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Flight N481EV

Volume 448: debated on Tuesday 4 July 2006

This debate is about an incident involving an aircraft of the Boeing 747-132 series, flight N481EV. Two issues need to be addressed: first, the safety of those on the ground, and secondly, what the aircraft was carrying.

The incident took place on 24 April 2004 at 10.48 am. The aircraft was run by the Evergreen International Airlines corporation, based in McMinnville, Oregon. It was en route from Ramstein in Germany, although it originated in the middle east, where it had encountered a sandstorm, to Wright Field, New York State—allegedly. I shall return to the issue about its destination later.

The aircraft was heading west up the Thames estuary when it began to experience problems. The outer port engine ran down and it was producing no power whatever. The aircraft flew over London, from east to west, and after passing Reading the crew made an attempt to relight the engine, but it could not be restarted. The flight engineer then contacted the operator’s maintenance control, and he was instructed to return to Ramstein where maintenance support was available. Shortly afterwards, air traffic control at the London air control centre approved the intended routing change. A 180° left turn took place, and the aircraft headed west to east, back over south London.

As the crew approached Maidstone, they determined that the three remaining engines were not producing the selected thrust. They declared an emergency and requested a diversion to London Heathrow airport. Their exact words were:

“We’re just not sure we’re gonna get enough power to land”,

and they called an emergency.

The aircraft then flew clockwise in a loop around Tenterden and over Tunbridge Wells. As it approached London for a second time, just south of Croydon, the controller informed the crew that the aircraft was still too high for the approach about which the co-pilot had informed the controller. That is when they said that they did not have enough power to land the plane. The crew did not have approach charts for Heathrow.

In response to a question that I asked the then Minister with responsibility for the matter, the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), I was told that although Stansted is the designated airport for emergencies, Heathrow was chosen because the crew could see it from where they were. I do not profess to be an aviation expert, but from that height, I think one could see Heathrow, Stansted, Gatwick and just about every other airport in south-east England.

Although the crew had no maps for Gatwick, Luton or Heathrow, they had maps for Stansted, but the aircraft went to Heathrow. Given the aircraft’s height and its proximity to Heathrow, the radar control instructed that a 270° turn to the right should be executed to lose the excess height and speed. The crew accepted the instruction and the manoeuvre was flown. It took the aircraft over the centre of London and, at that time of day, hundreds of thousands of people. The pilot put the aircraft through a number of “S” turns to lose height and to manoeuvre to the runway and make a safe landing. It was only in the final stages of the approach that the engines responded with forward acceleration and the aircraft was able to land.

The air accidents investigation branch report says:

“During the handling of the emergency, there was some speculation within ATC concerning the nature of the cargo onboard the aircraft.”

When I asked the then Minister what cargo was on board, I received the answer “cargo”. Again, I am not an aviation expert, but I could have worked that one out for myself. I was asking for a better description of what the cargo might have been and what hazard it might have presented to the residents of London. They deserved a better answer than they received.

We were told that the aircraft’s destination was Wright Field in New York State. Wright Field is actually in Dayton, Ohio, and it is more correctly known as Wright-Patterson air force base. It employs more than 10,000 staff. I have maps of it, and from the satellite picture that I have, one can see that it is an extensive air force base. What is the base used for? It is home to the 88th air base wing, a logistics and transport unit moving US military personnel and materials throughout the world. It also includes specialist research and development facilities, and advanced engineering activities—in layman’s terms, I guess that means the development of weapons.

A number of concerns come out of the AAIB report. The cockpit voice recordings during the incident are unavailable, because they have been wiped. Police were notified of the plane on the ground at Heathrow, but they did not board it. Nor, according to answers that I have received, was the cargo checked. On top of that, there has been press speculation about what might have been on the plane. I know not whether it is correct, but without conclusive answers about what was on the plane, including whether it had a pulse, as it originated in the middle east, the speculation will continue until an answer is given or it is admitted that no one, including the aircraft owners, has any idea what was on it.

