What Are the Legal Roles of an Aviation Expert?

Aviation is a field with a profound influence on modern life, and which can often seem opaque to outsiders from a legal standpoint. This month we hear more about this fascinating sector from Captain Chris Turner, the first aviation expert to be featured in Lawyer Monthly and one of the few Certified Expert Witnesses in the United Kingdom.

What initially drew you to aviation, and when did you decide to apply your knowledge as an expert witness?

I was brought up at Marlow in the Thames Valley and spent many hours watching the jets flying overhead on the approach into Heathrow. I often wondered what it would be like to be in one of those jet cockpits. My next-door neighbour was a Captain at BEA, one of the airlines which later merged to become British Airways. I am sure you can imagine the thrill I experienced when he invited me to Heathrow to fly a BEA Trident simulator – one of those very same jets. I was hooked! I had also been an Air Cadet since the age of 12 and was lucky enough to have been awarded a Flying Scholarship – 30 flying hours, free of charge, at a civil flight school learning how to fly. So now I was doubly hooked!

This led into a commercial flying career through sponsored training with British Airways. On graduating in 1977, there were few flying posts available. I was fortunate in joining one of the few UK airlines which survived the ups and downs of the last 40 years, and still exists to this day.

In 2013 I joined an aviation expert witness company as a director. The wide variety of cases was always interesting, usually quite different and never identical. Every case produced a new challenge. Again, I was hooked!

I undertook training courses with the Expert Witness Institute and elsewhere, and in 2017 went through their Certification Programme. I was pleased to become the first aviation expert witness to be certified. I am still closely associated with the EWI, and in 2020 was elected as a Governor of the Institute.

I was brought up at Marlow in the Thames Valley and spent many hours watching the jets flying overhead on the approach into Heathrow.

Aside from your work as an expert witness, in what areas do you apply your specialised knowledge in aviation?

Following retirement from commercial flying, I now work as a training pilot on Boeing 787 aircraft simulators, teaching and examining new and experienced pilots. I also run courses for experienced pilots who would like to become training pilots. These courses, approved by the UK Civil Aviation Authority, are run in the classroom and the simulator.

What sorts of legal cases require your input as an aviation expert?

The Axten team have worked on a wide variety of aviation cases, both here in the UK and abroad. Accidents and incidents affecting light aircraft, helicopters and airliners are the most common cases. The team has also worked on engineering and maintenance cases, aircraft leasing disputes, airfield planning issues and ‘lost career’ quantum cases.

One of the risks facing pilots is that their well-paid livelihood can be lost at a stroke. This could be due to a road traffic accident or to medical negligence, where liability is admitted by the other party’s insurer and the injury suffered results in a loss of the all-important medical certificate. This in turn leads to the loss of their pilot’s licence.

A pilot then loses their generous basic salary together with myriad complex benefits that may include flight duty pay, sector pay, allowances, private health care, company pension contributions, bonus payments, share scheme options, travel benefits inter alia. Possible lost promotion prospects also need to be evaluated. When would the pilot have progressed to a Captaincy? Would they have become a training pilot or even an airline manager? Claims are offset by any earnings which might accrue from alternative employment, but lifetime earnings will be greatly reduced.

This all needs to be carefully assessed by an expert who understands all the complexities. I was instructed recently on a pilot’s loss of career case which led to a claim of over £5 million.

Pilots are part of a crew team when onboard an aircraft – usually close-knit but not always so. I have been instructed in a case where an allegation of negligence was made against the pilots by a cabin crew member due to a hard landing that resulted in injury. The claimants alleged that the pilots did not follow the airline’s standard operating procedures on the approach to landing, and therefore failed to meet the professional standards required.

One of the risks facing pilots is that their well-paid livelihood can be lost at a stroke.

Aircraft and helicopter accidents and incidents often focus similarly on the actions of the pilots. The Axten team have been involved with a number of cases on behalf of claimants and defendants arising from these types of events. In a recent case my report identified that the light aircraft pilot involved had not correctly followed the checklist in the Pilot’s Operating Handbook. As a consequence, the aircraft sustained serious damage in the emergency landing which followed. The resulting arbitration award held the pilot responsible for the cost of repairs to the aircraft and for the loss of rental income.

