Airshow Display Flying Analysed
Des Barker
This book is dedicated to the memory of all display aircrew and spectators
that have lost their lives in pursuit of their passion for display flying and
airshows. Deepest sympathies to all affected, the pilot’s and spectator’s
families, their co-workers and friends, the public and the show organizers.
There but for the Grace of God, go many display pilots.
Chief of the South African Air Force,
The key to understanding the focus of this book is the acceptance of a singular reality; display
flying, by virtue of the close proximity to the ground, poses a hazard to safety of flight.
I have been involved in display and demonstration flying, both as a member of the South
African Air Force’s Silver Falcons formation aerobatic team and enthusiastic spectator at many
national and international airshows over the past thirty years. I have very strong feelings on the
significance of display flying safety since the number of airshow and display flying accidents
worldwide has seen a steady increase over the past ten years. Safety regulations have, in some
countries been blatantly disregarded, particularly at the smaller airshows, yet still there is no
international body or regulatory authority that exercises oversight for compliance with a universally
accepted set of regulations and standards.
This book is thus intended to provide not only food for thought, but also some guidelines for
consideration by those concerned with display flying in whatever capacity of involvement, whether
as display pilot, aircrew, airshow organiser, display safety officer or ‘anorak’. There is nothing new
in this book; there is neither radical theories nor magic formulae that has been introduced to deal
with the fallibility of the display pilot in the low-level display environment. In fact, the theory and
techniques of aerobatics flying have been addressed at length over the years while books and
PhD’s have been written on human factors and human error.
But no book has addressed or attempted, for whatever reason, to address the airshow
accidents, possibly for the possibility of casting a shadow on airshow safety. No common effort
exists to capture airshow accident data to provide a basis for ‘lessons learnt’. No attempt has
been made to bring together the theory and dynamics of display flying with the real world
experiences of airshow accidents. It is therefore hoped to encourage display pilots to bare their
souls on their feelings, their experiences, their recommendations and last but not least, to speak
up within their own airshow and display communities on their personal mistakes and ‘close
The book is designed to be a work on display flying, utilising a statistical analysis of randomly
selected airshow accidents to highlight the traps involved while emphasising the hazards and the
fact that there is zero error margin in the low-level display arena. This book has tried to capture
the experiences of some of the most experienced display and flight test demonstration pilots in the
world and presented as an overview of the techniques and key factors used by these specialist
airshow performers in planning, practicing and flying their airshow routines. The shared
experiences of specialists will hopefully stimulate thought in the field of display flying and thereby
add to the safety and professionalism of airshows worldwide.
This book should assist airshow performers, operators and organizers alike to manage their way
around some of the airshow anomalies while still providing the public with great aerial
showmanship yet, without compromising safety. The information is pertinent and factual. It’s
written in the no nonsense style and highly experienced perspective that a book like this requires.
It is specifically aimed at not being too technical with regular interspacing of information with the
personal inside slant that should add to the value of the book as a teaching tool.
Professional flight display crews are composed of highly trained individuals who have no
desire to make mistakes or errors of judgement. Yet mistakes do happen, even during the most
carefully planned display sequences and such human mistakes can cause, and have caused,
devastating accidents and also many “narrow escapes”. There is no place for a non-professional
pilot in this activity, the stakes are too high. In his “Fly Smart” video, Admiral Jack Ready (USN)
summarises the essence of display flying: “When you begin flying the airshow for yourself, testing
our own limits, showing off yourself and not concentrating on showing the airplane…you have
stepped over the line into the realm of the non-professional air display pilot. The mark of the
professional is the safe, well-placed, and smooth-flowing airshow performance”.
Display flying is without doubt, a potentially a high-risk task for a pilot. All display pilots
have an “Achilles Heel”, a weak spot in their armour, which is generally not advertised amongst
peers. The more we learn about ourselves and what others think about our displays and the more
we exchange views on ‘close shaves’, the better will be our chances of combining survival with
first rate demonstrations.
September 2003
Colonel Des Barker of the South African Air
Force (SAAF), a fixed wing test pilot and previous
Commanding Officer of the South African Air Force’s
Flight Test Centre (TFDC), is a member of Society of
Experimental Test Pilots (SETP) and the Royal
Aeronautical Society (RAeS). As an ex-member of
the SAAF’s national aerobatic team, the Silver
Falcons and a demonstration/display pilot on several
different types of fast jets including the Dassault
Mirage F1 and the Mirage III (Cheetah - SAAF
designation), he has thirty-three years of flying
experience totalling approximately 6,500 flying hours
on forty-five different military types, mostly fast-jets.
Published in the SAAF’s aviation safety
magazine NYALA , the Brazilian Air Force magazine
FORCA AEREA, SETP's quarterly technical
publication COCKPIT , the South African National Defence Force magazine SALUT/South African
Soldier, African Armed Forces Journal and extensively in the South African general aviation
magazine, World Airnews, market research indicated that there was no quintessential book on the
subject of demonstration flying safety.
With this in mind it was decided that for such a work to have any credibility, an
internationally collaborative effort would provide the optimal course of action. A group of
reputable/credible and most importantly, highly experienced and enthusiastic aviation specialists,
including Keith Hartley, BAE Eurofighter Typhoon test and demonstration pilot, Major Gregg
Holden USAF C-17 display pilot, Mr Trevor Ralston Denel Aviation rotary wing test pilot, Kevin
Mace ex-RAF Lightning display pilot, the Society of Experimental Test Pilots in the USA and
several veterans of the international airshow world were rounded up to form a team and contribute
to this book.
