Skip to main content

Aircraft Accident (Stornoway)

Volume 124: debated on Monday 14 December 1987

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Durant.]

12 midnight

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of the aircraft accident that occurred at Stornoway aerodrome on 8 December 1983.

A Cessna Citation 500 aircraft crashed into the sea 10 miles south-east of Stornoway with the loss of 10 lives. The flight progress was negligently mishandled by the air traffic service unit at Stornoway during the 15 minutes before the aircraft was inadvertently flown into the sea. The pilot was effectively encouraged, as a result of the laxity of the air traffic controllers, to break mandatory rules that have been implemented for the very purpose of preventing this type of accident.

Senior management within the National Air Traffic Services, whose responsibility it is to advise the accidents investigation branch inspector on the air traffic control aspects of this accident, conspired to cover up the negligence of the Stornoway controllers — their fellow employees—because the matter reflects so badly on their own organisation.

There has been a deliberate misrepresentation of the air traffic controllers' involvement in this accident and an attempt to mislead my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport as addressee of the official accident report and, ultimately, to pervert the course of justice.

Late last year and early this year I corresponded with the Department of Transport on this matter. It came as no surprise that the replies were unsatisfactory and evasive, because they were provided on behalf of the Secretary of State by the very perpetrators of this deception. That is why I now urge my right hon. Friend to order an independent inquiry into the air traffic control aspects of the accident and to reopen the accident inspector's investigation so that the findings and cause can truly reflect the gross negligence displayed by the Stornoway air traffic controllers.

The facts of the case are that a Cessna Citation left Liverpool at 16.32 hours en route to Stornoway carrying a pilot, a pilot's assistant, six adult passengers and two infants. Another aircraft, a Citation Mk II, was carrying other members of the same private party. At 17.34 hours Stornoway ATC passed details of the aerodrome weather observation to both aircraft and asked them to report at 25 miles range from the aerodrome. The pilot of the Cessna Citation acknowledged the Stornoway weather but did not repeat back the altitude indication as required. Instructions to controllers require them to obtain a full read-back of messages containing an altimeter setting. This was the first of many omissions by Stornoway air traffic control.

At 17.40 hours the pilot of the Cessna Citation reported that his range was 25 miles and that he had the Citation MK II in sight. He asked for a clearance to continue his descent and was cleared by the Stornoway controller to descend at his discretion with the aircraft ahead in sight. The use of this procedure is permitted only during the hours of daylight, for reasons that must appear obvious to everyone. A moment later the pilot of the Cessna Citation was asked to report when he had the airfield in sight for a visual approach. He acknowleged this message but no further communication was received from him.

An intensive search was made for the Cessna Citation that night, and two bodies were recovered. During the next four days, five more bodies and some small pieces of aircraft wreckage were found near the same position. The bodies of two more passengers were recovered from the seabed on 28 February and 5 June 1984 and that of the pilot's assistant on 18 July 1984. Attempts to recover the main wreckage were not successful. The inspector concludes that the balance of evidence indicates that the pilot was distracted from his aircraft instruments, probably by the need to re-establish visual contact with the aircraft ahead, that he had a false impression that he was at a safe height and that he failed to check the aircraft's descent until too late.

After studying the inspector's lengthy report in great detail and taking professional advice, it became patently clear to me that the balance of evidence referred to by the inspector had been doctored by the misrepresentations and falsifications relating to the air traffic control aspects of the accident. One of the contributory factors itemised in the accident report was based on the false premise that there was a definite need for the pilot of the Cessna Citation to establish visual contact with the aircraft ahead in order to maintain his own separation. For obvious reasons, the requirements for that procedure cannot be met during the hours of darkness. Therefore, the practice is specifically prohibited at night. The accident occurred at night.

