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Padstow and how not to land an Anson

I was privileged to know Donald Broadbent, one of the first psychologists to be elected FRS. Don came to psychology through his wartime experience flying Avro Ansons. The standard procedure for landing an Anson in those largely pre-wireless days was, on touching down, to turn sharply to port, check that no aircraft were following, wind up the flaps and taxi off.

However, about once a month on any Anson base, an aircraft would touch down, turn sharply to port, withdraw its undercarriage and flop down on the grass. The reason was simple: the turn-wheels for both the flaps and the undercarriage were side-by-side on the pilot’s right hand. It was easy to spin the wrong one with disastrous results. What Don Broadbent found remarkable, and what brought the great man into psychology, was that when the pilot spun the wrong wheel the Commanding Officer sounded off about some moral failure by the wretched pilot, rather than making any criticism of the design of the aircraft.

I was reminded of all this by the ghastly accident on 5 May in Padstow. A family of six were out in their 8-metre 300hp rib on a fine calm day. Suddenly they were thrown into the water but the rib kept going, performing tight high-speed turns and cutting through the family in the water each time it came round. The father and eldest daughter were killed. The mother lost a limb. Others were seriously injured. Only because a local water-ski instructor was bravely able to board the runaway rib at high speed were more injuries averted.

Accidents on the water are investigated by the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch. It normally takes a year or so to produce a report but this time it produced a Safety Bulletin within a matter of weeks. Like most motorboats, the rib was fitted with a kill-cord which should have stopped the boat the moment everyone was thrown out: but the kill-cord was still in place when the boat was finally brought under control.

It’s easy to wag the finger but the reality is that not everybody attaches themselves to the kill-cord when they are driving a rib. We will doubtless be exhorted (probably in moral terms) to do the right thing and we should do so for the time being. But the longer-term solution must be to re-design kill-cords so that more people use them routinely. That was Don Broadbent’s lesson from the Ansons.

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