Royal Air Force (Gliding)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19 December 1957.

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6.3 p.m.

Photo of Major Sir Robert Conant Major Sir Robert Conant , Rutland and Stamford

There is very little connection between the most interesting and important subject that we have been considering for the past hour-and-a-half and the one that I desire to raise, recruiting for the Royal Air Force. I suppose there are still some people who take up the Royal Air Force as a career because they are keen on flying. There are, in fact, very few Joining the Royal Air Force who become pilots. Rather more obtain flying as aircrew, but the great majority remain on the ground.

I believe that recruitment would be greatly helped if it were possible to provide more recreational flying facilities not only for those who fly during the week in Royal Air Force machines, but also for those who are engaged in other duties, not excluding the W.R.A.F. and the other ancilliary services.

I have no personal experience of power flying as a recreation—I regard it as extremely expensive, very noisy and rather dangerous—but there are no doubt many people to whom it brings a measure of enjoyment. On the other hand, gliding is cheap, very peaceful and quite safe, and I cannot think of any better antidote for those in the Royal Air Force who spend weekdays in jet aircraft than to spend the weekend in a sailplane.

If the R.A.F. is to obtain recruits through gliding, it is obvious that two things must be accomplished. First, the Royal Air Force must interest the potential recruit in the Air Training Corps or any other movement in the sport of gliding. Secondly, the Royal Air Force must be in a position to tell him, once he is interested, that he will obtain better gliding facilities if he joins the Royal Air Force than if he does not.

I know that for many years efforts have been made to interest cadets belonging to the Air Training Corps in gliding, but, although I have no criticism of the training, which, from what I have seen, is very well carried out, I am very doubtful whether a large percentage of the cadets who attend courses at weekend schools or at the permanent establishment at Hawkinge join the Royal Air Force over and above those who would have done so in any case. However, I have not seen the figures, and I should not like to say that too definitely.

My doubt is due to the fact that the training at the schools and at Hawkinge is carried only as far as the "B" standard. That standard represents the stage where the pupil does one circuit of the airfield in a primary glider or sometimes in a two-seater flown solo. That is the limit of his training. When I was at the "B" standard I was still terribly frightened, and I am sure that if it were possible to include soaring experience in the course of the training a far higher percentage of the cadets who pass through the schools would become bitten by the sport and become really keen.

Gliding, in these days, is not a matter of being pushed off a hill and settling in the valley below, nor is it even a matter of being launched by a winch up to 600 or 700 ft. and landing where one started about five minutes later. Present day gliding with the modern high performance sailplanes is floating in the clouds, not for minutes but for hours on end, and, if one can afford the cost of being brought home, of travelling long distances across country. That is possible after comparatively little experience.

I feel that the cadet who has done only a circuit of an airfield, and has perhaps not even seen other people soaring, has very little idea of the sport. He might compare it with teaching a boy to fish. One buys him a rod and teaches him how to use it, but he does not become an angler until he has caught a fish, any more than the glider pupil becomes a glider enthusiast until he has experienced soaring.

In spite of the criticisms which I have made, I am sure that there are some cadets who become extraordinarily keen. What can the Royal Air Force then tell them which will persuade them to join? First, they can be told that gliding in the Royal Air Force clubs is considerably cheaper than it is in civilian clubs by reason of the fact that an airfield does not have to be bought or rented, hangerage is usually provided, there is far more technical skill among the members of a Royal Air Force club, and there is usually no need to keep trained technicians to maintain and repair the gliders. For those reasons, gliding in the Royal Air Force is a considerably cheaper sport than it is in civilian life.

One can also tell the potential recruit—I say this as one possessing very limited experience of one Royal Air Force club—that a Royal Air Force gliding club does not suffer from the crowding at weekends from which many civilian clubs suffer. One of the difficulties about civilian clubs is that at weekends people sometimes have to wait a long time to get a launch. I do not think that that is so of Royal Air Force clubs, certainly not of all of them. There is more flying available in the time. One would then have to tell them that gliding is encouraged in the Royal Air Force.

If a recruit is extremely lucky, he may, in the course of his career in the Royal Air Force, be actually posted to a station where there is a gliding club. On the other hand, he is more likely to have to travel quite a long way, 20 or 30 miles, at his own expense to reach a station where there is a gliding club or to the nearest civilian club. Of course, it is only fair to say that most members of civilian clubs have to travel about the same distance to reach their clubs.

