A Perspective on Airshows and Risk

September 1997

(opinions expressed here are solely of the author and do not represent those of any airshow or organization present on Avialantic's web site)

What was in this writer's opinion one of the best airshows on the East Coast - the Chesapeake Airshow at Martin State Airport - was marred Sunday afternoon when a U.S. Air Force F-117 "Nighthawk" stealth fighter crashed on departing the show. The USAF is investigating the cause of the crash, which occurred after the fighter had completed its fly-bys and was ascending to altitude for its flight to Langley AFB and then back to its home base at Holloman AFB, New Mexico. The aircraft was not engaged in an airshow or aerobatic maneuver. The pilot, Major Bryan Knight, safely ejected after staying with the aircraft until it became uncontrollable in an attempt to guide it away from populated areas. Two houses were destroyed, but there were no fatalities and injuries were reported as minor.

Although words and statistics cannot assuage the damage to those who have been directly affected by an occurrence such as this, Avialantic's role in the promotion of aviation and airshows requires that the safety aspect of these activities be addressed.

A discussion on Baltimore radio station WPOC-FM this morning centered on the apparent increase in airshow accidents. As news director Bill Vanko correctly pointed out, this may at least in part be due to the shear number of airshows, and of course, the high level of media coverage such catastrophes acquire. According to World Airshow News, over 500 airshows are held annually in North America. Add the rest of the world's events and the count is in the thousands each year. Multiply all this by a dozen or so flights per show day. This is the backdrop against which the headlines of an airshow crash should be put.

This writer is aware of the dark side - he has lost friends and acquaintances - but he knows that every one of them knew the risks and accepted them for the love of their profession and of sharing it with others. Yes - it has to be love - airshow performers are not well-paid, even though airshows are second only to baseball in attendance.

But what about those who have not accepted this risk? What about the spectators and those who live near these events, such as the unfortunate residents of Bowley's Quarter?

Addressing the latter first, it should be noted again that the F-117 was departing the airshow and was not engaged in any airshow maneuver. It would appear the only relationship between the crash and the airshow was its location. What will come of the investigation into the incident is anyone's guess, but it is hard for me to see this as reflecting on airshow safety. Living in proximity to airports is a topic for another discussion. (update - investigation result, briefly, indicated a maintenance error and that the crash would have happened somewhere else if not at Martin State)

In the many years since the Federal Aviation Agency has regulated airshow safety in the United States, there has not been a
spectator fatality from an airshow crash. The Professional Airshow Performers Association (PAPA) has its own strict code of
airshow safety with the audience primarily in mind. Additional organizations and programs augment airshow performers and
producer's efforts to keep all involved as safe as humanly possible while presenting an exciting and inspiring pageant of flight. They work tirelessly to present a display of ability and talent which millions love to see and which motivates countless numbers of youthful citizens to work hard, stay healthy, learn, and hopefully achieve the skill and precision of the heroes and heroines who perform for them. The United Kingdom likewise has an excellent record (45 years) of spectator safety and is similarly striving to ensure its continuance. The disaster at Ramstein resulted in 14 European countries convening in 1990 to create uniform safety regulations throughout the continent aimed at ensuring the safety of the airshow public.

Yes, there is risk, but for fatalities the airshow record is miniscule compared with boating, swimming, bicycle racing, skiing, and any number of other pursuits. For pollution, the lawnmower and automobile reign. Similar comparisons could fill pages but to no purpose. These words are only an attempt to put events in perspective.  Those who have not thrilled to the airshow experience have as much right to pursue tranquility as fans have to lobby for the space they need in an ever more crowded world. Let us work toward each other's pleasure and piece of mind.

In its ironically morbid way, Sunday's Washington Post underscored the futility of seeking perfect safety as I read only minutes after learning of the F-117 crash: "Car Kills Women in Bed...husband slightly injured...when a car slammed into their bedroom..."

Live safely, but live fully,

Fred Pierce
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