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Raf Shackleton (Crash)

Volume 171: debated on Tuesday 1 May 1990

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3.30 pm

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the crash of the RAF Shackleton in the Outer Hebrides.

I know. The hon. Gentleman knows that I take points of order in their proper place, after the statements.

I know. I repeat to the hon. Gentleman that I take points of order in their proper place, after the statements.

It is with much regret——

Order. The hon. Gentleman is a very senior Member of the House. He knows that I take points of order in their proper place, after the statements.

I know. I repeat to the hon. Member, who has been here as long as I have, that I take points of order in their proper place, after the statements.

Order. I do not know whether the hon. Member can hear what I am saying to him. I am saying that I take points of order in their proper place after the statements—and that I will certainly do—and not now. We are still in the middle of Question Time. This is a private notice question which I have granted.

It is with much regret that I have to confirm to the House that an RAF Shackleton airborne early warning aircraft based at RAF Lossiemouth, crashed on a hillside near Northton on the isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides yesterday afternoon around 12.30 pm. Tragically, all 10 RAF personnel on board the aircraft were killed. I am sure that the House will join me in extending our deepest sympathy to the families of those concerned.

A board of inquiry has been convened. As the House will be aware, until the board's investigations are complete it would be inappropriate to speculate about the causes of the accident.

On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I join the Government in extending to the families of the airmen who were killed our most sincere condolences and sympathy.

I would also like to place on record our tremendous regard for the aircrews of No. 8 squadron who have to fly the Shackletons, often in extreme conditions, and also for the groundcrews of the squadron who have the incredibly difficult task of keeping these 40-year-old aircraft in service. The task has been made extremely difficult in recent years because of the reduction of operational Shackletons from 11 to the current six. During this time, planes which have gone out of commission have been cannibalised to keep the rest in the air, which is a significant achievement.

The provision of early warning planes has had a sorry history in this country——

We find it difficult to understand why the Shackleton seems to have had no upgrading in recent times. Apart from the many questions relating to the condition of the aircraft there are questions peculiar to this crash that need to be answered.

One matter of great concern is the role that the aircraft was playing at the time of the crash—[Interruption.] We are investigating a crash in which 10 aircrew were killed.

I understand that the RAF spokesman said that the Shackleton was participating in a missile-firing exercise, but he went on to say in the same statement that no missiles had been fired for at least an hour and a half before the plane crashed. If the plane went on to do flight training, as we were told in the statement, perhaps the Minister will tell us why it was flying at 700 ft when the normal operational mode is 6,000 to 8,000 ft, levels at which the plane is not equipped to fly. It has no terrain-following radar or all-weather radar—it has only the Doppler radar which is required for its functional role.

Why was no warning given to the aircraft by the air defence radar, which is only 20 miles away on the mainland and which was acting as an air control station during Exercise Elder Forest?

The Opposition have drawn to the attention of the House the fact that the cuts of recent years have led to a fall in the operational efficiency of the RAF. It is because of such cuts that tragedies like this occur.

The hon. Gentleman referred to cuts. I remind him that one or two of these aircraft at a time are operational, out of a fleet that was six, so there is no question of putting lives at risk when flying these aircraft. They have kept up the high standards of maintenance that we have come to expect from the RAF, particularly during peace time, and there is no question of anyone having been put in danger.

The board of inquiry has started its investigations and it would be wrong to pre-empt their outcome. It is up to the board to decide what happened.

I wish to put the hon. Gentleman straight on one matter. The aircraft was not participating at this stage in the exercise that was taking place at the time. That had finished some hour or so before, and the aircraft was 60 miles away from the training area and was on a training flight.

I join all hon. Members in expressing my deepest sympathy to the relatives of those killed in this tragic accident. As one who is closely involved with RAF Lossiemouth, may I emphasise the exceptional record of that station and of No. 8 squadron in maritime reconaissance and air-sea rescue work?

I share the Minister's view that we should not speculate on the causes of the accident before we hear from the board of inquiry. Does he agree that no Royal Air Force aircraft of whatever age ever flies unless it is fully serviceable and airworthy?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's remarks and for his experience in these matters. He is absolutely right to say that we have had an exceptional record with these aircraft. The last one that crashed was in 1968, and it was a maritime patrol version of this aircraft. In 1972 the aircraft were given strengthened air frames and were updated for the airborne early-warning system, and none of these updated aircraft had crashed until this regrettable tragedy.

