Scapeghosting: Don’t Blame the Dead Guy

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“The best way to avoid becoming a scapegoat is to find one” ― Warren Eyster

Lt. Desmond Arthur, designated scapeghost.

Lt. Desmond Arthur, designated scapeghost.

It’s traditional, and no doubt part of the curriculum in your finer business schools, to place the blame for project mismanagement on the guy who just left.  Why did we miss the deadline?  Oh, Bob screwed it up, but he now works for our biggest competitor, so what are you going do?  Those nasty little software bugs that are plaguing the latest release?  Bob, again.  This is why we put the goat in scapegoating.  Goats aren’t very business savvy and their relative lack of language skills makes it hard for them to protest their innocence.  Don’t hire a goat.  Unless you have a big lawn.  Unfortunately, sometimes Bob still has drinks with his former colleagues and can set the technical record straight, casting doubt on the standard explanation for everything that has ever gone wrong in a commercial enterprise.  Thus, it would seem far more effective to reserve one’s aspersions for a less chatty fall guy.  Like a goat.  And failing a goat, one may as well besmirch the reputation of somebody who is conveniently dead.  Sadly, this seemingly innocuous tactic can come back to haunt you, as in the 1913 case of deceased British Royal Flying Corp Lieutenant Desmond Arthur.

As with most human inventions, it didn’t take us long to figure out that the coolest use of rapid advances in aeronautic technology was to rain death from above on our enemies, thereby seeing them driven before us and hearing the lamentations of their women.  The first powered and controlled flight of a heavier-than-air craft is attributed to the Wright Brothers in 1903, but in less than fourteen years we were busy shooting each other from biplanes and introducing the ecstasy of strategic bombing.  Hijinks always ensue.  On May 27th, 1913, the dashing flyboy Lieutenant Desmond Arthur took off from Scotland’s Monstrose Airfield in a B.E. 2 single-engine biplane (commonly used from about 1913-1919) on a routine training flight.  Tragically, the wing of his plane snapped off in mid-flight, which is decidedly not conducive to remaining aloft and the unlucky Lieutenant plummeted to his death from 2000 feet (quite literally without his plane, as seatbelts were at the time considered an unnecessary affectation).  If you ever look a picture of a B.E. 2, you will be amazed that this did not happen more frequently.  Initially, faulty factory refurbishing (which had occurred a few days prior to the accident) was blamed for the plane’s relative unwillingness to maintain structural integrity.  While Arthur was known to be a bit of a daredevil, he was a well-respected and competent pilot, so it seemed obvious to all that mechanical failure was the root cause.

It is with the deepest regret that one chronicles the death of Lieutenant Arthur, R.F.C., who was killed at Montrose on the morning of Tuesday last, May 27th.  Desmond Lucius Arthur was born at Glanomera, County Clare, of a well-known Irish family, on March 31st, 1884. He received his first experience of aviation at the Leopardstown Meeting in September, 1910, when he was the first passenger to go up in Ireland, the pilot being the late Cecil Grace. Early in 1912 he joined the Bristol School and took his certificate (No. 233) on a Bristol monoplane, in the course of his tests going up to about 4,000 feet, instead of the regulation120 feet. Last year he took part in the second Leopardstown Meeting, at Dublin, but owing to engine failure he could not start in the big race, only saving an accident by fine skill. Formerly a member of the Army Motor Reserve, he was appointed on May 27th, 1911, to the 5th Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers (Special Reserve). He was appointed on probation to the Royal Flying Corps last year, and passed through the Central Flying School in the first course of this year. Mr. Arthur’s appointment to No. 2 Squadron R.F.C. (Montrose) appears in the Army List for May undated, but he joined his squadron on or about May 1st. Personally, Desmond Arthur was a good friend, and a fine specimen of the best class of Irish sportsmen. As a flier he had any quantity of pluck and skill but was always inclined to be over-daring, qualities which made one anxious for his safety in time of peace, but would have been of high value in war. His universal popularity will cause his loss to be felt by very many friends.  The following account of the accident was received from Montrose about midday on Tuesday:—“A fatal accident occurred this morning at 7:45 near Lunan Station, two miles from Montrose Aerodrome, in which Lieut. D. L. Arthur, of the 5th Royal Munster Fusiliers, was killed. Flying had commenced as usual in the early morning, and Lieut. Arthur went up for a test flight on ‘B.E.’ 205, the machine which had been piloted from Farnborough to Montrose three days previously by Major Burke. After a short flight he descended and said the machine was flying splendidly, and added that he was to take it for an extended flight. ‘He had been away for some time and was seen beginning to make a spiral descent over Lunan Bay. When at the height of 2,000 feet a loud report was heard and the right wing of the machine collapsed. It turned over and crashed to the ground, the pilot being picked up dead 156 feet from the wrecked aeroplane. Medical assistance was summoned, but it was found that death must have been instantaneous, the body being terribly mutilated” (The Aeroplane, 1913, p627).