I questioned the integrity of the report in a letter to the Secretary of State on 10 November last year when I expressed my belief that a miscarriage of justice had occurred resulting from the conclusions reached by the inspector of accidents. I went on to say:
"A detailed study of the report reveals serious irregularities and discrepancies relating to the ATC aspects of the accident. Many of the claims and explanations in respect of the ATC involvement are at complete variance with regulations governing the provision of civil air traffic services in United Kingdom airspace. As a result, it is evident that the inspector has not been able to reach accurate and properly balanced conclusions."
I pointed out the glaring misrepresentations in the report, which states that it was necessary for the pilot of the aircraft to maintain visual contact with and his own separation from the aircraft ahead. Since that method of operation is applicable only during the hours of daylight, the statement in the report is a gross distortion of the rules relating to the procedure. Even if daylight prevailed, that procedure could not have been successful and should not have been permitted because the requirement for uninterrupted visual meteorological conditions clearly could not be met. That fact was confirmed by the pilot of the Citation Mk II and by the aftercast from the Meteorological Office. Contrary to the claim in the report, it was not reasonable, therefore, for the controller to assume that the pilot would maintain continuous visual contact with the preceding aircraft and follow it safely from a distance of 25 miles from the aerodrome. The controller's assumption was based solely on the aerodrome meteorological observation which, not exceptionally, was at marked variance with the conditions encountered by both aircraft in their descent towards Stornoway.

I also highlighted the gross inaccuracy in paragraph 2:7 of the report dealing with distance-measuring equipment, or DME separation. The report claimed that with the reported DME ranges indicating that the two aircraft were separated by five nautical miles horizontally, the controller had no reason to advise an additional vertical separation. I pointed out that the manual of air traffic services clearly states that the minimum distance allowed when using DME separation is 15 miles. Moreover, there is no provision for allowing that sort of separation between two aircraft when both are descending on the same track or when aircraft are within 15 miles of the overhead of the DME ground station. Consequently, and contrary to the claim in the report, standard vertical separation was absolutely necessary.

If that absurd claim had been made under oath possibly the author and most certainly his ATC advisers would have been guilty of nothing less than perjury. The ATC advisers involved in the report must have had strong reasons for putting into print such a glaring falsehood. Undoubtedly they were confident that it would remain unquestioned because they were addressing only the uninitiated. We should know what those reasons were.

Another grave misrepresentation in the report is the attempt to justify the controller's misuse of reduced separation. It is claimed that the controller accepted the reduced standard separation applicable in the vicinity of the airfield to aircraft in visual contact. But the body of the report reveals that none of the requirements necessary for providing any form of reduced separation was properly met. Furthermore, the term "the vicinity of the airfield" cannot possibly extend to a range of 25 nautical miles from where the report implies that reduced separation was permitted, especially since the air and air traffic control regulations refer to it as the airspace which contains the pattern of traffic formed by other aircraft intending to land at that aerodrome.

I ended my letter by stating that the flaws and irregularities which I had detailed gave considerable cause for concern. One may conclude that either the accident inspector chose to disregard advice on air traffic control matters that would have been rendered by the Civil Aviation Authority or that he was deliberately misled by information received from that same source. Since the inaccuracies in the report appear to have gone unchallenged by those in the CAA responsible for regulating and overseeing the standards of civil air traffic operations, the latter responsibility could not be ruled out.

I then urged my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State seriously to consider authorising the reopening of the investigation in accordance with his powers under the Civil Aviation (Investigation of Accidents) Regulations. I am afraid that the reply from the Department, dated November 1986, was drafted by the very people who had originally perpetrated the deceptions in the accident report and was a prime example of having the wool pulled over one's eyes. Not surprisingly, it made no attempt to answer my allegations point by point. Instead, it claimed that most of my arguments were not strictly relevant because they related to circumstances where reduced separation in the vicinity of aerodromes is not applicable. It claimed that the term "vicinity of the aerodrome" was infinitely variable and stated that, since the air and air traffic control regulations refer to it as being the airspace which contains the pattern of traffic formed by other aircraft intending to land at that aerodrome, it was equally valid to argue that the vicinity of the aerodrome extended, on the occasion in question, to 25 nautical miles. This was because there were only two aircraft intending to land at Stornoway, and one was at 25 nautical miles. This most incredible interpretation conveniently overlooks the possible existence of unknown aircraft not intending to land at, but obviously wishing to avoid flying within the vicinity of, a particular aerodrome. In other words, that technical term was not defined for the sole benefit of known inbound aircraft, to be adjusted according to the whim of a controller.

