Obituary: David Beaty

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The Independent Culture
FEW SUCCESSFUL writers can lay claim to producing a controversial book that ultimately saved thousands of lives. While the reading public followed his succession of novels, David Beaty's work in the field of what was originally known as "pilot error" was little known outside the aviation industry. It was, however, his most important work and the subject to which he was most dedicated.

He was born in the then Ceylon in 1918, the son of a Methodist minister, and was duly despatched to Kingswood, Bath, the Methodist public school. From there he won an open scholarship to read English at Merton College, Oxford, where he edited The Cherwell with Iris Murdoch. This idyllic existence abruptly ended with the outbreak of the Second World War.

Although nothing in his previous life suggested a serious interest in aviation, he volunteered for pilot training with the University Air Squadron and was promptly turned down. When the dons decided to take an interest in selection procedures and Beaty explained that his classical education and lack of any aeronautical knowledge had precluded him, the Master of Balliol bellowed at the RAF representative, "But this is an Oxford man and an Oxford man can do anything!" His subsequent pilot grading of "exceptional" was to prove just how wrong the initial assessment had been.

Perhaps it was his Methodist background which, after training, made him opt for Coastal Command rather than its Bomber equivalent, voicing the arguable opinion that he would "much prefer to fight men who were wearing uniform". The remark did, however, neatly encapsulate his subsequent lifelong campaign for his interpretation of fairness.

Beaty completed four tours of operations with 206 Squadron, flying Liberators and winning two DFCs. The citation for his bar describes how, during an attack upon a U-boat in the Baltic and under intense fire, he pressed home the attack. The rudder was shot away, wings and fuselage holed and one engine put out of action. He nevertheless nursed the aircraft and crew back home for a successful landing, later to be informed by the ground crew that while he was overhead they could plainly see daylight though the wings and the fuselage. The citation concludes, "This officer showed great skill and great courage and determination throughout this sortie."

Following the war, Beaty joined BOAC to operate on its flagship route, the North Atlantic. It was while based in Montreal that he began his writing career, producing his first novel, The Take Off (1949). Published both in England and the United States, it was an immediate success. Thayer Hobson of the publishers Morrow entertained David and his wife, Betty, to dinner at Claridges and offered to guarantee David's BOAC salary for two years providing that he would continue writing. It was an offer too good to miss and a financial commitment that Hobson never had to keep. Beaty continued with a new novel each year.

Most would have been satisfied with a career as a successful writer of fiction. By 1996 he had written almost a dozen novels, but the loss of friends and colleagues in both military and civil aviation accidents had long rankled with him. He believed that many of them had been treated less than fairly.

Contemporary accident inquiries strove to blame the pilot, just as the earlier investigations into accidents at sea would invariably lay responsibility on the ship's captain. (Small wonder that the majority of captains chose to go down with the ship.) Beaty refused to accept this approach. He knew that many of his lost or accused colleagues were among the best in their profession. Even if a mistake had been made, there had to be a reason and nobody was searching for it.

Seeking to delve further, he instinctively understood that the opinion of a potential victim with an arts degree was unlikely to be taken seriously, however compelling the arguments. Without further ado, he took himself off to University College London to read Psychology, becoming a mature student among a group who could have been his own sons and daughters, but, unlike them, completing the honours course in one year instead of three.

In 1967 he joined the Civil Service as a Principal, initially becoming involved in the study of limitations on flying time for airline pilots. He stayed for seven years, moving on to the Overseas Development Administration and becoming responsible for aid to Latin American countries.

His 1969 book The Human Factor in Aircraft Accidents let out the secret that he himself had always known. Pilots were human beings, not supermen. Some were meek and easily led. Others believed the publicity and considered themselves incapable of mistakes. Some were left-handed in a right-handed world. Cockpits were fashioned for contortionists. Pilots even suffered from tiredness like others.

The Human Factor was greeted with almost vehement opposition, not least from some of the pilots he was trying to help. To managements it raised the spectre of increased costs if (to them) such spurious problems were to be addressed. It might, also, result in bad publicity.

Over the years the critics were won over, unable to ignore the reality provided by information from the newly introduced flight and voice recorders and the increasing demand for higher standards of safety. Beaty had the satisfaction of seeing his book help spawn what is now seen as a science and has become an essential topic taught by almost all the important world airlines.

In all his work, Beaty was assisted by his wife, who was herself a successful novelist. Slightly stung by a suggestion she made back in the Montreal days, David had advised her rather tartly that she should just try doing it herself. She took pen and paper into the next room and did just that. They later worked together regularly and were rarely parted. (Once he and I were alone and he suggested a coffee. He collected mugs, a spoon and a pot of Nescafe, then turned and asked in mock despair, "Er, what exactly do I do next?")

In total, he completed 30 novels, one of which was made into a film: Cone of Silence (1961 from the 1959 book), starring George Sanders. His non-fiction output included The Naked Pilot (1991), The Water Jump: the story of transatlantic flight (1976) and The Complete Skytraveller (1979). A more recent labour of love resulted in Light Perpetual (1995), an illustrated narrative of aviators' memorial windows, all author's profits going to the RAF Benevolent Fund. His last novel, The Ghost of the Eighth Attack (1998), is generally regarded as his best.

At his funeral in Slindon, 206 Squadron planned a fly-past with a Nimrod aircraft. At the last moment, urgent operational requirements resulted in its cancellation. Those present preferred to believe that it was the result of "human factors".

Ken Beere

Arthur David Beaty, writer, pilot and psychologist: born Hatton, Ceylon 28 March 1919; DFC 1944, and bar 1945; MBE 1992; married 1948 Betty Smith (three daughters); died Slindon, West Sussex 4 December 1999.