Orders of the Day — Air Accident, Sywell (Inquiry)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10 March 1948.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Snow.]

11. 1 p.m.

Photo of Mr Terence Donovan Mr Terence Donovan , Leicester East

On 28th June, 1947, a private aeroplane crashed at Sywell Aerodrome, Northamptonshire, killing the pilot and passenger. The pilot was Mr. E. Brookes and the passenger Mr. J. B. Ryley. Brookes was the holder of the Air Force Cross—an extremely experienced pilot with 2,000 hours of flying to his credit, and in the R.A.F. during the war he had been assessed "above average" on three occasions. An inquiry was held by the Chief Inspector of Accidents into the accident, and that inquiry—so the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Civil Aviation has been good enough to inform me—began the next day, 29th June, 1947. The report of the Chief Inspector is dated 14th November, 1947. What happened in the intervening four months I do not know, but it may not be material.

The Minister of Civil Aviation published the report in January, 1948, and on 9th February, 1948—that is about a month ago—the national newspapers, purporting to give in tabloid form the conclusions of the Chief Inspector, did so in various headlines, of which the following may be taken as typical: "Pilot drinks: two killed in dangerous aerobatic"—"The Times"; "Aerobatics kill two after drinks says report" — "News-Chronicle"; "Pilot stunted after drinks; two died" —"Daily Express" I read those headlines, and the conclusion I drew was that in the report of the Chief Inspector one would find some detailed conclusions justifying the view that drink was at least one of the contributory causes, if not the prime cause, of the accident.

The next thing that happened was that the pilot's widow came to see me in this House, and introduced herself as one of my constituents. She had suffered a tragic loss, not made easier because at the time of the crash she was expecting a baby. She is suffering new distress caused by these headlines, and asked me to read the report itself. I did so, and these are the relevant extracts from the document. It begins with the circumstances of the accident, and says: The pilot and his passenger spent the day at a Flying Rally at Shoreham and arrived at Sywell at 1945 hours on their way back to Ratcliffe. They had expected to be able to obtain a meal there but were too late for it, and in company with a number of members and their friends they were for about three-quarters of an hour in the bar of the Northamptonshire Aero Club. During this period they were warned several times that it was becoming late, that visibility was deteriorating and that if they wished to reach Ratcliffe that night they should lose no further time, particularly as there are no night landing facilities there. They stayed on, however, until the bar closed at 20.30 hours and then walked to their aircraft. At this stage, several attempts were made to persuade them to stay the night and accommodation in the clubhouse was offered to them, but they insisted that they must go on to Ratcliffe, replying that they could 'make it.' Here, may I remind the House that the pilot's wife was expecting a baby at that moment. The report continues: One witness testified that the men were 'in a happy condition' as they emplaned. By this time it was already getting dark. Mr. Brookes got into the left-hand seat and Mr. Ryley, after swinging the propellor, got into the right-hand seat. The aircraft was then taxied out towards the north-east corner of the aerodrome and took off from N.E. to S.W. Shortly after the aircraft became airborne, it did a climbing turn to the left rising to about 100 ft. It then made a shallow dive toward the clubhouse in front of which some members were sitting on a low wall and as the aircraft approached a number of these people jumped off the wall in alarm. The aircraft just missed the roof of the club building and climbed steeply to a height of about 150 ft. It then stall-turned to the left, and before fully recovering from the resulting dive struck the ground a glancing blow, bounced through a hedge, stalled from about 50 ft., fell to the ground and burst into flames. The engine appeared to be functioning satisfactorily. Both occupants were killed. Under the heading "The Pilot," the report says that the pilot was aged 38, and learned to fly in 1937. It goes on to say that he had had 2,000 hours of flying, and had been assessed "above average" on three occasions. Under the heading "Findings" it says:

