Orders of the Day — Aircraft Accident, Spain

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th May 1960.

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Photo of Mr John Howard Mr John Howard , Southampton, Test 12:00 am, 16th May 1960

On 19th August, 1959, a Dakota aircraft, en route from Barcelona to Gatwick, crashed. Everyone aboard— the crew of three and the 29 passengers —was killed. One of the passengers was Mary Cotton, a student at Westminster Hospital and a daughter of one of my constituents, and that is why I am interested in this question. My point in raising it tonight is not because anyone wishes to make capital out of personal tragedy but because the relatives are anxious that everything possible should be done to see that a similar accident never occurs again.

We have to ask ourselves, first, why the accident happened—why the captain of the aircraft G-AMZD flew into the top of a mountain at 5,000 feet, a mountain shrouded in mist. In doing so, not only did he kill himself, his crew and his passengers, but he caused considerable dismay because, had he been 100 feet higher, he would have cleared the peak. Again, was his failure to clear the peak due to the fact that he did not know that it existed, or did he take an unjustifiable risk? Was there a defect in the aircraft or its engines?

The report prepared by the Spanish authorities, and published by the Ministry of Aviation, does not give us the answers to these questions with any certainty. My purpose in raising the matter is two-fold. First, I wish to examine the regulations to see that they are adequate in their present form and to discover whether they are being properly enforced. Secondly I wish to draw attention to the unsatisfactory position that can be created by publishing a report from a foreign power without comment from our own Ministry of Aviation.

The regulations controlling the operation of aircraft concern the whole of the travelling public, particularly the thousands who travel by charter flights on their holidays each year. The crashed plane, owned by Transair, was on a non-scheduled charter flight from Barcelona to Gatwick. I put certain Questions to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Aviation on 11th April. He replied that the captain of the aircraft had not flown on the route before, although he was an experienced pilot and had been with Transair since 1956.

The conditions in the region in which the crash occurred are extremely difficult, not to say hazardous, and the regulations therefore require that a captain who has not travelled on the route before should be adequately briefed by a captain experienced on the route before he sets out. In amplification of his reply to my Question, my hon. Friend said that the captain of the Dakota had passed a test displaying knowledge of the route, including the terrain, air traffic and navigational facilities, a matter to which I will return later. He also observed that the existing regulations concerning briefing were generally satisfactory, but there was difficulty in making the same provisions for non-scheduled flights. I emphasise again that that the flight which I am discussing was a non-scheduled flight.

I have spoken to a number of pilots and there is no doubt in their minds about the hazards of the Montseny Peak area, where the crash occurred. The dangers are borne out by B.O.A.C. regulations, which require a plane, which is captained by a pilot who has not been on the route before, to carry as a supernumerary a supervisory captain with knowledge of the route and able to give advice on approaching this difficult part of the run to Barcelona.

I want to say a few words about the circumstances revealed by the report of the Spanish authorities. This report is extremely brief, but it makes clear that the aircraft left Barcelona for Gatwick on visual flight rules, that is rules requiring the captain of the aircraft to be able to see five miles ahead, to be able to estimate that he can remain at 1,000 feet either above or below cloud, and also that he will be able to remain one mile to the side of any cloud.

If those conditions do not exist, then the captain must switch to I.F.R., that is, instrument flying rules. That is quite a business and means reporting to local air control and obtaining a new flight plan. From the Spanish report it appears that the captain of the aircraft could either have flown round the mountain, thus remaining on V.F.R., visual flight rules, or could have reported to air control for a new plan. He did neither. He flew into the cloud, hitting the peak of the mountain at 5,000 feet. Clearly, one can suppose only that he did not know that the peak was there.

In these circumstances and against this background, I ask my hon. Friend four specific questions. First, is he satisfied that the regulations are being carried out, particularly as regards the briefing of pilots on the hazards of this route and possibly other routes as well? Secondly, what steps do his officials take to confirm that the briefing of a pilot is proper. In this case, how did the Ministry officials satisfy themselves about the information which my hon. Friend gave to the House on 11th April when he said of this pilot: He had, however, passed the tests required by the regulations as to his knowledge of the route, including the terrain, and the air traffic and navigational facilities".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th April, 1960; Vol. 621, c. 876.] How is my hon. Friend sure that that examination was taken and passed?

Thirdly, can my hon. Friend say whether the flight schedule was inspected? For example, was adequate time allowed to permit the pilot to change to I.F.R., or was it so tight that the pilot was tempted to take a chance? Fourthly, does he consider that the regulations are both adequate and capable of enforcement with non-scheduled flights?

As I said earlier, thousands of holiday-makers fly to Spain this way every year and charter flights are an essential feature of reasonably priced holidays. It is important to know my hon. Friend's opinion of the regulations covering this type of flight. Many of us may think, "But for the grace of God, we might have been on that Dakota". Cheapness should not be achieved at the expense of safety, and it may well be that something on the lines of the B.O.A.C. regulations should be introduced.

In the few minutes left I want to deal with a second important matter, the report itself. The British Airline Pilots Association is among those who deplore the publication of reports by foreign countries without covering comments from my right hon. Friend. The general public in this country do not distinguish between official reports of the Ministry of Aviation and foreign reports prepared in Spain and elsewhere. It would be preferable if the Ministry reserved its views on foreign reports, and in introducing the report used such phraseology as: The views do not necessarily represent those of Her Majesty's Government. Such an introduction would perhaps prevent the Press from coming out with the headline "British pilot blamed" as was the case with this crash. That headline was introduced despite the concluding words of the Spanish report which said: The Air Minister in Spain had closed the case without allocating responsibility. I refer now to Annexe 13 to the Code of the International Civil Aviation Organisation which provides for certain matters to be dealt with in reports covering crashes. It is quite clear that this report by the Spanish authorities on the Montseny crash failed in at least three respects. First, in reporting on the crash there was no comment on the condition of the engines. I am informed that an experienced investigator could have told if the engines were at full power at the moment of impact, and that would be significant because the aircraft was fully laden and it may be the explanation Why the pilot was unable to avoid the peak. In fairness to the pilot we should know what evidence was taken. Secondly, there was no transcript of the conversation between the crew in the aircraft and air control at Barcelona. That transcript may throw some light on the reason for the accident. Thirdly, the evidence of witnesses on the spot has not been published.

All countries which subscribe to this Code ought to comply with the standards laid down in Annexe 13, and since an accredited representative of the United Kingdom was present at the inquiry I am rather surprised that that representative either did not, or was not asked to, comment on the Spanish Report when it was published.

My hon. Friend may say in reply— although I do not think that he will— that the Scott-Cairns Committee is sitting at this moment to consider modification of the regulations for air traffic. We must not wait for that Report. There is a lesson to be learnt from this tragic crash and I hope that my hon. Friend can assure the House that the circumstances have been investigated in relation to the enforcement of the existing regulations, and that new regulations will be introduced if he feels that it is advisable to introduce them to improve safety standards.

Nothing can bring back to life those who were killed in this disaster, but it would be some small consolation to the relatives of the crew and of the students if they knew that every possible step was being taken to prevent a similar accident happening again.