Fact finding in hostile territory
Published: 11 Mar 2016
Tinkering in the school physics laboratory eventually led David Bickerton to a career in incident investigation across the Middle East and Africa – a challenging proposition when large and complex losses are involved.
How did you get into aviation?
I was interested in engineering from a young age and fortunate to be in a school environment where experimentation in the physics lab and technical workshops was encouraged.
From school, I got an excellent apprenticeship with British Airways. Post-training, I spent time in the aircraft engine workshop, learning the intricacies of complex turbine engines and [the] high standards and processes needed for aviation. I moved to the hangar on major checks, disassembling and reassembling aircraft for detailed inspection.
You stayed with BA for years?
After qualifying with British Airways, I was moved to the Middle East, where I worked in engineering and maintenance and then in fields including aircraft performance and flight operations.
Aged 34, an opportunity arose with McLarens Aviation (previously Airclaims). McLarens provides consultancy services in incident investigation, mainly for insurers, including advice on aircraft repairs and recovery. The company has a large risk and assessment management and [a] continuing airworthiness management organisation capability.
I am part of the senior management, with responsibility for the Middle East and Africa, based in Abu Dhabi. These regions are challenging, especially when events occur in remote and/or hostile countries.
What achievements stand out?
There have been many, but one of note was the opening up of the former Soviet Union to the international aviation market and subsequent introduction of western aircraft. For our company, this brought immense challenges, especially dealing with large and complex losses. I was involved in the first major fatal incident involving a western-operated aircraft, as well as the first complex repair. Everything had to be imported, including a large hangar.
What’s on the horizon?
Hopefully, this will be the opening up of Iran. This is a country I know well and have travelled extensively. Iran has worked hard to keep old and outdated aircraft airworthy. New aircraft and infrastructure are desperately needed and I expect McLarens Aviation to be a part of this, once sanctions are removed.
McLarens’ Bickerton has been faced with some unusual incident claims
What’s a typical claim?
The most common type of damage tends to take place on the ground, involving some kind of vehicle impact. Foreign object damage, especially to engines, is also common. After this, there are a multitude of different types of claims, including flight crew errors, weather, etc.
Can you give examples of unusual claims?
Two come to mind: one was a virtually new rear engine-mounted passenger jet in South America which had a very heavy landing, causing the aft fuselage to break in two and contact the ground where it scraped along the runway. The passengers in the rear section, none of whom were injured, were all first-time flyers and assumed this was a normal touchdown. The aircraft was written off.
The second was in Africa, where a [Boeing] 737 was on takeoff and just starting to climb when one of its engines fell off. Amazingly, the crew carefully guided the aircraft back to a safe landing after completing a circuit of the field. One passenger reported seeing the engine fall off, and assumed it was a drop (fuel) tank being jettisoned.
How has the field changed since you started?
There have been immense changes, from the size and efficiency of engines – which have doubled in thrust for almost the same fuel burn – to developments in material technology for both powerplants and airframes, and not forgetting huge advances in electronic control and data logging. Despite all this, with the departure of Concorde, we still can’t get from A to B any quicker than we did flying in the 1950s!
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I believe aviation is still the most exciting industry to work in. It consistently pushes the boundaries of engineering technology and produces highly-skilled individuals on an international stage. I never thought experimenting in the school lab would guide me here, but I am glad it did.