The Lockerbie disaster involved a jumbo jet coming down on a low-density area. We know the tragedy that occurred there. What tragedy would have occurred if the jumbo jet, flight N481EV, with whatever was on board, had come down over London? Why did it not go to Stansted, where it would not have had to fly over such populated areas? One could speculate that at Stansted, which is mainly used by carriers such as Ryanair and easyJet, a jumbo jet would be quite visible, whereas who would take any notice of one at Heathrow? That is the cause of the speculation.

My concerns have always been about the safety not only of my constituents—I, too, live under the flight path—but of flying the plane over the whole of London, when it has radioed in and said:

“We’re just not sure we’re gonna get enough power to land”.

That is a worry.

When the plane was on the ground, I assume that the authorities would have been notified about its contents. If they were, I have had no notice of it. I should like to end the speculation today, and I ask the Minister to consider carefully whether we might view the information. Perhaps it cannot be made public, and if so, I accept that. However, if it can, it would kill the speculation once and for all.

The carrier was asked what improvements could be made and why it did not have maps for Heathrow. It claimed, and this is all in the incident report, that there was no need, because it usually flies military personnel or equipment, and the maps that it has for bases are perfectly adequate. In such situations, it might be advisable for the crew to have maps of every destination to which a plane might be diverted on its route.

Why was it not mentioned that Wright Field is not in New York State? It does not exist. Dayton, Ohio is a long way from New York State, so why the inaccuracy? And why was the cockpit recording not kept? In such an incident, surely it is one of the fundamental things that one would do.

A number of points have been wrung from the internet, and I have before me just a little bit about Wright-Patterson air force base. It has its own website, interestingly enough. Some of the pictures here are of shooters trying out their new equipment.

Order. The hon. Gentleman is referring to pictures. As he knows, he will have to describe them for the Official Report. It is not possible to print photographs in the Official Report.

Thank you, Mr. Chope; I am happy to describe the picture. It is of three soldiers, one with headphones on, in a firing range shooting at I know not what because one cannot see it in the picture. The picture clearly demonstrates that the soldiers are firing something at something.

The base is used for the development of weapons, engineering and technology. That is on its website; it is a matter of no doubt whatever. Again I ask the Minister: what was on that plane? What could have come down on the heads of the constituents of London? What danger were they in? Why was the plane not diverted to Stansted? If it is possible for the Minister to answer those questions today—

From her nods, I believe that the Minister will answer my questions today, so that should end some speculation and, if nothing else, keep me quiet. I am grateful to the new Minister, who was not the Minister responsible for aviation when the inquiry first started, for agreeing that we can meet up at a later date to go further into the subject.

There has been a lot of speculation in the media and press about extraordinary rendition, about weapons being flown over Britain and about denials being given. That might well be true. All I am asking is that it clearly be proven that this flight, N481EV, was not part of that and that with such incidents, when Londoners’ lives are at stake—I am not being over-dramatic; one can tell that they were at stake by reading what the cockpit controllers said to air traffic control—we should be told why. If such a plane is airborne and the pilot has—let us be kind—bad eyesight and cannot see Stansted, Luton or Gatwick but only Heathrow, surely we should consider that he should be directed to the safest area for all the constituents of our country rather than the airport that seems to be the least safe? Not only that, but for that plane to fly round in circles again and again over London while clearly calling in “Mayday” is unacceptable. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) on securing this debate on an important matter. I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to set out a number of facts that I believe and hope will end the speculation to which he refers and reassure not only his constituents but any other of our constituents who has worries.

Before I attempt to answer the specific points that have been raised, I want to put it clearly on the record that aviation safety is a matter of paramount importance. Our air transport industry has an excellent safety record and accident rates have stayed low despite the rapid rise in traffic levels. The Civil Aviation Authority oversees the safety of the UK’s air traffic services, and produces annual reports on the National Air Traffic Services’ safety performance on air traffic control. I am pleased to note that in the latest report, the Civil Aviation Authority has assessed that NATS has continued to maintain a positive safety performance.