The Axten team has also worked on light aircraft, airliner and helicopter engineering cases, together with aircraft and jet engine leasing disputes.

Many airlines face post-pandemic financial problems, and leasing disputes in particular are on the rise. Many airliners are not owned by the airlines which operate them; instead, the aircraft are owned by leasing companies. When leases end, these aircraft return to the leasing companies and are subject to detailed inspection of both the aircraft and its related documentation. An airliner contains a number of ‘lifed’ parts, each carrying a document record dating back to its original manufacture. Missing documentation can render the ‘lifed’ part unusable and requiring replacement – at costs which can reach several million dollars. We were involved in a case where two Airbus aircraft returned from an airline with missing documents, which prevented the aircraft from being sent out again on lease. The case concluded with a large financial settlement.

I have also been involved in a number of airfield planning cases. These have usually involved housing or other developments close to existing airfields. A recent case from last year involved planning permission for an agricultural building which had been refused due to its proximity to a grass airfield. As a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, I have access to extensive aviation archives, and by delving into the historical records I was able to demonstrate that the airfield was not listed for the purposes of the Town and Country Planning Order. Therefore the appeal was successful, planning permission was granted, and the grain shed was duly built!

How is the information that you provide crucial to the outcomes of these disputes?

Aviation is a complex field, and many legal professionals are not familiar with the technical aspects. Acronyms and jargon are a particular problem!

Many airliners are not owned by the airlines which operate them; instead, the aircraft are owned by leasing companies.

I have seen a number of aviation expert reports over the years. Too often they consist of dense blocks of unstructured and poorly formatted text, with unexplained aviation technical terms and no clear conclusions. Unsupported subjective personal opinion is presented, without any attempt to back this up with proper references. Aviation is a well-documented industry with comprehensive regulations, authoritative guidance, and helpful advice published by official bodies – therefore there is no excuse for a lack of proper references.

All of Axten’s reports are kept in-house initially and go through our internal quality process. Opinion remains exclusively that of the expert, but reports are checked over for ‘clarity, completeness and consistency’. Reports then return to the expert with comments. Additions and adjustments can then be made by the expert before formatting to a standard layout and passing to the instructing solicitors.

Reports from Axten contain all the required Civil Procedures Rules (CPR) elements, clear conclusions, a glossary of acronyms, and explanations of key technical terms. The readers of this article may be unfamiliar with aviation terms such as ‘stalling’, ‘autorotation’, ‘g-force’ and similar. Such terms are always explained within Axten’s reports for the convenience of non-aviation readers.

Including yourself, there are only two aviation witnesses certified by the Expert Witness Institute. Why are there so few expert witnesses in this field?

My first expert witness training course was at the EWI in 2013 and I have completed a number of courses since then with the EWI, Bond Solon and Quadrant Chambers. In 2017 I was examined under their Certification Programme and subsequently received my Certificate from the EWI’s Chair Sir Martin Spencer, Justice of the High Court.

There are a number of aviation expert witnesses in the UK, but many have received little or no formal training as expert witnesses and are not members of the EWI or other expert witness bodies.

Over the years I have been instructed on behalf of both claimants and defendants, and it goes without saying that an expert witness’s duty is to the court and not to those who instruct us. We have a duty to be independent and impartial. It is not the role of an expert witness to be a ‘hired gun’ or an advocate.

It is not a requirement to undergo expert witness training, but I feel strongly that it is essential in developing one’s understanding of the expert witness’s duties and obligations. All of Axten’s experts undergo training and are also mentored as they progress through their early cases.

What developments have you witnessed in the field of aviation during your time as a pilot and an expert witness?

Aviation has developed dramatically over my nearly fifty years of flying. The principles remain the same, as the laws of physics have not changed, but computers have taken a major role in preflight planning and in the cockpit itself. Out of interest, the cockpit is now officially termed, by European regulation, the FCC – Flight Crew Compartment! The four-man crews of the 70s have been replaced by the two-person crews of today, assisted by a host of computers. However, it is disappointing that the male dominance of the flight deck remains, with only 5% of airline pilots being female. EasyJet’s Amy Johnson sponsorship scheme, aiming to attract young female pilots, is a praiseworthy step in the right direction, but one yet to be emulated by other airlines.