  1. "(i) The aircraft was airworthy at the time of the accident.
  2. (ii) Mr. Brookes was an experienced light aircraft pilot. His flying licence was not valid at the time of the accident.
  3. (iii) The pilot had consumed alcoholic liquor without food during the 45 minutes immediately before the accident."
Under the heading "Opinion," which really means conclusion, it is stated:
  1. "(i) The accident was a result of an error of judgment on the part of the pilot who failed to allow sufficient height for recovery after performing an aerobatic manoeuvre at a low altitude.
  2. (ii) The pilot flew the aircraft in a manner dangerous to himself, his passenger, and to people on the ground."
There are certain findings in the report which everybody, including the relatives, must face, and which it is no part of their purpose, or of mine, to ignore or even to put a gloss upon. Those findings are these: (1) the pilot had taken alcoholic liquor in the circumstances mentioned; (2) one witness stated that he and his passenger were in a "happy" condition when they emplaned; (3) the aeroplane had been dangerously flown.

If I am asked, however, on the basis of this report, to condemn this pilot as a man who had killed himself and his passenger through taking too much alcoholic liquor before he emplaned, I decline to do it. I should want to know a good deal more about the facts. As to the drink, what was the drink, and how much he did have? As to his being "happy," to which of the numerous levels of emotion between sobriety and intoxication does this term refer in this particular instance? As to dangerous flying, I have known pilots fly dangerously when they were sober. I was taken by a perfectly sober pilot straight through a Bessoneau hangar at Andover aerodrome during the last war. We would have come out all right at the other end except for the fact that there were a number of other aeroplanes in the way. Therefore, if I am asked, on the basis of this report, to condemn this pilot, I would reply that no fair-minded person could do it without a great deal of further information.

Further inquiries would elicit that at the coroner's inquest shortly after the accident, two witnesses testified on oath that both these men were perfectly sober when they got into the plane; and I have in my pocket a message from the coroner who says that at the inquest there was no evidence, medical or otherwise, of alcoholism.

That brings me back to this report. I take it to be the function of the Chief Inspector of Accidents to discover, if he can, the cause of the accident. If he thinks that drink was a contributory cause, I assume it is his duty to say so. If he thinks that drink was taken but was not a contributory cause of the accident, then I assume it is his duty to say that. But what it is not his duty to do is to extend a subtle invitation to the public to find the facts for themselves in this respect; that is to say, it is not his duty to mention in the body of the report matters reflecting upon the conduct of an individual, pilot or otherwise, and then leave the Minister and the public to judge for themselves how far such conduct contributed to the accident.

I think those considerations must have been present to the mind of the Chief Inspector of Accidents, because he carefully refrains from saying in his conclusion that drink was a cause, contributory or prime, of this sad affair. But I think that the Chief Inspector must have missed the fact that the report is framed in exactly the same way as it would have been framed had it been intended to say something of this kind; "Well, here are the facts about the consumption of alcoholic liquor. I am not prepared to say it was the cause of the accident, but you may if you like. "That is not the sort of report that one ought to have from a Chief Inspector of Accidents at all, and it may easily do grave injustice. I do not complain that this evidence about the liquor was set out in the report, and neither do the widow or the other relatives; but I do say that if reflections are to be made in these reports upon the conduct of individuals, then it ought to be made perfectly clear to the Minister and to the public exactly what the relevance, if any, of those findings is, and whether the conduct in question contributed or not to the accident. Of course, the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary do not write these reports, and all that I can do tonight is to ask that this criticism which, however it may sound, is, at least, intended to be helpful, be brought to the notice of the Chief Inspector.

There is one other point. The widow of Mr. Brookes learned of this report for the first time by reading the headlines 1 have mentioned. One can easily conceive the shock that that gave her. That was because, apparently, the report was released to the Press before the public were in a position to buy it. I would ask that if any future occasions of this kind arise, arrangements should be made, at least, to send a copy of the report to the next of kin at the same time as it is released to the Press.

