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Happy Birthday BALPA

by Charlotte Branson BALPA Media Officer

Today (27th June) BALPA celebrates its 80th birthday. From our humble beginnings in Croydon in 1937 with just 400 initial members, to our headquarters at Heathrow with a 10,000-strong membership and recognition in 23 companies, here’s a little recap of some of the big milestones for BALPA in the last eight decades.

The birth of BALPA, 1937
Eric Lane-Burslem founded the British Airline Pilots’ Association with the goal of improving flight safety for pilots and the travelling public alike. Aircraft safety at that time was still in its infancy; mandatory safety standards and procedures were relatively few. In 1935, an Imperial Airways aircraft had crashed with only the captain surviving. Over the next 18 months, pilots grew steadily more concerned about the technical standards in the company. Their concerns were not welcome, in fact quite the reverse: pilots who made their views known were summarily dismissed.

In 1937, another alarming incident occurred. Lane-Burslem, flying an ice-laden Imperial Airways DH86, a four-engined biplane, over Germany at 9,000ft, 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.


The incident persuaded Lane-Burslem to form a pilots’ association so they could secure a proper level of flight safety. Imperial Airways had taken an irresponsible attitude towards the safety of its pilots and its passengers. It was from this airline that the first members of BALPA came, led by Eric Lane-Burslem. The first meeting of BALPA’s ‘Organising Committee’ was on 18th May 1937 and the first official mass meeting of nearly 400 pilots was held in the Greyhound Hotel, Croydon, on 27th June 1937.

Growing membership
Between 1947 and 1966 BALPA membership rose from a little more than a thousand to over 3,000 reflecting the huge increase in air travel in this era. However, that growth in activity increased the pressures upon the pilots and led to a great deal of unease among them. In 1968, there were two strikes of BOAC pilots. The 1970s and 1980s were years of structural change in the industry. In 1972 BEA and BOAC were united under one board. In 1974, British Airways was formed. As UK aviation grew in the 1970s and 1980s a major strategic decision was taken: BALPA should not just be for the pilots of specific airlines, but for all the UK’s commercial pilots. Today BALPA has 23 recognition agreements across all of the UK’s main operators, including fixed wing and rotary.

BALPA was closely involved in the development of Concorde. The British manufacturers of the aircraft and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) allowed BALPA access, enabling them to contribute to the engineering and operational aspects of the project. BALPA members spent a considerable amount of time flying the simulators, and in 1974-75 several members flew the pre-production aircraft in test flights. This was a unique example of close liaison between BALPA, an aircraft manufacturer, and the regulatory authorities.


Developing international relationships
In 1945, shortly after World War II, the United Nations came into being and soon gave birth to several specialised agencies, one of which was the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The fact that ICAO made decisions on aviation policy without pilot representation immediately began to interest several pilots’ associations, including BALPA. A pilot’s work takes them around the globe and, therefore, they became concerned with national and international affairs related to aviation. This was the reason for the birth of IFALPA in 1948 during a conference of pilots’ associations held in London for the express purpose of providing a formal means for the airline pilots of the world to interact with ICAO.

In 1991, BALPA was also one of the founder members of the European Cockpit Association (ECA) which is dedicated to ensuring that the pilots’ voice is clearly heard in Brussels.

An increasing focus on fatigue
Fatigue has always been an issue in aviation and BALPA has always been at the forefront of campaigning in this area. In 1973, BALPA made an important contribution to Sir Douglas Bader’s committee on Flight Time Limitations, which resulted in the first proper UK controls on pilots’ flying hours. BALPA’s research and experience enabled it successfully to prevent an attempt by the EU to water down fatigue regulations in 2003. BALPA’s respected expertise also meant that we were able to secure a commitment from the UK Government in 2006 that UK standards would not be reduced despite new EU rules.


In 2010, we launched a campaign to again challenge new EU rules that we continue to argue are a risk to flight safety. And more recently BALPA has been looking at ways to improve the reporting of fatigue which is so vital to the safety of aviation.

Today, BALPA continues its mission to make every flight a safe flight, and while some issues, such as fatigue, continue to challenge our industry, we’re also having to adapt to emerging threats, such as drones and laser attacks. Whatever the challenge, BALPA is committed to serving you, our members, for another 80 years and beyond.