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How a pilot became an unlikely radical

by Captain Brendan O'Neal BALPA Chairman

Today we celebrated one of the original champions of flight safety; BALPA’s founder Eric Lane-Burslem.

I gathered with my fellow National Executive Council members, as well as Jim McAuslan and new General Secretary Brian Strutton, at the People’s History Museum in Manchester to officially launch a display dedicated to the man who refused to accept the status quo when it came to substandard safety practices in commercial aviation.

Lane-Burslem founded The British Airline Pilots’ Association in 1937 following an incident where he was made to fly when he felt unsafe to do so. Flying an ice-laden Imperial Airways DH86 (a four-engined biplane) over Germany at 9,000ft, he heard his engines stop one by one. The aircraft started to fall. Luckily, the engines re-started at 5,000ft and the aircraft landed successfully. It was a narrow escape and the incident persuaded Lane-Burslem to form a pilots’ association so they could secure a proper level of flight safety. Back then, the first official mass meeting of BALPA saw 400 pilots turn out at a Croydon hotel on 27th June 1937, today BALPA serves almost 10,000 pilots.

The display showcases how Lane-Burslem became an unlikely unionist though his determination to raise safety standards in British aviation. After he was featured on a list of 100 activists, militants and revolutionaries including Alan Turing, the Dagenham Ford Machinists and the Tolpuddle Martyrs, we thought a display would be a perfect way to honour his work. Eric Lane-Burslem might not seem like your typical trade unionist, being a man from a financially-secure background and working in what was, at the time, seen as a very glamorous profession, so he may be thought of as an ‘unlikely radical’. But he played a huge part in the safety standards we see today.

If BALPA had not made recommendations on various aspects of flight safety, and if the post-war accident rate were to be applied to today’s aviation traffic, there would be 4,000 fatal worldwide accidents a year, instead of the 23 of today. In starting BALPA Lane-Burslem contributed to that and it’s a fantastic legacy to leave. The exhibition celebrates that legacy.

We have also taken this opportunity to welcome our new General Secretary Brian, and thank Jim McAuslan for the excellent work he has done for BALPA during his tenure. I’m sure you will join me in wishing Jim well in his retirement and giving Brian a warm welcome to the organisation.

If you would like to visit the display it runs until 19th June at the People’s History Museum, Left Bank, Spinningfields, Manchester M3 3ER. Entry is free. Visit the museum’s website for more details.