The reply also conveniently ignored all my references to the prohibited use of visual separation by the pilots of instrument flight rules flights at night. It attempted to belittle my allegations by saying that the case I had made appeared to be based upon one fine technical point—whether or not the Stornoway controller was entitled to apply the reduced separation permitted between aircraft in the vicinity of an aerodrome. It concluded by unequivocably justifying the actions of the controller at Stornoway and stating that there was no justification for the reopening of the investigation into the accident.

I wrote again to the Department in December 1986. I disputed his allegation that the case I had made was based upon one fine technical point — whether or not the Stornoway controller was entitled to apply the reduced separation permitted between aircraft in the vicinity of an aerodrome. I said that, although National Air Traffic Services has chosen to base its justification of the ATC actions on that one fine technical point, I still maintained that all the allegations in my first letter were strictly relevant. I questioned the logic in claiming that the vicinity of the aerodrome had no dimensional limit and could be infinitely variable—in that a specific portion of air space could be classed as being outside the vicinity of the aerodrome on one occasion yet within it on another. Clearly, any such interpretation renders the term completely meaningless and contradicts all references to this matter in the United Kingdom aeronautical information publication—the official document used for notifying the requirements of the air navigation order.

This document notifies, among other things, the basic procedure to be adopted by a pilot experiencing radio failure. Under certain circumstances he has to leave the vicinity of the aerodrome. In this respect, the guidance available to him and to air traffic controllers clearly shows the dimensional limit of the airspace which contains the pattern of traffic formed by other aircraft intending to land at that aerodrome; that is, the vicinity of the aerodrome. Unquestionably there cannot be a situation — as there clearly would be under the National Air Traffic Services explanation—in which a pilot has no idea of the distance that he has to fly to comply with the requirements of the procedure and leave the vicinity of the aerodrome. I went on to dispute some of the other claims made in the letter that was sent to me. I had some subsequent correspondence with my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department of Transport, and I followed that up with a number of written questions.

The outcome of all this is that, having written letters and asked questions, I still feel that my hon. Friend should consider reopening the case. I have not written three times to the Department, tabled three written questions and initiated an Adjournment debate on a whim. I have a most reliable source and I know that there has been a conspiracy to conceal the true facts. A miscarriage of justice has occurred. This can happen easily enough because of the conflict of interests that exists in the Civil Aviation Authority, which not only provides air traffic control services but regulates those services and conducts inquiries into accidents involving its own air traffic ontrollers. There must be a full and independent inquiry into the way in which investigations into the accident have been conducted and in which subsequent inquiries have been misdirected. It must be determined why the report is riddled with lies.

I have a direct interest in this matter because the accident took place in my constituency, although I was not a Member of Parliament at the time. The controller about whom the hon. Gentleman makes serious allegations is still a constituent of mine. Will the hon. Gentleman accept that I deeply resent the fact that he did not communicate the matter to me? I read about it on the Order Paper and had to write to him to find out what aspects of the matter he intended to raise. I appreciate the fact that he gave me a copy of his speech, but he should have communicated his intentions to me before. Does he also accept that I find it bizarre that he should seek to raise the matter under the privileges of the House and to make accusations that no newspaper would publish if they were made outside the House?

The hon. Gentleman will have noted that I have not named any individual—not the air traffic controller or the 10 people who died. I am concerned about a matter of principle—that the Civil Aviation Authority has two responsibilities which create a conflict of interests. First, the CAA is an air traffic controller itself and, secondly, it is responsible for investigating accidents which may involve a CAA air traffic controller. It is extremely difficult to reconcile those two interests. I have gone out of my way not to name any indvidual. I am informed that though no responsibility has been accepted in this case, the individual involved has been disciplined.

I want to know why the Department will not accept my suggestion that the inquiry should be reopened. If those who contributed to the report have nothing to hide, why should they resist? I assure the House that there are mandatory air traffic control rules which, had they been followed, would undoubtedly have prevented this accident.

