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Royal Navy (Accidents)

Volume 667: debated on Tuesday 20 November 1962

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I will, Mr. Speaker, with your permission, make a statement about the helicopter crash which occurred on Friday afternoon off St. David's Head.

The helicopter, belonging to H.M.S. "Hermes", was carrying three passengers, the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Cronin), and an R.A.F. officer, Squadron Leader Stott, from the ship to the R.N. Air Station, Brawdy.

The noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, and the hon. Member for Loughborough had been spending a period at sea in H.M.S. "Hermes" under an Admiralty scheme to enable Members of both Houses of Parliament to visit the Fleet. One mile west of South Bishop's Island, while flying at 1,000 feet, the aircraft suffered a total engine failure and came down in the sea. It came down slowly under auto-rotation, but on striking the rough water immediately rolled over, submerging the door. It sank in less than a minute.

The hon. Member and the crew of two were rescued alive and unhurt by another helicopter from H.M.S. "Hermes" after being in the water for about half an hour. Squadron Leader Stott was also picked up, unconscious, but I am sorry to say that he subsequently died. Lord Windlesham was not picked up, and I very much regret that, in spite of a prolonged search of the area, by aircraft from H.M.S. "Hermes", and from the R.N. Air Station, Brawdy, in which H.M. Ships "Duchess", "Berwick", "Scarborough" and "Lowestoft", as well as the St. David's life-boat, took part, no trace of him has been found.

On behalf of the Royal Navy I would like to express my deep sympathy to the families concerned.

A board of inquiry assembled yesterday on board H.M.S. "Hermes". We expect to receive the report in a few days. An attempt is being made to salvage the helicopter, which is lying in 26 fathoms.

I should also like to take this opportunity to make a short statement on yesterday's accident. As the House is aware, at 5.30 yesterday morning there was an accident in one of the boiler rooms of H.M. Aircraft Carrier "Centaur", when a serious high-pressure steam leak occurred. Rescue operations by the ship's company were begun immediately, but I am sorry to say that an officer and four ratings who were on watch in the boiler room at the time received fatal injuries.

I should like to express deep sympathy to the families of those who lost their lives.

A board of inquiry is being sot up.

As my constituency is connected with one of the accidents, may I be allowed to associate myself with the expressions of sympathy, and ask three brief questions about the helicopter accident?

First, will it be possible for those interested to have the information available from the court of inquiry findings? Secondly, is the Civil Lord aware that my own constituents consider that the Navy, in all its departments, acted with fantastic speed and gallantry; and that it is thanks to them that we have my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Cronin) with us today?

Thirdly, in view of the special circumstances in which the House of Commons has been involved, will the Civil Lord draw my remarks to the attention of the captains commanding the units concerned, and to that of the St. David's lifeboat coxswain?

We do not publish the report itself, but I will consider making a statement. I should like to thank the hon. Member for the very generous things that he has said about the Royal Navy and the local command.

I thank the Civil Lord for his statement, and would like to be associated—as, I am sure, the whole House would like to be—with the expressions of sympathy to the families and relatives of those who have been killed.

May I ask whether the "Centaur" accident is the first of its kind in the history of these particular ships? Further, can the hon. Gentleman say anything about what appears to be the very long time it took before the boiler room could be entered?

As far as I have been able to consult engineering experts in the Admiralty, this is the first accident of this sort for a very long time indeed.

On the second point, I think that it will come out in the court of inquiry that one of the reasons for the delay was the superheated steam which was present, and the high pressure that was built up inside the boiler room, which made it difficult for the rescue party.

I am sure that the House would like me to congratulate the hon. Member for Loughborough on his calmness and resolution, and on his escape.

On behalf of myself and my colleagues, I should like to express very sincere sympathy with the relatives of those who lost their lives. It is only a few days since I was dining with Lord Windlesham. He was full of vitality, and one would have expected him to have had many more years of active public life. It is a tragedy which we all very deeply regret.

I gather that the hoard of inquiry will be reporting to the Minister very soon. Whilst that report may not be published, I would hope that a statement will be made to the House.

Can the Minister say what will be the scope of the power of the board of inquiry into the "Centaur" accident? Will it be a purely technical inquiry, or will the board also go into the general history of the ship, the standard of discipline, and the rest?

Do I take it that the Board of inquiry into the "Centaur" accident will be recruited solely from the Navy, or will there be any representation of outside engineering ability? Will it deal specifically with when the superheater elements were last reviewed, and what the steam-gauge reading was at the time of the accident?

The court of inquiry will consist of naval members. It is being set up on board, so it will obviously consist of experts in every field concerned with this inquiry.

Referring to the helicopter accident, I should like to associate myself with the expressions of sympathy that the Civil Lord has made to the widows and relations of the late Lord Windlesham and Squadron Leader Stott. May I also thank the Civil Lord, and hon. Members on both sides, for their very kindly expressions of good wishes?

Is the Civil Lord aware that on this occasion all the naval personnel behaved in the most commendable possible way? Is he also aware that the rescue operations were most speedy and efficacious, and that an enormous amount of care was taken to continue the search until all possible hope was lost? Finally, may I say that the whole incident was consistent with the highest traditions of the Royal Navy?