Aircraft Accident, Prestwick (Captain Hankin)

Oral Answers to Questions — Civil Aviation – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th March 1959.

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Photo of Sir Lionel Heald Sir Lionel Heald , Chertsey 12:00 am, 25th March 1959

asked the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation (1) whether he is aware that the Chief Inspector of Accidents, in breach of the provisions of Regulation 7 (5) of the Civil Aviation (Investigation of Accidents) Regulations, 1951, has ignored three successive requests made to him in writing on 4th November and 12th December, 1958, and 9th January, 1959, by Captain W. H. Nankin, the pilot of a British European Airways aircraft which crashed at Prestwick on 28th April, 1958, that he should be permitted to be fully heard, and to call and cross-examine witnesses, before the Chief Inspector made his report on the crash and what action he will take to protect the rights of Captain Hankin;

(2) whether he was aware, when he considered the report of the Chief Inspector on the crash of a British European Airways aircraft at Prestwick on 28th April, 1958, that the pilot, Captain W. H. Hankin, who had over 10,000 hours flying experience, had urgently submitted that a public inquiry should be held, having regard to certain important considerations of public safety and confidence arising from the use of a type of altimeter which is now being modified; and to what extent he took this fact into consideration; and

(3) why he has not ordered a public inquiry into the crash of a British European Airways aircraft at Prestwick on 28th April, 1958, having regard both to the right of the pilot to defend himself and to the considerations of public safety and confidence that are involved.

Photo of Mr Harold Watkinson Mr Harold Watkinson , Woking

The letters from Captain Hankin were fully discussed with him by the Chief Inspector of Accidents and members of his staff. I am satisfied that Captain Hankin was afforded, under Regulation 7 (5) of the Civil Aviation (Investigation of Accidents) Regulations, 1951, every opportunity to make a statement and give evidence to the Chief Inspector and, had he so desired, to produce and examine witnesses.

I was aware, when considering the report of the Chief Inspector, of Captain Hankin's request for a public inquiry. In considering whether or not I should order a public inquiry, I most carefully considered the questions of public safety and of responsibility. As the Chief Inspector's investigation, at an early stage, clearly established the cause of the accident and as no lives were lost, and no passengers were involved, I decided that, in these circumstances, I should not be justified in ordering a formal public inquiry.

Photo of Sir Lionel Heald Sir Lionel Heald , Chertsey

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I have in my hand a copy of a document which Captain Hankin was pressed to sign in circumstances which are sometimes referred to as a "blood chit," which stated that he did not desire to exercise rights open to him under the Regulations and that he twice refused to sign it? In those circumstances, is it not a fact that the report of the Chief Inspector contains a statement in paragraph 7 to the effect that the Regulations have been complied with, which is false? What does my right hon. Friend propose to do about it?

Photo of Mr Harold Watkinson Mr Harold Watkinson , Woking

I am afraid I do not agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. The position is as I stated in my Answer to the three Questions, which I have very carefully considered. The facts are as I then said, that I am satisfied that Captain Hankin had every opportunity to discuss the letters which were written to the Chief Inspector with him and with his officials. He could have called witnesses if he wished to do so. As to the issue of a public inquiry, I have given the reasons why I decided it was not in this case appropriate.

Photo of Mr Frank Beswick Mr Frank Beswick , Uxbridge

I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman recalls the quite categorical assurance given in the House on 14th July, 1954, in which the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Profumo) said: My right hon. Friend has decided to extend the existing criteria of a court investigation to include accidents in which it may appear from the preliminary report of the Chief Inspector that such measure of blame may be attached to an inndividual as seriously to prejudice his career."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th July, 1954; Vol. 530, c. 464.] In view of the fact that this captain has had his career most seriously prejudiced and that he had asked for these facilities to be extended to him, why does the Minister take his present stand?

Photo of Mr Harold Watkinson Mr Harold Watkinson , Woking

The Answer then given, which I carefully looked up was, as the hon. Member said, that one of the criteria the Minister must take into account is the question of the position of the captain of the aircraft. I most carefully considered that, as I have said in answer to my right hon. and learned Friend, and still came to the conclusion that the public inquiry was not in anyone's interest.

Photo of Sir Arthur Harvey Sir Arthur Harvey , Macclesfield

As this was an almost unique accident, happening at night and all the crew surviving, does not my right hon. Friend think it would be better when there are survivors to take full advantage of the fact that they are there to give full evidence in public? As this man had flown something like 10,000 hours and the first officer had flown over 5,000 hours and the only statement made was while he was in hospital, will my right hon. Friend review the matter and see that it is fully ventilated publicly?

Photo of Mr Harold Watkinson Mr Harold Watkinson , Woking

The purpose of accident investigation, as I think my hon. Friend knows, is not to ascertain who was responsible, but to establish clearly the cause of the accident in order that any remedial action might be taken over other aircraft and other services. The cause of the accident was clearly established and clearly set out in the Inspector's report, which, of course, is available and was published.

Photo of Sir Lionel Heald Sir Lionel Heald , Chertsey

While making it quite clear that I do not accept my right hon. Friend's statement with regard to the letter of complaint, may I ask him a supplementary question in regard to a different matter, dealt with in Questions Nos. 48 and 49? Is he aware that as long ago as 1954 officials of his Department were made aware through their membership of the group of I.A.T.A., which reported on the matter, of the danger created by the possibility of misreading an altimeter, but that nothing was done to warn pilots or controllers until this accident took place? Does he not think that that is a very serious matter indeed?

Photo of Mr Harold Watkinson Mr Harold Watkinson , Woking

I should think so if that were the fact. I regret to differ from my right hon. and learned Friend, but the fact is that a great deal of action has been taken to try to improve the presentation of the altimeter dial as presented to the pilot. The altimeter dial in use in this particular Viscount had been modified in that respect and had a new and redesigned series of pointers to try to make an error by the captain of the aircraft less likely. This has been a constant difficulty in aircraft, not only in this country but all over the world. That is why I have recently set up a further committee to see whether we can make further improvements. To say that no action was taken on this matter is, I am afraid, not correct.

Photo of Mr Frank Beswick Mr Frank Beswick , Uxbridge

The Minister said that the captain had an opportunity to make a further statement. Is he aware that when Captain Hankin was invited to make a statement, he asked if he could first read the evidence on which the charges against him were based and he was refused permission to read that evidence? In that case, he said he would refuse to make a statement. Is not this an entirely unsatisfactory method of obtaining the truth? Why is the Minister so obstinate about it?

Photo of Mr Harold Watkinson Mr Harold Watkinson , Woking

The hon. Member has given me the opportunity to say that no charges were made at any time against Captain Hankin. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] That is perfectly true; there were no charges at all. As to what he was shown, as the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick) knows quite well, he was shown the information written by my Chief Inspector of Accidents. That is the normal procedure. No departure has taken place from the normal procedure of dealing with an accident. The duty of my inspector and my Department is to get at the facts, and they are normally set out in the report.

Photo of Sir Lionel Heald Sir Lionel Heald , Chertsey

May I ask my right hon. Friend quite specifically, does he or does he not say that pilots were warned before the accident of the danger arising from the altimeter which had been known to his Department for four years?

Photo of Mr Harold Watkinson Mr Harold Watkinson , Woking

What I quite clearly and specifically say is that every possible step has been taken to make known to pilots the danger of misreading an altimeter dial, including instructions issued by B.E.A. to all its pilots.

Photo of Sir Lionel Heald Sir Lionel Heald , Chertsey

I beg to give notice that, having regard to the unsatisfactory nature of the answers given, I shall raise this matter at the earliest opportunity when the House resumes after Easter.