First of all, I acknowledge the deep interest in this matter of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) as well as the constituency interest of the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald).

The decision whether the investigation should be reopened is a matter for the chief inspector of accidents, who has previously examined the information that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield has put forward, and has concluded that there is no justification under the regulations for him to use his powers to re-open the investigation. I understand that this matter has been fairly dealt with in accordance with the regulations, although the chief inspector remains willing at all times to consider any new evidence that might be brought to his notice.

I am new to the matter, but I will make sure that my hon. Friend's words are brought to the attention of the chief inspector and of my noble Friend the Minister for Aviation and Shipping. I do not think that my hon. Friend will expect me to get deeply involved, but I recognise that he has used the Adjournment debate to raise a matter that he regards as important. Hon. Members on both sides of the House recognise that air safety is important and that many of us owe our safety to the effective work of pilots, the staff of the CAA and the air traffic controllers, as well as the inspectors who investigate accidents so that lessons can be learned from them.

My hon. Friend has made several points about the information in the report of the inspector of accidents. What he would wish me to say, I think, is that our system of investigating accidents is thorough. He has raised several points about this tragic accident, but, as I have said, I do not have the skill or knowledge to go much further this evening. I could go into a summary of the accident report, but much of that information was given by my hon. Friend so I hope that he will not mind if I do not repeat that information, or other information that is obviously well known to him, as I understand from his exchange of correspondence, and from the accident report.

It is worth noting that the investigation was hindered by the fact that no signicant part of the aircraft was recovered. I do not think that my hon. Friend has disputed the main conclusion of how the accident physically took place. I think his point is that if the aircraft had been under a different form of control it would not have taken place.

My hon. Friend has made several serious charges. I think that the House would probably prefer to take them seriously. I hope that my hon. Friend's interest in making sure that accident investigations of this kind seriously and properly consider all the information, will be correctly reported, rather than being reported in such a way that it seems that an individual is being charged, under parliamentary privilege, with some dereliction of duty. That may be associated with what my hon. Friend has said, but the important point that he is making is that he and the House should be satisfied that we have the right way of approaching issues of this kind, given that we have to learn from every sad accident to make sure that it does not happen again.

Many of the potential causes of the accident were considered in the report. In the analysis, the inspector considered the operational and air traffic aspects of the flight and found that the probable cause was the pilot's lack of awareness of his aircraft's true altitude, which resulted in his allowing his aircraft to descend until it struck the sea. Likely contributory factors were that he was distracted by the need to establish visual contact with another aircraft and that he was misled by false cues from lights on the ground ahead of him.

In accordance with the regulations, copies of the draft report were sent to the operator of the aircraft, the personal representatives of the deceased pilot and the Civil Aviation Authority. They were invited to make any formal representations that they desired to the inspector, and those were carefully considered by the inspector when he finalised his report. None of the representations made any reference to air traffic control. Following the submission of the report to the Secretary of State in November 1984, the same three parties were each sent a copy of the report in its final form. In accordance with the regulations, they were informed of the right to serve on the Secretary of State within 21 days written notice if they wished to ask for a review board to consider any findings or conclusions in the report which appeared adversely to affect their personal reputation. No such request for a review board was made by any of these persons and the report was therefore published in February 1985.

I have said what I usefully can. I hope that my hon. Friend will not imagine that I intend any disrespect if I do not use all the available time. He has had an opportunity to raise the matter in the House, in addition to the correspondence that he had with the previous Minister for Aviation and Shipping, my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Spicer). I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield and the hon. Member for Western Isles will find other opportunities for pursuing their various interests.

The Government regard it as important that safety in the air within the United Kingdom should be dealt with at the highest possible level. That may sometimes require awkward questions and direct points, but that is what Parliament is based on. Perhaps when the debate has been considered by my colleagues in the Department of Transport and by my noble Friend the Minister for Aviation and Shipping, it may be possible to pursue one or two of the points with my hon. Friend.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Twelve o'clock.