Orders of the Day — The Royal Air Force

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd April 1978.

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Photo of Mr Nicholas Scott Mr Nicholas Scott , Kensington and Chelsea Chelsea 12:00 am, 3rd April 1978

It pains me to say this, but I believe that what the French have been doing is sheltering under the NATO umbrella without accepting their duties, or what ought to be their duties, under the NATO umbrella. They have been bad members of the Alliance, in so far as they have been members of it. I would not want to see us emulating that example.

It is interesting that but for a very tangential comment by the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Williams), there has been no mention of joint services or the elimination or reduction of the independence of the Royal Air Force as a Service. I do not claim to be an expert in these matters, but those who are seem to say that those countries which have experimented with unified services or with army air forces have always been dissatisfied with the outcome. Had we not had in 1940 a totally independent Air Force, we might well have been tempted to commit more fighter squadrons to the land battle on the Continent of Europe and thus have been unable effectively to defend this island when the real crunch came in the air. Therefore, I certainly hope that we shall continue to have a totally independent Royal Air Force, although, of course, co-operating with the other Armed Forces.

Mention has been made in the debate of the withdrawal of Nimrod from the Mediterranean and the blow that that is to NATO's strength in that area. I was lucky fairly recently to be able to go on an Atlantic patrol in a Nimrod aircraft. It is an immensely sophisticated piece of machinery, yet we are using it—and it may be that we have withdrawn it from the Mediterranean because we want to increase this use—as a maritime surveillance and fishery protection aircraft.

I wonder whether it is right to use a piece of machinery as sophisticated and expensive as the Nimrod for that sort of role when we are producing in the Isle of Wight the Britten-Norman Defender and when Hawker-Siddeley is also producing aircraft that it is selling to other countries for maritime surveillance and fishery protection, aircraft which can do those limited jobs much more cheaply and more cost-effectively than Nimrod can. I wonder whether we are using that aircraft in its best role, whether it would not be better to use those alternatives for such roles and to keep Nimrod for its proper job of surveillance and be able to commit it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro) and other hon. Members mentioned low flying. One idea put to me by a serving officer might be worthy of consideration. It fits in with the Minister's mention today of airborne refuelling and the new tanker aircraft that are being purchased. The suggestion is that it might be possible to send squadrons of aircraft across the Atlantic to Eastern Canada, refuelling them in the air on the way and then giving the pilots three months' intensive low-level flying in Eastern Canada, over areas of virtually nil population. If that were possible it might well reduce the burden on the inhabitants of this country, while giving our pilots the sort of low-level training that they need.

I turn to the two points perhaps raised most often in the debate—the pay and the hours of the pilots who fly the aircraft that are our defence. Neither of the two main protagonists who talked about pay policy are in the Chamber, but I say to those Labour Members who are present that they missed the following point. I realise that our society could be destroyed as easily by inflation as by attack from outside. Certainly, I want to hold the line against inflation, but when Service men see a Government saying that we have had a pay policy now for a number of years, and the line must be held here, they reply "Yes, but what you are imposing on us is a pretence of what pay policy has actually achieved so far. We have had the reality of it, and we have fallen steadily behind." Other people have had settlements, but wages drift and other arrangements have meant that earnings have gone up over that period progressively, whereas the Service men, the firemen and the police have been left behind up to now.

I believe that when the arrangements are made the Service men should have settlements no less favourable than those announced for the firemen, who struck, as compared with the Service men, who have patiently put up with the position for so long, and who did the job.

As regards hours, I am sure that the 20 hours' flying a month for a front-line pilot are too few. I understood that the original limitation was imposed because of the fuel crisis in 1973–74 and that was when the number of training hours was cut to 20. If that is so, surely the restrictions could by now have been relaxed so that pilots could have rather more training that they are at present.

There is an even more frustrating aspect to the lack of flying for pilots. if I am right in saying that it is now the practice for general duties branch officers to have only one flying tour at each rank level, this means that an officer may spend five or six years in a rank and, if he has his flying tour early on, it may be four or five years before he gets back to a flying post again.

I suspect, although I do not know, that that is the period at which there are most applications for premature voluntary retirement. Men have joined the Royal Air Force to fly, they enjoy flying and see it as their job to fly, but they face several years stuck behind a desk and unable to look forward to any early prospect of getting in the air again. I know some serving RAF officers who go off at the weekend or when they have some leave and train private pilots, just for the chance of getting behind the controls of an aircraft and also, perhaps, earning themselves a bit of money at the same time.

There has been a good deal of talk about the shortage of pilots, but no one has mentioned an interesting fact in this connection. I almost hesitate to mention it in this entirely male company, but an interesting event occurred only two weeks ago, when the United States Air Force graduated its first class of women pilots. They will be used on transport flying in the United States Air Force, for instructing and for other roles. It may well be that we have a potential here in the Royal Air Force for women pilots in the future, perhaps not for combat roles but for other flying roles.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) made special reference to the cuts in Transport Command and the need for Transport Command to be expanded again. I understand—I think that the figures are right—that the Soviet Union transports in and out of central Europe every six months about 100,000 ground troops. Part of the reason may be that the Soviet Union does not want its ground troops in central Europe to become over-familiar with the local population, but I believe that it is doing it also as a training exercise in order to maintain air transport capability so that it may engage, if necessary, in such operations as those which we have witnessed in Africa. I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester said in urging the need for a better transport capability in the Royal Air Force.

I join in the congratulations to the Royal Air Force on its 60 years. What I hope, perhaps above all, is that we can keep this nation an air-minded nation. Too many people tend to think of aircraft as rather noisy and inconvenient things, failing to remember the role which they and their aircrews have played both in defending these islands and in developing the world as we see it today.

We should not ignore the importance of inspiration in all this, and two names in particular come to my mind. When he flies at Farnborough this year, Neville Duke will have completed 25 years as test pilot for Hawker Siddeley. He has been a great inspiration for many young men and women. Then one remembers Neil Williams, tragically killed recently in Spain, who both as a serving RAF officer and then as a great aerobatics pilot, inspired thousands of our youngsters to take to the air. I hope that that sort of inspiration will continue and will continue to be encouraged by the Royal Air Force.

During the debate there has been reference not just to the main arm of the Royal Air Force but to the other branches—the nursing service, the auxiliary force and the volunteer reserve. I wish to pay tribute, in particular, to the RAF air traffic control service, whose members are unfailingly helpful and courteous to pilots, both private and business, who fly about these islands. When they ask for the help of air traffic control, the service never resents giving of its help and expertise.

I mention also those in the volunteer reserve training branch who train the air cadets and prepare them for a career in the Royal Air Force in the future, upon which the whole strength of the Service depends.

We can all say that the first 60 years of the Royal Air Force have been a thoroughly good show, but perhaps we can add the hope that the next may be better yet.