Turning now to the Evergreen incident, I want to make it clear that the aircraft was engaged in normal commercial operations and was handled by controllers in line with guidance on handling aircraft in emergencies. Every incident is unique and, naturally, we always learn from such experiences and guidance is modified as appropriate. That is exactly what happened in this case.

For clarity, it would be helpful to confirm the facts surrounding the events that led to the incident. On 24 April 2004, the Evergreen aircraft was carrying out a cargo flight from Ramstein in Germany to McGuire air force base in New Jersey. I shall come back to the hon. Gentleman’s point about the destination in a moment. Shortly after reaching a cruising height of 36,000 ft, to the east of London, the left outboard engine ran down and could not be restarted. As a consequence the commander decided to return to Ramstein and the aircraft descended to 21,000 ft and commenced an easterly heading.

The crew then determined, when overflying Kent, that the three remaining engines were not producing the selected thrust. The commander declared an emergency, and requested a diversion to London Heathrow airport. The aircraft was radar-vectored on to the final approach track and the commander completed a successful approach to a safe landing.

On the subject of the intended destination, the aircraft was not going to Wright Field in New York State as stated in the air accidents investigation branch report. I have looked into that, and the error was a genuine mistake by the AAIB, which has only recently come to light. The AAIB has suggested that the confusion may have arisen during the interview with the commander of the aircraft when attention was necessarily directed at the more salient points of the incident, which were those related to safety.

I shall now refer to the process for handling aircraft in such an emergency, which is vital. The notion that an aircraft in emergency may divert to an airport other than the intended destination is a founding principle enshrined in the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s international standards and the UK Air Navigation Order 2005. Both documents clearly stipulate that the commander of an aircraft is ultimately responsible for the safety of that aircraft, and of the persons and cargo on board. The commander, in an emergency, may request information from air traffic control to enable the selection of a suitable diversion airport but the responsibility for determining what represents the safest and most suitable diversion airport rests with the commander of the aircraft.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of why the aircraft was diverted to Heathrow. During the incident, the commander decided that an emergency landing was required as soon as possible. The lack of thrust in the three operative engines limited the choice of airports to those within gliding range and with adequate runway length to meet the landing distance required. London Heathrow and Gatwick were both within range, while Stansted and Luton were rather more distant.

The crew decided to divert to Heathrow because the weather and visibility were good. In addition, the commander had physically seen and identified Heathrow when overflying that airport before the engine trouble occurred and had good visual recognition.

The hon. Gentleman also asked why air traffic control allowed that diversion to Heathrow. As I have explained, the choice of a diversion airfield is the decision of the commander of the aircraft. For that reason, air traffic controllers safely facilitated the commander’s request to land at London Heathrow. That was entirely in line with guidance.

I come now to the AAIB recommendation that followed. The report recommended that the Civil Aviation Authority should review guidance to controllers on handling aircraft in emergencies and, in particular, whether

“sufficient guidance is provided on the avoidance of built up areas when vectoring aircraft in emergency”,

a matter of particular and understandable concern to the hon. Gentleman. The Civil Aviation Authority accepted that recommendation and issued revised guidance to controllers in April this year.

It will be helpful if I spell out what the revised guidance now says:

“It is desirable that aircraft in emergency should not be routed over densely populated areas, particularly if there is reason to believe that the aircraft’s ability to remain in controlled flight is compromised or that parts of the aircraft could detach in flight. If this is inconsistent with providing the most appropriate service to the aircraft, for example when any extended routing could further jeopardise the safety of the aircraft, the most expeditious route is the one that should be given. Where possible, when expeditious routing is not required, suggestions of alternative runways or aerodromes together with the rationale that the routing would avoid densely populated areas and be consistent with safety, shall be passed to the pilot and his intentions requested.”