I want to make one or two suggestions to meet the criticisms which I have been putting forward. It may not be practicable, of course, to extend training for the A.T.C. up to "C" standard. One reason is that the Air Ministry sites its aerodromes on flat spaces whereas the older gliding clubs usually try to get near a range of mountains so that members can soar on the hill when the wind is in the right direction and obtain many more hours of flying in that way.

That does not apply to the case of the Royal Air Force either in training or in the clubs subsequently and, therefore, it takes longer to reach the "C" certificate standard. But it is worth examining whether training could not be carried out, if not wholly at any rate partially, by aero-towed launch up to, say, 2,000 feet instead of as at present either by winch or auto-tow to about 600 feet and by using, instead of the excellent machine, the Sedburgh, now used, the more modern T.42 two-seater for training.

The result of that would be that flights would be very much longer and, therefore, with higher launches during their training, pupils would have experience of soaring which they would not otherwise obtain. It is my belief that the cost of an aero-tow and of other forms of launching do not differ very much, and it may well be cheaper to use aero-tow. I can judge only from the charges which are made at civilian clubs. The charge at Lasham, for instance—and it is the same with most civilian clubs—is 15s. for an aero-tow to 2,000 feet and 4s. for a winch launch or auto-launch up to an average of 600 feet—we will take that as a basis.

If one were to use a high performance machine for training like the T.42, a 2,000 feet launch would give one a flight of perhaps 20 minutes and the cost would, therefore, work out at 9d. per minute. A launch to 600 feet by winch would last about five minutes and, although mathematics is not my strong point, I make that about 9⅗d. per minute. That may not be exact and it leaves out of account the fact that on the higher launch one would be far more likely to meet thermal currents and, therefore, extend the time of flight.

The other suggestion which I venture to make concerns travel. It is obviously impossible to have R.A.F. gliding clubs at all stations, though one would hope that the numbers would gradually increase as more people became keen on the sport. One answer to the considerable travelling difficulties which people have and the difficulty of running a club when most members live 20 or 30 miles away and where many of the jobs have to be done by very few people living on the spot would be to subsidise transport.

A better method would be if it were possible, for the initial recruit, in any case, to allow those who were keen on gliding to be posted on application to a station which has a gliding club. One can see many difficulties in the case of married men in married quarters, but that is certainly worthy of consideration, perhaps not immediately, but as the number of clubs grows. At the moment, there are, I believe, only eight or nine.

I have another point to make concerning aircraft. Other things being equal, a man keen on gliding would much prefer to join a club which had good sailplanes, high performance machines, even though, when he joined, he was not himself qualified to fly them. The larger civilian clubs have a very wide range of sailplanes and certainly one R.A.F. club, at Andover, has them. However, owing to the limited size of the R.A.F. clubs, most of them, I believe, have a very limited range of aircraft—although I have only a very small experience of such clubs. It is a point to be considered that in trying to attract people who are keen on gliding that such people would prefer to join a club with a good shop window of aircraft.

Another topic concerns badges, particularly international badges—the Silver "C" and the Gold "C". Is there any possibility of those being worn in the course of duty in uniform by those members of the R.A.F. Who have achieved those distinctions in the gliding world? To some small extent that might attract recruits into joining the Royal Air Force.

One has to remember that in trying to attract recruits one is competing against the civilian clubs and that one's aim must be not only to provide cheaper gliding, but better gliding and all that that means—better facilities in every way. I hope that some of the comments I have made may contribute in a small way towards that end.

One last matter which concerns my hon. Friend is the position of the airfield at Lasham, where the Surrey Gliding Club and a number of other clubs make their home. They have been having to live with considerable insecurity of tenure, under one month's notice, for many years because it was not possible for the Air Ministry to decide whether or not that airfield would be needed for other purposes. However, last September my hon. Friend told me that the Air Ministry had decided that it had no further need to retain Lasham Airfield and that, unless it was needed by other Departments, it would be offered back to its original owner and it would then be for the clubs which resided there to come to terms with whoever bought the airfield.

I realise that these negotiations are bound to take time, but the matter is extremely urgent. There is a hangar there which is holding extremely valuable sailplanes which, I am informed, is likely to come down as soon as a gale blows up. Quite apart from the desire to improve amenities—a desire which every club has—I hope that the matter can be accelerated as much as possible and I should be very much obliged if I could have the latest information about it from my hon. Friend.

