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Raf Canberra Accident, Huntingdon

Volume 931: debated on Wednesday 4 May 1977

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asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the Canberra air crash at Huntingdon yesterday.

Shortly after 11 a.m. yesterday, a Canberra aircraft of No. 39 Squadron was returning to its base at RAF Wyton, near Huntingdon, after a routine training flight. About two miles from the end of the runway, it crashed by some houses in the estate of Oxmoor in the village of Hartford, north-east of Huntingdon. Three young children were killed and five people were injured, of whom two are detained in hospital. The two RAF members of the crew were also killed.

It is too early to identify the cause of the accident. A board of inquiry was set up yesterday. The weather was good. The crew members did not use their ejector seats. I am sure that the House will wish to join me in expressing great sympathy to the parents and relatives of the little children and of the crew who died and to those who were injured. All emergency services reacted very quickly, and I should like to thank them and the members of the public at the scene of the accident for the ready assistance they rendered.

May I join in the right hon. Gentleman's expression of sympathy to the injured and to the families of those who were killed, especially to the parents of the very young children who suffered this tragic accident? May I also join him in the thanks he has expressed to the public services?

Is the Secretary of State aware that all of us who live near Wyton and Alconbury airfields have for long been concerned about the proximity of the flight paths of aircraft using those airfields and the low angle of approach which those aircraft have to use when landing? Will he ensure that at the inquiry these factors are fully considered, whether or not they are found ultimately to be the cause or to have contributed to the cause of the accident?

Finally, will the Secretary of State give an undertaking, bearing in mind, of course, the need for security, that there will be a public report of as much of the evidence and of the findings as it is feasible to give?

On the last point, it is not usual to publish reports of boards of inquiry, but certainly I shall consider what statement can be made, and in what way when we know the outcome of the inquiry.

On the right hon. and learned Gentleman's first point, operational considerations limit the room for adjustment on flight paths, and at this stage I should not like to speculate whether these were or were not a factor in the most regret-table accident yesterday. Certainly I shall have this considered, and I am sure that it will be a matter to which the board of inquiry will want to give full consideration.

May I add my expression of condolence to the relatives of those who suffered this tragic incident in Huntingdon and also to the relatives of the young airmen who were killed in the incident? I do so slightly in a personal capacity, having myself previously served as an officer at RAF Wyton.

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether, as a result of this incident, RAF Canberras are being grounded pending the outcome of the board of inquiry to see whether there is any mechanical defect? Can he also say whether it is intended to withdraw from service the remaining small number of Canberras now being used?

I am much obliged to my hon. Friend, and I think he will agree, as a Canberra pilot, that the Canberra has been a very good aircraft in the service of the RAF, with a very good safety record. There is no immediate intention to ground the existing Canberra force, but we have asked for an urgent preliminary review from the safety point of view by the board of inquiry. If there is any question of any risk in continuing to fly Canberras, it will be taken into consideration at once. There is no immediate intention to disband the Canberra force. It is expected that it will have a useful rĂ´le in the RAF until the mid-1980s.

To be specific, will the Secretary of State tell the House when the Canberra, which was a fine aircraft in its day and which his Government intend to run on even longer, first entered squadron service with the Royal Air Force?