That revised guidance meets the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman. I understand his concern about aircraft overflying populated areas in emergencies. However, I am sure that all will agree that preventing accidents must always be the overriding concern.

I turn to some of the specific questions raised by the hon. Gentleman. First, he asked about the cargo. I understand that the contents of the cargo were not revealed to air traffic control during the diversion, but I assure him that that is not unusual. Information on what is carried normally resides on board the aircraft and at the airfield of departure. Such information is not readily available to air traffic control, and I am sure he will understand that it would be inappropriate for controllers to ask the crew for the information when, as should be the case, they are preoccupied with an emergency. As noted in the AAIB report, the cargo was subsequently identified as an aircraft engine. There were no munitions or explosives on board.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the aircraft had been boarded. I confirm that, following the incident, the aircraft was not boarded by officials from the Civil Aviation Authority or from any other transport agency because there was no reason to suppose that the aircraft was likely to be flown in contravention of the Air Navigation Order 2005 or in a condition unfit for flight.

The police and immigration and customs officials also have powers to board aircraft. I am advised by my colleagues at the Home Office and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs that neither immigration service nor customs officials boarded the Evergreen aircraft or inspected its cargo. That is because checks for immigration and customs purposes necessarily focus on the points of embarkation and disembarkation, and the aircraft was not scheduled to land in the UK. As the Evergreen flight originated in Germany, its cargo was subject to free circulation within the EU, so no customs declaration was required. Fire services and police attended the incident, but no police officers boarded the aircraft as there was no reason to suspect that a crime was being committed.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned rendition. I shall answer that question directly. Evergreen International Airlines was established in 1960. It specialises in air freight, and some of its contracts are with the United States military, but it also has an extensive customer base with well known commercial organisations. I emphasise that there is no evidence to suggest that the flight was involved in a rendition operation.

We are clear that the US would not render a detainee through UK territory or airspace, including overseas territories, without our permission; and we have made it clear that we would not grant that permission unless the rendition was in line with UK law and our international obligations. In particular, we would not facilitate the transfer of an individual from or through the UK to another state if there were grounds to believe that the person would face the real risk of torture.

I shall now deal with the remaining points that the hon. Gentleman raised. First was the erasure of the voice cockpit tapes. I shall raise the matter with the AAIB, and write to the hon. Gentleman.

Secondly, the aircraft was carrying US Department of Defence charts, showing mainly military airports. The aircraft operator noted that that is more convenient as it invariably covers their military destinations, but the maps also include a number of civil airports throughout the world. It is important to remember that the plane was not scheduled to land in the UK, and by way of reassurance I reiterate that the commander chose Heathrow as being the safest and the most appropriate because he had had sight of the airport and was able to get there safely.

Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman referred to the middle east. That is taken into account in the AAIB report. He is obviously referring to the rumour that the aircraft was parked in the middle east during a sandstorm. The aircraft flew from the middle east to Germany prior to diverting to Heathrow. There is no evidence to suggest that that flight was anything other than commercial.

I hope that I have addressed the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. I wish to put on record once more that aviation safety is of paramount importance. Without doubt, the Evergreen incident was serious. It raised serious issues, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to deal with them. However, the incident was handled in line with guidance and brought to a safe conclusion.

Furthermore, guidance has been modified and strengthened in direct response to the incident—specifically about overflying densely populated areas—and I assure the House that it is continually reviewed. Action does not stop there. However, each incident is unique, and it is not feasible to issue prescriptive guidance to controllers on handling aircraft in emergencies—nor would it be wise.

I state again that it is the commander of the aircraft who is responsible for its safety, and he is responsible for determining what represents a suitable diversion airport. None of that is done in isolation. I hope that my response has reassured the hon. Gentleman, and that the clarity of my response will ensure that speculation can be put aside. We can now concentrate on what happened, and on the advances that have been made on further developing aircraft safety for the benefit of all, including the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.