Unpowered descent from 2000 feet in the air is clearly bad for the complexion, unless of course you’re into scarification and self-mutilation, in which case it’s a fashion choice, albeit one lacking significant bone structure.  A technical review of the accident first concluded that faulty repairs were to blame, but in 1916 official government reports laid the blame solely at the feet of Desmond Arthur.  A committee of enquiry concluded that Arthur screwed up, summarily closing the case as one attributable to pilot error.

Desmond Arthur, was killed on some type of B.E. machine which had been repaired by the Royal Aircraft Factory. The repaired part broke at 4,000 feet up, and the pilot was pitched out.  SUGGESTION. Faulty design or bad repair.  FACTS.  The date was the 28th May, 1913. The place, Montrose. There was a suggestion made at the time that there had been a patch on the outside of the right wing of the plane, and that someone had broken the tip of the wing, then repaired it, and put a patch over the repaired part. The suggestion being that this was done by someone with a view to hiding some damage which he had done to the machine, closely inquired into at the time by a Committee, of which Mr. H. T. Baker, M.P., was Chairman. The Committee have had the notes of the whole of the evidence given to that Committee before them. There were some 23 witnesses. The suggestion depends on the unsupported evidence of one man out of these 23 witnesses.  No useful purpose would be solved in reopening the matter, especially as some of the witnesses called have since been killed.   A perusal of the transcript of the notes of evidence leads to the conclusion that the suggestion of the patch is quite unfounded (The Aeroplane, 1916, p314).

Arthur’s colleagues in the 2nd Squadron were incensed, as he was a talented and able pilot and resented this gross besmirchment of his character and credentials.  The bureaucracy was not much interested in pursuing the matter, and dead men are unusually silent on a wide range of issues, so laying the disaster at the feet of Desmond Arthur, rather than the Royal Aircraft Factory seemed like an effective dodge.  We all saw Top Gun.  Questioning a professional flying ace’s piloting skill amounts to fighting words.  Desmond Arthur was not about to take this laying down.  Well, okay he was still laying down covered in six feet of dirt, mostly because his bones were powder and he was still dead, but this proved to be less of an obstacle than one might imagine.  Consequently he took recourse to one of the few effective options for the both recently deceased and unfairly slandered.  He got his haunt on, persistently appearing as a ghostly apparition at Montrose Airfield.

Seeing that the Interim Report was merely interim he took no direct action in the matter, pending the appearance of the Final Report – This Final Report was dated Nov. 17th, 1916, and therefore must have been in its final form before going to the printers sometime in October. The Committee as a whole had neglected to make amends to him, and apparently he knew it. Consequently he endeavoured to communicate with the officers of his old Corps, the R.F.C., at his old station, the Old Mess at Montrose, to see what he could get them to do about it.  Unfortunately, none of them being an Oliver Lodge or a Conan Doyle, he was unable to make them understand what he wanted, and only succeeded in making them uneasy. Never the less, he persevered in his efforts to communicate his wishes from the time when that ungenerous, or disingenuous, Final Report was in being and ready for printing until it finally appeared in the public Press with the addition of the honourable addendum by Messrs. Bright and Butcher, which cleared his good name as a flying officer.  It seems possible that the long delay between the official date of the Final Report (Nov. 17th) and its publication at Christmas, 1910, was caused by waiting for this addendum by Messrs. Bright and Butcher, and perhaps sundry other very valuable technical addenda by Mr. Bright alone. At any rate, the fact remains that the delay occurred, and that it was during this period that the Ghost visited the Old Mess persistently.  If my memory serves me aright, the Ghost paid a final visit in January, 1917, after the Report plus the addendum had been published. It may be assumed that this was only an endeavour on Desmond Arthur’s part to tell his brother officers that the affair was now ended to his satisfaction, and possibly to express his regrets for any inconvenience his previous visits may have caused thein.   Since then, so far as I can learn, nobody at Montrose has seen, heard, or felt anything of the Ghost. Thus it may be taken that the soul of Desmond Arthur is at peace (The Aeroplane, 1920, p967).

We rightfully assume being dead makes it a bit difficult to stand by one’s record.  Or to stand at all really.  As it turns out, when searching for a scapegoat, opting for the dearly departed is not always the wisest course of action.  Ghosts have a lot of free time and tend to hold grudges. This is no doubt why, as Mark Twain observed, “There are many scapegoats for our blunders, but the most popular one is Providence”.  This is obviously a safer bet, as nobody’s heard directly from God in a long time.

References
“The Death of Lieut. Desmond Arthur, RFC”. The Aeroplane v4 (Jan-June). London: Temple Press, 1913.
“Interim Report of the Committee on the Administration and Command of the Royal Flying Corp”.  The Aeroplane v11. London: Temple Press, 1916.
“The Reasonable Ghost”.  The Aeroplane v19. London: Temple Press, 1920.

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