself worried not only by Transport Command and the Air Ministry but by the Army and the Admiralty. There are too many functions essentially civilian in character which are attached to the uniformed Departments. The Army, the Air Force and the Ad- miralty have been allowed to expand in the course of the war and to absorb to themselves, sometimes quite justifiably—on each occasion the thing can be justified—a large number of activities and functions which are essentially civilian in character. My experience, and I think the experience of every hon. Member, goes to show that when you put a man in uniform you reduce his intelligence by practically 50 per cent.
I will not give way, because there is no question here of a personal explanation. I have seen the hon. and gallant Gentleman in civilian clothes during the last 15 years in this House, and consequently I must assume from his indignation that he would have been much more efficient if he had worn uniform. The fact is, and every hon. Member knows it, that we have to pay a certain price for the fact that people are put in uniforms. What is the gravamen of my hon. Friend's case? It is that there is attached to the Air Ministry, to the Army and the Admiralty, a function which is normally a civilian function. It is to transport civilian passengers from one place to another. That function, as far as we can see, is being discharged in the same spirit as the normal military functions of the Air Ministry are discharged. We do not know—and this is the thing that drives the iron into my soul—how many accidents are occurring in the Royal Air Force. They are operational accidents, they occur in the course of the conduct of the war; they do not appear at all, there are no investigations and no reports. Aircraft crash and men are killed, and we do not know anything about them. We do not see the registration of inefficiency or carelessness at all until they express themselves in Transport Command. When they come into Transport Command civilians are concerned, and then it is revealed only when they are persons of some importance involved. Obviously, here is a matter in which the House is directly involved. We are setting up a Ministry of Civil Aviation, I am bound to say I am a little bit frightened about that, because unless we establish a better reputation for civil aviation than we have so far gained under Transport Command, it is going to have a very serious bearing on the future of civil aviation conducted by Great Britain after the war.
I suggest that a case has been made for an investigation into Transport Command by a Select Committee, not merely for the sake of finding victims, but for the sake of finding out some of the reasons responsible for accidents, which might help us later on in the organisation of civilian transport in this country. Why cannot we have that investigation? The right hon. Gentleman says: "We will make all the inquiries we can into this matter"; but my hon. Friends and I am not satisfied. The Department makes an inquiry into the Department's behaviour and finds that the Department is with' out blame. That is normally what happens. A Department never puts in a report to the House in which it states it is blameworthy. It always presents a report in which it says it is without blame, that certain things are responsible, but generally speaking, the Department itself is without responsibility.
I suggest frankly that we have not had from the right hon. Gentleman a reply which justifies us in abandoning the matter, and, therefore, I hope my hon. Friend will divide the House. We cannot accept responsibility for any further deaths, we cannot absolve the Minister from what has been happening. Therefore, in the circumstances, I think all we can do is to register what we feel about these events. I hope that hon. Gentlemen opposite will support us on this occasion, because this is not moved in any party spirit; it is not a question of the Labour Party versus the Conservative Party or the Liberal Party. We are anxious to try to find out how it is possible for the House of Commons to bring about a public investigation into a series of accidents which have caused grave disquiet in the House and which might, if
The hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) has insulted all men who have worn uniform. I ask him to withdraw his statement. When I was his age I was in unifonn. There is only one question I want to ask the Secretary of State for Air. Do the pilots go through a medical examination every now and again to see whether they are quite fit? When I was in the Royal Naval Air Service I was very particular that every now and then our pilots should have a medical examination to see that they were quite all right.
