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Raf Pilots (Training)

Volume 84: debated on Tuesday 22 October 1985

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asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the operational effectiveness of the current content and levels of training for pilots in the Royal Air Force.

We aim to produce RAF pilots of the highest standard of operational effectiveness. The operational performance of RAF crews in tasks such as intercepting Soviet aircraft in the United Kingdom air defence region; in regularly saving lives in search and rescue operations; and in the RAF's massive air lift of food in Ethiopia in very demanding flying conditions shows that such a standard is being achieved.

I recognise that low-flying is an important component of a high standard of training, but is the Minister satisfied that there are not large swathes of the country which are not taking their fair share of this disruptive activity? Does he accept that the activity should be shared more evenly? Is he satisfied that enough is done in the training programme to impress upon pilots the need to observe the 250 ft limit, which is not always observed?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for acknowledging the operational importance of low-flying training, which is fundamental to the survivability in modern warfare conditions of our advanced combat aircraft.

We examine closely the areas within which low flying is restricted. It makes sense to avoid areas of high population or where there are hospitals. Our broad policy is to try to spread the low-flying load as widely and therefore as thinly as possible so as to cause the minimum disturbance in any locality. We train our pilots intensively to ensure that the 250 ft limit is observed.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the RAF's airmanship standard is the highest in the world and that that can be maintained only if sufficient fuel is provided for adequate flying hours each month? Can he assure me that that will be available?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comment about the RAF's standard of airmanship, and I endorse what he said. I think that RAF pilots are second to none in the world.

We have been able to make some increases in fuel supplies after initial cuts announced this year. There will be only a small reduction this year. I can assure my hon. Friend that our combat pilots' flying hours are higher than the NATO minimum.

Is it true that the aircraft disaster over Cumbria three weeks ago involving two Jaguar aircraft flying in a dangerous manner cost the MOD £21 million? Is that not rather a lot of money to be involved when two aircraft were flying in the manner described by people who saw the accident?

Is the Minister aware of the unrelenting public hostility throughout Cumbria to low-flying exercises, and is it not time that the policy was reviewed? Is the Minister further aware that I have more letters in my office on this matter than on almost any other subject? May we have some action from the Government. who so far have been insensitive to protests from the general public?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reconsider the criticisms that he appeared to direct at the air crew who were tragically involved in that accident, even though the results of the board of inquiry are not yet known.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman and the House recognise that, in order to achieve the very demanding flying standards necessary in today's modern warfare conditions, the Royal Air Force combat pilots expose themselves to grave risks and must practise intensively to achieve their very high standards.

Will my right. hon. Friend pass on our condolences to the families of the pilots who were tragically killed in that accident? That crash, about which the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) spoke, happened in my constituency.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the vast majority of my constituents dearly wish that low flying was not necessary, but realise that it is preferable to have our pilots flying over the constituency at 250 ft than to have foreign aggressors at 10,000 ft?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. I am sure that the relatives of the pilots will appreciate what he said.

I fully endorse his remarks about the critical relationship between demanding flying standards and the survivability of aircraft in modern warfare conditions.