Finally, I gather that this inquiry was held in private. No one was there representing the relatives; no one was there to ask that the barman be called; no one was there to cross-examine the one witness who said the men were "happy," to know exactly what he meant. I cannot think that that really is a proper way of conducting these inquiries. I think they ought to be held, except for special reasons, in public, that legal representation should be permitted, that cross-examination of witnesses should be permitted. I am quite sure that the other sort of inquiry—the inquiry that was, in fact, held in this case—would not commend itself to the Minister of Civil Aviation who, I know from long personal experience, is one of the most enlightened and progressive lawyers in this country. If such a procedure which I have suggested were instituted, as it could be by Ministerial regulation, it would be far better for all concerned. It would certainly make for the ascertainment of the cause of the accident with more certainty, and it would certainly avoid the kind of injustice that has been done to the memory of these two dead men.

11.15 p.m.

Photo of Mr Christopher Shawcross Mr Christopher Shawcross , Widnes

I would like very shortly to put to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary certain questions and with his indulgence I would like to say I do not expect him to answer, because I have not given any notice of them. I knew nothing about this until I read the report and heard what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for East Leicester (Mr. Donovan) had to say.

First, did the inspector take evidence from the barman in the club as to what drinks had been consumed by the pilot? My information, which so far as I can find out is on good authority, is that no such inquiries were made. Secondly, did the inspector ask for a post mortem to be conducted to find out whether the body of the deceased pilot was affected with alcoholism? Did he consult with the coroner and if he did, how is it that the coroner found that there was no evidence of alcoholism in the case? I have a telegram from the coroner to that effect. Thirdly, was not the passenger, who was also killed, also an experienced pilot very unlikely to proceed with the actual pilot of the aircraft if he had been in an unfit condition. Fourthly, why was the publication of this report withheld by the Minister for so many months? The report was made on 14th November, that is, many months after the accident, and it was not published until a week or two ago. Fifthly, is it the practice—and this, I beg my hon. Friend to notice, is a most serious question; he will realise the implication—or has it been the practice, of the Chief Inspector of Accidents to publish these reports to the Press or to the public without any previous reference, communication or consultation with those directly concerned, such as the widow and personal relatives of the two pilots in this case?

My hon. Friend will appreciate that the 'other pilot was killed and that his estate, his widow, and dependants in certain circumstances might be directly interested in this matter. Of course, the pilot involved in this report leaves a widow, whom one would have thought might have been consulted before any such finding as is contained here was published.

11.18 p.m.

Photo of Mr George Lindgren Mr George Lindgren , Wellingborough

May I, first of all, apologise to my hon. and learned Friend for not being in my place when he started this Debate. I am afraid I was expecting a bell to ring, and waited on it. He will not mind, as the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. Shawcross) asked me some specific questions, if I answer those first and deal thereafter with the points he so clearly raised.

First, the hon. Member for Widnes asked, "Did the inspector take evidence of the barman?" Quite frankly, at the moment I could not answer that question; but really it is not exactly relevant whether he did or not. He asked whether the inspector asked for a post mortem. Of course the inspector did not: it is not his function to do so. The function of the inspector is to ascertain the cause of the accident.

Photo of Mr Christopher Shawcross Mr Christopher Shawcross , Widnes

If the hon. Gentleman will permit me. Is it not the practice that the inspector is always in consultation with the coroner in these cases in order that evidence may be co-ordinated?

Photo of Mr George Lindgren Mr George Lindgren , Wellingborough

No; there is sometimes consultation, when their functions cover common ground, but the jobs, if I may put it in that common way, of the coroner and of the Inspector of Accidents are totally different. The coroner is there to ascertain the cause of death, the Inspector of Accidents to ascertain the cause of the accident. There may be consultation where certain factors are concerned, but it is not inherent in the two jobs of the two men, which are entirely different. Further, I was asked was not the second passenger also a pilot, and would not he, with his general knowledge of the air, take care not unnecessarily to risk his own life. That is true. He was, so far as my information goes, a man of considerable air experience, and the deduction made is not an unreasonable one.

I was also asked why the publication of the report was delayed. First of all, I would say that these reports come to my noble Friend from the Inspector of Accidents when the latter has completed his sometimes lengthy investigations. Thus, whether or not the report is published quickly depends upon the time when it is presented to the Stationery Office, and upon the urgency which my noble Friend informs the Stationery Office that he attaches to its publication. I do not want to detract from this accident at all, but the urgency of the lessons to be drawn from the accident were not such that my noble Friend required that the report should be pushed forward and published with the utmost speed. Therefore, the normal procedure was followed, and publication was not made a matter of urgency.