|Division No. 12]||AYES.||[8.45 p.m.|
|Barnes, A. J.||Kirby, B. V.||Plugge, Capt. L. F.|
|Ballenger, F. J.||Lawson, H. M. (Skipton)||Reakes, G. L. (Wallasey)|
|Bevan, A. (Ebbw Vale)||Legan, D. G.||Silverman, S. S.|
|Brooks, T. J. (Rothwell)||McGovern, J.|
|Cocks, F. S.||Mack, J. D.||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:—|
|Driberg, T. E. N.||Mainwaring, W. H.||Mr. Bowles and|
|Gallacher, W.||Morgan, Dr. H. B. W. (Roshdale)||Mr. Moelwyn Hughes.|
|Granville, E. L.||Murray, J. D. (Spennymore)|
|Beachman, N. A.||Henderson, A. (Kingswinford)||Ross Taylor, W.|
|Berry, Hon. G. L. (Buckingham)||Hinchingbrooke, Viscount||Sanderson, Sir F. B.|
|Boles, Lt.-Col. D. C.||Holdsworth, Sir H.||Sandys, Rt. Han. E. D.|
|Bossom, A. C.||Hudson, Sir A. (Hackney, N.)||Shepperson, Sir E. W.|
|Bower, Norman (Harrow)||Hutchinson, G. C. (Ilford)||Shuts, Col. Sir J. J.|
|Brooke, H. (Lewisham)||Isaaos, G. A.||Sinclair, Rt. Hon. Sir A.|
|Campbell, Sir E. T. (Bromley)||Jenkins, A. (Pontypool)||Spearman, A. C. M.|
|Gary, R. A.||Jones, Sir G. W. H. (S'k N'w'gt'n)||Stuart, Rt. Hon. J. (Moray & Nairn)|
|Chapman, A. (Rutherglen)||Joynson-Hicks, U.-Comdr. Hon. L. W.||Studholme, Major H. G.|
|Conant, Major R. J. E.||Kerr, H. W. (Oldham)||Sueter, Rear-Admiral Sir M. F.|
|Cook, Lt.-Col. Sir T.R.A.M. (N'f'lk, N.)||Lamb, Sir J. Q.||Suirdale, Colonel Viscount|
|Courthope, Col. Rt. Hon. Sir G. L.||Lipson, D. L.||Sutcliffe, H.|
|Critchley, A.||Ltoyd, Rt. Hon. G. W. (Ladywood)||Tate, Mrs. Mavis C.|
|Davies, Major Sir G. F. (Yeovil)||McCorquodale, Malcolm S.||Taylor, Major C. S. (Eastbourne)|
|Drewe, C.||Macdonald, Captain Peter (I. of W.)||Thornaycroft, H. (Clayton)|
|Duckworth, W. R. (Most Side)||Maolay, Hon, John S. (Montrose)||Ward, Irene M. B. (Wallsend)|
|Edmondson, Major Sir J.||Magnay, T.||Westwood, Rt. Hon. J.|
|Entwistle, Sir C. F.||Wander, Sir G. le M.||Whiteley, Rt. Hon. W. (Blayden)|
|Erskine-Hill, A. G.||Manningham-Buller, R. E.||Wickham, Lt.-Col. E. T. R.|
|Etherton, Ralph||Marlowe, Lt.-Col. A.||Womersley, Rt. Hon. Sir W.|
|Evans, Col. Sir A. (Cardiff, S.)||Mathers, G.||Woolley, Major W. E.|
|Foot, D. M.||Mayhew, Lt.-Col. J.||Woottch-Davies, J. H.|
|Furness, S. N.||Mills, Major J. D. (New Forest)||Wright, Mrs. Beatrice F. (Bedmin)|
|Grant-Ferris, Wing-Commander R.||Morgan, R. H. (Stourbridge)||York, Major C.|
|Greenwell, Colonel T. G.||Naylor, T. E.||Young, Major A. S. L. (Partick)|
|Guest, Lt.-Col. H. (Drake)||Petherick, M.|
|Gunston, Major Sir D. W.||Prescott, Capt. W. R. S.||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:—|
|Hammersley, S. S.||Prior, Comdr. R. M.||Mr. Pym and|
|Harris, Rt. Hon. Sir P. A.||Procter, Major H. A.||Mr. Buchan-Hepburn.|
|Harvey, T. E.||Robinson, W. A. (St. Helens)|
Question put, and agreed to.