There are a number of aviation expert witnesses in the UK, but many have received little or no formal training as expert witnesses

The Woolf reforms and the introduction of the Civil Procedure Rules in 1999 have brought welcome improvements to expert witness practice in England and Wales, although not yet in Scotland. The EWI Certification qualification is the new gold standard for UK expert witnesses, and I look forward to the day when all expert witnesses are required to be qualified in some way.

Roughly speaking, what proportion of your career has consisted of your expert witness practice?

I came to expert witness work quite late in my career, in my mid-50s. However, this meant that I had acquired a wide experience of aviation matters, together with the benefits of a long airline management career. The latter has been helpful when writing complex reports, in working with aviation non-experts, and also when having to ‘think on one’s feet’.

What qualities would you attribute to an effective expert witness?

First and foremost, expertise in one’s specialisation, sine qua non. Then the ability to take a complicated topic and make it easily understood by non-experts. Writing skill is clearly essential – reliance on spell and grammar checks is not good enough and easily spotted! A good expert witness will have a firm, but not inflexible, character. And then, of course, personal integrity.

What advice would you give to another experienced aviation professional looking to train as an expert witness?

In common with other professionals, aviation employees are proud and confident in their abilities and skills in their personal roles. The excellent safety record of the aviation industry is due in great part to the professionalism of its managers, pilots, engineers, cabin crew and other employees.

But pride and confidence alone are not enough – I would suggest asking oneself a few questions. As a starter, are you reasonably familiar with the Civil Aviation Authority, European Aviation Safety Agency and International Civil Aviation Organisation regulations and publications? Can you break down complex concepts into parts that are easy to understand? Are you used to standing up in front of a potentially hostile audience and fielding tricky questions? If required, can you ‘stick to your guns’ under fire? And are you truly expert and knowledgeable enough in your aviation specialism to undertake expert witness work?

From there, it is important to undergo training with one of the expert witness organisations, such as the Expert Witness Institute. Other commercial bodies, such as Bond Solon, also offer suitable courses. Report writing, Civil Procedures Rules and cross-examination training are a minimum in my view.

Mentoring by another experienced expert witness can be very helpful in one’s first few cases. Opinion must always remain entirely that of the instructed expert witness, but an experienced mentor can help avoid pitfalls.

My final piece of advice to the aspiring aviation expert witness would be to join the Axten Aviation team!

 

Captain Chris Turner, Director

Axten Aviation Ltd

Freshfield House, Cat Street, Hartfield, East Sussex TN7 4DU

Tel: +44 (0) 7900 905 352

E: christurner@axtenaviation.co.uk

 

Captain Chris Turner

My life in aviation began as a 17-year-old schoolboy, flying single-engine light aircraft from a grass airfield at White Waltham near Maidenhead. Fast-forward to a commercial flying career which began as an airline co-pilot at age 20, then through to Captaincy on various Boeing types, into an airline management career culminating as Operations Director of Britannia Airways (now known as TUI Airways). In my airline management career, I filled a variety of posts – Simulator Manager, Head of Flight Operations, Chief Pilot inter alia. This gave me a broad knowledge of aviation, an understanding of the wider business world, and a host of aviation contacts which enabled me to set up the expert witness business Axten Aviation.

The Axten Aviation team are a carefully selected group, all acknowledged experts in their specific field. The team comprises airline and light aircraft pilots, helicopter pilots, jet engine specialists, aircraft and helicopter engineers, air traffic control and safety experts. They have produced expert witness reports covering aviation accidents and incidents, engineering cases, leasing disputes, airfield planning problems, and employment issues. Reports have been roughly equally split between claimants and defendants, with several on a single joint expert basis. All reports are peer-reviewed through our quality control system which ensures that reports are ‘clear, complete and consistent’. Training for expert witnesses is vitally important and Axten’s team members have completed courses with the Expert Witness Institute (EWI), Bond Solon, Access Aviation and Quadrant Chambers.

Leave A Reply