100 Years of Aircraft Accident Investigation
Mr G B Cockburn
Aircraft accident investigation in the United Kingdom has been an evolutionary process which began in the early twentieth century. Surviving information on the earliest period is sketchy and in some cases contradictory. In 1910, C S Rolls, co-founder of the Rolls-Royce Company, had the misfortune to become the first British citizen to be fatally injured in an aircraft accident, when his modified Wright biplane suffered a structural failure during an aviation meeting at Bournemouth. Later in the same year, a British pilot and his aircraft disappeared during an attempted double crossing of the Channel. Although no official flight safety structure then existed, the Royal Aero Club, which had only recently obtained its Royal Charter, became closely interested in the topic.
The Club was dedicated to spreading knowledge to advance the sport of aviation. Establishing the reasons for accidents was soon seen as an essential part of generating such knowledge. An enthusiastic member of the main club committee at the time was Mr George Bertram Cockburn (pictured right).
In 1911, the first aviation legislation was enacted.
This took the form of the Aerial Navigation Act. This was primarily directed at ensuring the safety of people on the ground that might be struck by uncontrolled or otherwise descending aircraft. Clearly, the hazard to the earthbound public was officially regarded as of primary importance and was of public concern, whilst the welfare of the limited numbers of aviators and even fewer passengers was regarded as a distinctly secondary consideration.
On 9 January 1912 the Committee of the Royal Aero Club considered, but deferred, the question of investigating aviation accidents. At the meeting on the 16 January 1912 the matter was viewed with slightly more urgency and it was referred to the Club Sub Committee.
During the meeting of Tuesday 27 February the setting up of a Public Safety and Accidents Investigation Committee was agreed and Mr Cockburn immediately becoming an active member.
On 13 May 1912 an accident occurred at Brooklands in which a Flanders monoplane crashed and was engulfed by fire. This misfortune was reported at the main committee meeting the following day. The Brooklands accident was not only the first in the UK to be formally investigated by the Public Safety and Accidents Investigation Committee but was also the first upon which a report was published. On 4 June 1912 the Public Safety and Accidents Investigation Committee “unanimously resolved that this report be forwarded to the (main) committee with the recommendation that it be published in extensor”. Copies of the report thus came into widespread circulation on 8 June 1912.
In 1914 an Aircraft Inspection Department (AID) was formed at Farnborough. Cockburn was appointed almost immediately as an Inspector of aircraft in this newly formed organisation. By 1915 the vastly increased amount of flying was resulting in an unsustainable accident rate. As a result Cockburn, now a Captain in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), was given a new appointment as the first Inspector of Accidents.
Click to view the first accident report (373.06 kb)