As the local Member of Parliament for Lossiemouth, I thank the Minister and all other hon. Members who have expressed their deep sympathy to the people of Lossiemouth and the men at the base. I left Lossiemouth only this morning, and it was a numbed and stunned community. It has not been a stranger to tragedies in other aspects of its life. At a time like this, our thoughts and prayers must surely be with the families of the bereaved, some of whom are known to me personally.

May I ask that there be no further idle speculation about the possible causes of the tragedy? As the inquiry proceeds, will the Minister ensure that the privacy of the families in Lossiemouth and the surrounding areas will be fully observed, and that all action is taken to expedite any practical matters which may help the bereaved?

I can, of course, give the hon. Lady that undertaking. I remind the House that the board of inquiry is sitting. If it comes up with prima facie evidence of technical faults or something to do with the structure of the aircraft which would cause disquiet, the fleet would be grounded at once.

Does my hon. Friend agree that when accidents occur, personnel at Royal Air Force stations are always shocked and their thoughts are with the dependants of those who died? Does he further agree that the Shackleton aircraft has a remarkable safety record and that Royal Air Force pilots and aircrew sign only for aircraft which have been passed as fit and fully operational, and that under no circumstances do RAF aircrew take into the air aircraft that do not meet those criteria? Speculation should therefore not be allowed at this time.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those remarks. It is certainly true that the RAF maintains the highest possible standards and there is no question here of those standards having been in any way lowered.

As the Member for the area in which the accident occurred, I add my condolences to the relatives of those who were killed. The whole community in the islands feels very deeply for the relatives and colleagues of those who died. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the emergency services at the scene of the accident? Does he agree that they responded in an efficient, prompt and thoroughly professional manner?

I join in the hon. Gentleman's tribute to the emergency services. It was a tragedy that there was so little that they could do when they arrived on the scene of the crash.

My hon. Friend will have read that, according to the newspapers, the aircraft of No. 8 squadron were grounded following the tragic accident. Will my hon. Friend confirm that that is not the case, despite press speculation, and that the fact that the aircraft are not flying is a mark of respect for the sad loss?

That is absolutely right. As a mark of respect, the aircraft are not flying today, although there is one standing by in case of emergency. There is no question of the aircraft being grounded unless the board of inquiry comes up with something that causes it disquiet, in which case it would ground them. At the moment, we have no evidence that the accident was caused by a technical fault.

May I assure the Minister of the sympathy of my right hon and hon. Friends for the families and service colleagues of the bereaved? He has already confirmed that it is too early to speculate on the cause of the accident. It is distasteful to try to make political capital out of speculation. It is a tribute to the Shackletons that they are still in service after so many years, carrying out the role assigned to them. Can the Minister give us any indication of when the AWACS replacements will come into operation?

We are not happy with the capability of the Shackleton as an airborne early-warning aircraft. We are happy about its operations capability and the safety of the crew, but its ability as an airborne early-warning system is not good and we should like to replace it as soon as we can. The AWACS will be coming in the spring of next year. We hope that the whole order for seven aircraft will be completed within about 12 months from then.

Will my hon. Friend undertake to take a personal interest in the welfare of those who are bereaved, bearing in mind that in the case of my constituent who was widowed by an RAF helicopter crash it took nearly two years to reach a settlement? Such a delay is too long and must never be allowed to occur again.

I take my hon. Friend's point that two years seems a very long time. We shall certainly do all that we can to make sure that settlements for widows are speeded up.

As a member of the Select Committee on Transport, which has gone into the whole question of RAF and civil flying, may I ask the Minister to ensure that the inquiry removes any suspicion that flying in the normal flight paths could endanger the safety of the public?

We are always mindful of the need to ensure that air safety is kept at the highest possible standard, but we should not anticipate the outcome of the inquiry. We do not know the cause of the accident. We must wait until the board of inquiry has reported and we have a clearer idea of what happened.

As we join together in mourning the loss of the flight crew of No. 8 squadron, will the Minister confirm that it matters not the age of an aircraft so long as during maintenance no structural fatigue or inter-crystalline corrosion is found? Does he also agree that an aircraft's age should not be predominantly in the minds of people when they make certain assumptions?

I totally sympathise with my hon. Friend about that. We are aware of the stress and fatigue problems in terms of the air frames. That is why they are carefully checked on aircraft of that age, and it is because they are so carefully checked that we are happy that it is a safe aircraft when in the air.