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An end of deference

TedNield024.jpgOn 6 September 1952, thousands watched from a crowded hillside as a De Havilland 110 climbed to 40,000 feet above Farnborough before going into a dive.  They heard an impressive triple boom; the aircraft bottomed out, at barely 50 feet, and flew past at over 700 miles per hour.   Shortly after climbing again, it broke up - killing pilot John Derry, the first Englishman to fly faster than sound, and flight observer Tony Richards. 

Spectators watched as fragments of wing, fuselage and tailplane drifted to earth like confetti.  However, one engine suddenly ploughed into crowds on ‘Observation Hill’, while the cockpit fell in front, injuring several more.  In all, 31 died.  And yet, after the dead and injured were ferried away in ambulances, the show went on – and even continued the following day.  Not a single legal case was filed by anyone.

Lessons regarding air-show safety, learnt at Farnborough, are still in place; but it is unthinkable that events would have unfolded like that today.  And the same can be said of the Aberfan Disaster, subject of both this month’s features, and whose 50th anniversary falls on the 21st.

Then too, nobody brought prosecutions, and despite perhaps the most damning official report ever written, nobody was sacked, nobody resigned.  People clung on, went elsewhere, or, in the case of Lord Robens (resisting pressure from Prime Minister Harold Wilson) remained in charge of the NCB and even became trustee of the funds donated to victims by people from all over the world.  He then raided those funds to pay for the remediation.

The idea that, once upon a time, people had integrity, did the decent thing, fell on their swords - is a myth; or if not, dates from well before the post-War generation.  Indeed, on the contrary; in that deferential society, inured to destruction and death by years of conflict, cowed into submission by military discipline, locked into cap-twisting obedience and misplaced gratitude towards its rulers, justice for victims was not done. 

In the aftermath of Aberfan, Sir Herbert Edmund Davies’s masterful report was itself betrayed, just as the people of Aberfan were betrayed.  After the National Coal Board’s geological and engineering ignorance, arrogance and incompetence were condemned and yet went unpunished, it comes as no surprise that the Tribunal report is now widely assumed to have been a whitewash.

Heads roll more easily now, not less; but not because the guilty have discovered consciences.  They roll only because the underdogs now have swords in their hands, and the will to use them.


[email protected], @TedNield @geoscientistmag