§ 36 and 37. Mr. Janner
asked the Under-Secretary of State for Air (1) why the parents of Pilot Officer John David Pell, who was killed in the crash of the Valetta transport aeroplane on 6th January have not been given any official details of the cause of the crash, and have been told that the evidence given at the Royal Air Force court of inquiry and the findings of the court are confidential;
(2) concerning the Valetta aircraft which crashed at Tom's Hill, Aldbury, on 6th January, killing 15 officers and other ranks returning from a Rugby football match, how many extra passengers were taken on for the return flight; what examination there was of the icing of the wings after the aeroplane had been standing in the open for five hours: what 2228 steps were taken to clear the wings of snow; in what weather conditions it took off; how many of the crew played in the match; and if he will compensate the widows and parents.
The Air Ministry's inquiries into this accident have only recently been completed. I am circulating a statement in the OFFICIAL REPORT which sets out the circumstances and covers the detailed points raised by the hon. Member. Similar information will be sent to relatives within the next few days.
Compensation as such is not payable when members of the Royal Air Force lose their lives during their service. Gratuities under the Forces Family Pensions Scheme have, however, been paid by the Air Ministry to the widows of the two married men among the casualties. In addition, pensions may be payable, but that is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance.
The proceedings and findings of a court of inquiry are privileged documents, and it would be contrary to longstanding custom to publish them.
I should like to take this opportunity of expressing the sympathy of the Air Council with the relatives of those who lost their lives in this unfortunate accident.
§ Mr. Janner
I acknowledge the expressions of sympathy which the Minister has given, but is it not clear that if there has been negligence or a breach of the Regulations in this case the parents and others concerned are entitled to compensation? May I also ask why the proceedings are to be kept confidential, as against the interested parties, and whether the hon. Gentleman will state whether the meteorological report was considered at the time this aircraft took. off?
There is no evidence whatever of negligence, as I think the hon. Member will be satisfied when he reads the statement which I am circulating. If he is not satisfied, perhaps he will put down a Question on that point next week. With regard to his second point, the reason we do not publish the proceedings of courts of 'inquiry is that the foreknowledge that 2229 'they might be published would impose a restraint both upon the court and upon witnesses giving evidence to it. I have told the hon. Member that the relatives will get a detailed and factual account, so far as we can give it to them, in the course of the next few days. Following is the statement:On 6th January, 1954, a Valetta aircraft was authorised to perform a pilot and navigation exercise and at the same time to convey a rugby team from Thorney Island to Boving-don and back. The outward journey with 16 people on board was uneventful. For the return flight an extra passenger was taken aboard. Although there are only 16 seats in this type of Valetta, there is an adequate takeoff and landing position for the seventeenth passenger and the addition of one extra passenger would not have brought the all-up weight of the aircraft beyond the maximum permissible for take-off. The pilot of the aircraft had not played in the match, although the other three members of the crew had.The routine examination of the aircraft before take-off is the responsibility of the pilot, and it is not known whether steps were taken to clear the wings of snow. Since, however, the aircraft took off normally and the ground temperature was not below freezing point, it is clear that the wings were not iced up. The aircraft took off at 5.16 p.m. with visibility of about 1,200 yards in slight snow. There was a north-easterly wind blowing at about 12 knots. It is considered that the weather conditions at the time of take-off had no bearing on the cause of the crash.The Valetta was last seen climbing at about 400 feet with a gentle turn to port. A few minutes later it struck a tree and crashed on Tom's Hill, Aldbury. It has not been possible to establish the cause of the accident, and it can only be assumed that the pilot was trying to fly within sight of the ground, in conditions of poor visibility, and that in doing so he crashed into the hill.