6.19 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Mr. Charles Orr-Ewing):

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Stamford (Sir R. Conant) for raising this subject. I understand and share his enthusiasm for gliding. In fact, it was he who, at Dunstable, a little more than a year ago, introduced me to the sport, and I am very grateful to him for having given me that chance. It certainly is a delightful sport and anything which I can do as the result of the comments my hon. Friend has made to make it more widely available, I will most certainly do—provided that it does not lead us into economic difficulties. It also gives me an opportunity of telling the House a little about what we are doing to encourage this fine sport both for the youth of the country, through the Air Training Corps, and within the Royal Air Force itself, in the gliding clubs.

I must, however, first make it clear that from the R.A.F. point of view gliding is essentially a sport. My hon. Friend referred to it several times as a sport, and I endorse that view. We must say that it is of little immediate practical value for Royal Air Force flying training, but we realise that it is a sport which encourages an interest in aviation and which is, therefore, specially suitable for boys in the Air Training Corps and the Combined Cadet Forces.

Just as small-boat sailing develops a love and respect for the sea, so gliding develops a love and understanding of the air. It helps to develop a knowledge, for example, of winds, clouds and weather, and a love of the countryside over which one glides. It also helps to develop a form of self-reliance and self-confidence, and this is of value in the cadet training syllabus as a test of character.

For just the same reasons it is an ideal spare time activity for R.A.F. personnel and, within the practical limits of finance, which I have already mentioned—and of our view that it is basically a sport—we give it all the encouragement we can. Gliding is already officially recognised as a sport in the Royal Air Force. There are at present nine R.A.F. gliding clubs, and a tenth is in process of being formed. These clubs receive financial help from non-public funds, and we are also able to give a limited amount of help from public funds.

We make no charge for the use of airfields or buildings; we provide free heating and lighting; we help the clubs with their travelling expenses when they travel to take part in team competitions, and to that extent travel is subsidised, and if, by any sad chance, accidents should occur, members have just the same entitlement to consideration for non-effective benefits as if they had been on duty.

My hon. Friend suggested that we might go further and give some more help to the R.A.F. gliding clubs. He made the point that by expanding facilities for gliding within the R.A.F. we should be able to offer boys in the Cadet Forces the attraction of much better opportunities for continuing their gliding when they enter the R.A.F., as we naturally hope that they will do.

I need hardly tell the House that we attach great importance to any measures which will help our recruiting drive, but the House will also appreciate that in present financial circumstances we must weigh the merits of every proposal with considerable care. As I have already said, gliding experience is nowadays of very limited value as an introduction to R.A.F. flying training, and it also has little practical application to the more technical sides of the Service.

We feel, therefore, that while gliding is a fine sport and one very especially appropriate in the R.A.F., it should continue to be regarded mainly as a sport and that the mainspring of its advance should, therefore, be the private initiative of individual enthusiasts. We do not feel that we should be justified in extending the financial help that we already give—which, as I have tried to indicate, is already by no means inconsiderable.

One suggestion which my hon. Friend made was that, as an alternative to giving more free travel for gliding, we might arrange postings so that gliding enthusiasts should find themselves on stations where clubs are in existence. I sympathise with this idea, but there are practical difficulties, as my hon. Friend foresaw. Postings are governed by a wide range of factors which we find it difficult to reconcile, and it would be difficult to post to one of the nine stations, all those individual enthusiasts who wanted to glide. But if we are successful in spreading this enthusiasm for gliding throughout the Royal Air Force that task will become easier. I will certainly bear in mind my hon. Friend's suggestion.

Before I turn to the question of gliding for cadets perhaps I may be forgiven for making a brief reference to the light aircraft flying clubs in the R.A.F. During the last year or two R.A.F. enthusiasts have made considerable headway in this direction, and we are now looking around for ways in which we might help flying clubs in the same way as we do gliding clubs. I appreciate that this does not come strictly within the context of my hon. Friend's speech, but I think that, with me, he is an enthusiast for getting young people into the air, and he will perhaps agree that even powered flying is some satisfaction, although I know that he is a great enthusiast for the sailplane. There are at present six of these flying clubs, using, in the main, Tiger Moths and Austers, and they are making very worthwhile strides.

I now turn to the gliding which we provide for cadets of the Air Training Corps and for the R.A.F. Section of the Combined Cadet Forces. I am well aware that, ideally, it would be very desirable to provide more of this gliding and to take training to a higher standard than we do at present. I am in constant contact with those who, by their splendid voluntary work, have made the A.T.C. what it is, and they leave me in no doubt that gliding and flying are the two aspects of A.T.C. activity which most attract the youth of the country.