Finally, I was asked whether it is not the practice to notify those who are associated directly or indirectly with what has occurred. It is always the practice to notify any person who is criticised in the report, but apart from those criticised, or those who are in any way implicated in the findings, it is not the practice to notify particular persons of the contents of the report.

Now, if I may turn to the points so lucidly put forward by the hon. and learned Member for East Leicester (Mr. Donovan), may I first of all state the plain fact, that this is a report of the Chief Inspector of Accidents. I would' like to emphasise that my noble Friend takes the view—and I think quite rightly —that there must be no interference by anyone with the Chief Inspector of Accidents in the presentation of his report. It is the Chief Inspector's job to ascertain the facts, and to present them as he sees them. There must be no interference by the Minister, or by anyone Departmentally, in the way he does that job. It would scarcely be the Chief Inspector's report if such interference were permitted.

Photo of Mr Terence Donovan Mr Terence Donovan , Leicester East

All this is common ground. The gravamen of the complaint is in respect of the fact that it is not made public.

Photo of Mr George Lindgren Mr George Lindgren , Wellingborough

If we are agreed that the inspector should be left free to make his report, and to blame or criticise, then we are getting on to totally different ground. It then comes to the daily Press of this country. What has happened in these instances is what happens in 999 cases out of every 1,000 which have anything to do with civil aviation—that the Press takes one-tenth fact and places on it nine-tenths misstatement, misrepresentation, misemphasis, and completely confuses the issue. If my hon. and learned Friend would turn to the reports which appeared in the technical Press he would see that such papers as "Flight," "The Aeroplane," "Aeronautics," and "Airport," dealt with the inspector's report in its right perspective.

I do not feel it is correct to blame the Chief Inspector of Accidents, whose job it is to find the cause of the accident so that further accidents can be prevented, for the misuse of his report in the daily Press of this country, which is only concerned with stunts and headlines. It is unfortunate that in this instance the persons who suffer are the relatives of those concerned. More often than not it is the Minister, myself, the Civil Service and this House which suffer at the hands of the daily Press. I suppose we are paid to take their kicks, but in so far as this accident is concerned, it is definitely unfortunate that over-emphasis and misrepresentation should have taken place, because my hon. Friend is perfectly right when he says that all the inspector did, as he was bound to do, was to present a true report.

It is not only the actual direct cause of the accident which the Chief Inspector has to take into account, but in arriving at his decision several other factors must be considered because, of course, no one particular cause is responsible. The whole atmosphere has to be weighed up. An element in that atmosphere was that this man called into the aerodrome and went into the bar. Part of the atmosphere might also have been that this pilot's licence was, in fact, out of date, which meant that he missed a medical examination, and it might be he was not as physically fit as he should have been. All these things are not actual causes in themselves, but they are elements in the atmosphere.

In his closing remarks my hon. and learned Friend drew attention to the fact that this was a private inquiry. The Inspector of Accidents is a technician; he is not a lawyer, and it is not intended that it should be a legal inquiry. After all, this is a technical inquiry to discover the cause of an accident. It does not in any way impinge or infringe on anybody's rights in regard to a normal legal claim which may arise. It is entirely a question of what ought to be the procedure in regard to an inquiry. That is a matter about which my noble Friend has been having consultations with a number of interested parties, and he is at the moment considering what should be the future procedure.

I was not associated with aviation before entering this House, but with railways, another form of transport. There have been inquiries into accidents on the railways ever since the railways came into existence. Those inquiries were not legal. We as workers on the system—and I believe I am speaking for the travelling public too—were satisfied that those inquiries ascertained the cause of the accidents and made it possible to prevent similar accidents in the future through the implementation of the recommendations of those reports. In so far as the points raised to-night are concerned, I will call the attention of those responsible to them with a view to their consideration.

Adjourned accordingly at Half-past Eleven o'Clock.