The amount of gliding which we do in the A.T.C. is not insignificant. We have one full-time gliding school and 20 week-end flying schools, and in the six months up to September, 1957, no less than 46,000 launches have taken place in the A.T.C. That is a very considerable total.

We have been giving much thought to the question of expanding and improving our cadet gliding organisation and I am hopeful that we may be able to do something in this direction in the fairly near future, provided, as always, that we can find the money for it. The task of assessing the relative importance of conflicting claims on the resources available to us is one of constant difficulty, and there will inevitably be disadvantages whichever way we decide these issues. For my own part, I am convinced that our Cadet Forces are of the greatest importance, both as a source of R.A.F. personnel of the future and, more generally, as a means of spreading air-mindedness among the youth of Britain. The work that gliding does in fostering this is of first-class importance.

Only last week I paid a visit to our main cadet gliding centre at Hawkinge, near Folkestone, and I was most impressed with the work that is being done there and with its potentialities in further strengthening the Air Training Corps. At present, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, cadet gliding is taken only as far as an elementary level of proficiency, known as the "B" certificate. We do not, as a rule, allow soaring, and the necessary instruments have been removed from our gliders to ensure that soaring cannot be undertaken in heavy cloud conditions.

The reason is simply that our gliding effort is not unlimited, and we believe that the capacity we have is best used if we offer gliding to the largest possible number of cadets. Basically, the choice is between giving an elementary training to a larger number, or higher training to a smaller number. Since, as I have indicated, our first aim in this matter is to attract boys into the A.T.C. and then to stimulate their interest in aviation once they have joined, I feel sure that we have made the right decision, but I will most carefully examine the proposals which my hon. Friend has put forward this afternoon in relation to giving a few boys the opportunity of going up to the "C" certificate, and also his proposal that we might consider aerial tow, again for a few of the more proficient cadets or airmen, with an opportunity of thus giving them a chance of gaining their "C" certificate more quickly. I will certainly examine both those proposals.

There is, however, one important way in which a boy may take his aviation well beyond elementary gliding. If he is really keen to make flying his career, and has the ability and aptitude which we need for aircrew duties, he can benefit under the Flying Scholarship Scheme. This is open to both the A.T.C. and the R.A.F. section of the Combined Cadet Force. Subject to appropriate tests, a boy can be trained at our expense on light aircraft up to the standard of the private pilot's licence. We award up to 350 scholarships each year and they give the young enthusiast a first-class chance to make progress in aviation.

My hon. Friend raised the question of providing aero-tow and I should like to examine the costs which he mentioned. He gave figures which worked out at 9d., and 9⅗d. per minute. He said that those figures were approximate. I will examine them in detail and write to him on the subject. Another useful proposal made by my hon. Friend was that badges, awarded perhaps by an international authority should be worn, by those who were proficient, on their Royal Air Force uniforms. I will look into that proposal most carefully.

My hon. Friend referred also to Lasham airfield. I have had some correspondence with him on this subject, and with other hon. Members, but it might be helpful if I summarised the present position. The Royal Air Force no longer wants the airfield and there is no other Government need for the land apart from a minor Ministry of Supply interest which need not at this stage affect the main question of the airfield's future. We therefore intend to dispose of the land. Naturally, our first thought would be to offer it to the former owner.

Before we can get down to this, we must take account of the views of the local planning authority on the future use of the land. We have had preliminary discussions with the authority and have now applied formally for a planning determination. When this is received the district valuer, who has been instructed on our behalf, will open negotiations with the former owner. That is the order in which these things must work.

We realise the desirability of reaching conclusions on the future of the airfield and we shall do our part with all possible speed. My hon. Friends will appreciate, however, that this is not a question which can be settled in a matter of days or even weeks. It must be for the clubs themselves, in the light of the information which we have given to them, to decide what steps they should take to maintain or improve their facilities.

Meanwhile, I can give an assurance that I, and my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, with whom I am in constant touch on this matter—and who, in turn, is keeping the British Gliding Association fully informed—will continue to keep a close personal watch on the problem. We are glad that we have been able to help the clubs at Lasham in the past, and we are fully mindful of their present and future interests.

Although I have been unable to agree with, or even to reply to, all the proposals made by my hon. Friend for improving facilities in gliding in the Royal Air Force and the Air Training Corps, I am very glad that he has raised this subject. It enables me to stress once more the value we attach to gliding as a sport and the part it can play in fostering these cadet forces. I wish to thank my hon. Friend for the trouble he has taken in examining this problem and in visiting stations, and I will write to him about those proposals to which I have not been able to reply.