Foreword by Chief of the South African Air Force ........................................................ 3
The Author ....................................................................................................................5
Preface .........................................................................................................................7
Author’s Acknowledgements ........................................................................................9
Chapter 1
Realities of the Airshow World .............................................................11
Chapter 2
Overview of Airshow Accidents ........................................................... 64
Chapter 3
Airshow Accidents Database and Statistical Analysis ........................138
Chapter 4
Accident Case Studies .......................................................................173
Chapter 5
The Display Pilot .................................................................................203
Chapter 6
Display Flying Safety Dynamics .........................................................248
Chapter 7
Display Specifics ................................................................................304
Chapter 8
Flying the Display ...............................................................................345
The aim of this book is to address the dynamics of display and demonstration flying, in
particular, highlighting the display pilot’s physiological deficiencies and the factors affecting the
safe presentation of a display/demonstration flight. Research has indicated that there is no book
on the world market that addresses this subject from the perspective of the display pilot, in fact
from any perspective, except photographic. There are several books on airshows; there are
several books on the techniques and methodologies of flying the specific aerobatic manoeuvres,
but none that look exclusively at the hazards imposed by low-level display flying at airshows or
flight test product demonstrations.
No one has yet analysed the scope and magnitude of the challenges facing display flying in
a world in which statistical evidence indicates an increase in airshow accidents worldwide as the
popularity of airshows increases. Interventionist authorities have been established in certain
countries with the sole purpose of regulating airshows to maximize spectator and display pilot
safety. The disconcerting negative publicity attributable to each accident, the high costs of
airshow security post September 11 and man’s ever increasing demand for excitement and
adrenalin, have placed huge financial and regulatory restrictions on one of the world’s most
popular spectator pastimes.
This book is an internationally collaborative effort written by highly experienced pilots for
display and aspirant display pilots mainly, but non-display pilots, safety officers, airshow
organisers and aviation enthusiasts would certainly find it interesting reading and learning from the
real world examples and ‘case studies’. The ‘golden thread’ remains safety of flight within the
display-flying world. This is not an instructional textbook as such, it is not a mathematical
exposition of safety of flight factors or aerodynamics, but rather a non-technical ‘look’ at the real
world of display flying in all its various facets. The subjects addressed should stimulate thought
and discussion on display and demonstration flying safety and if nothing else, should provide a
display or aspirant display pilot with ‘warning flags’ to prevent accidents from repeating
Essentially, the question that is addressed is: “What is the scope and magnitude of the
safety problems within the realm of airshow safety and how have such problems impacted on
airshow safety”. The problem is MAN, but unfortunately, there is no magic fix to solve the
problems and overcome man’s inherent physiological deficiencies. This book focuses on real
world experiences with contributions by several different veteran display pilots who have survived
the airshow circuit providing the lessons learned. It is not necessary to reinvent the wheel, others
have gone before – learn from them.
By the very nature and high frequency and huge following of airshow events in the UK and
USA, the book tends to address case studies mainly in these countries. However, since the
attempt has been to make this an internationally collaborative work encompassing display flying all
over the world, the authors and the contributors are a varied spectrum of pilots that have flown at
the entire range of airshows from Farnborough International to local flying club ‘Fly-Ins’ and as
such, the experiences and case studies from several other countries have also been included.
The book provides an overview of airshow safety but at a high level only without getting
into lower level technical detail that could lose the interest of the enthusiastic reader. The book is
historical, technical and system safety related, the writing style has tried to be free flowing, not
textbook or flight manual style, written for pilots in ‘pilotese’ in many cases. It should provide easy
reading but not be an instructional or aerodynamics manual even though the undercurrent is to
teach and learn from other’s mistakes.
The book covers background information for a display or aspirant display pilot whether
military, civilian, professional aerobatic or flight test demonstration pilot to stimulate thoughts on
improving display safety and personal survival. The focus is on maximizing showmanship without
compromising, but rather improving safety by exposure to the mistakes previously made by those
that have perished in pursuit of their display flying passion. The book brings together the theory
and philosophies of display flying by connecting with the real world examples of airshow accidents
and using the airshow accidents as a teaching tool in an effort to prevent such mistakes being
repeated in the future.
The book offers thoughts on a number of issues, which directly and indirectly affect
airshows, viz. the airshow as a business concern, the safety of airshow spectators and the general
public alike and the impact of airshow crashes on society in general. MAN, as the weak link in the
safety chain, is considered in terms of human error while airshow crash management, the role of
the media, the anti-airshow lobby, regulatory authorities, the impact of increased insurance costs
and the emotive issue of flying vintage aircraft at airshows is discussed.
The real world hazards of low-level display flying are presented not only through a brief
review of 118 airshow accidents, but also by means of a statistical analysis which exposes the role
of MAN as the weakest link in the safety chain and enables the integration of such accident data
with the theoretical dynamics involved helping to bring theory and real world practices together.
Given the risks at airshows, the basic causational errors of display flying accidents and the
significance of airshow safety from the organiser’s perspective enables definition of the airshow
safety problem.
The scope of the book covers amongst other things, the Real World of Airshows including
the business case, media, human fallibility, anti-airshow lobby, the case for flying vintage aircraft,
etc. Accident case studies also provide the platform from which to study the display pilot’s mind,
decision making under high stress conditions and high pilot workload. In considering the display
pilot, the pilot workload while flying the display is addressed and consideration is given to factors
seducing the pilot psyche. Display pilot challenges are considered, questions are asked why
highly experienced display pilots makes irrational decisions, how much continuation training and
experience is required, while the question of age and the life of a professional aerobatic pilot are
No appraisal of display safety would be complete without considering the specific dynamics
and aerodynamics of low-level display flying. In particular the aspects of closing speed, pilot
reaction times, the limitations of display volumes, energy management, pitot/statics, density
altitude, ejection, manual bail-out and departures and spinning. A high level presentation of
display flying dynamics and aerodynamics assists in placing in perspective the objectives of the
display pilot in optimising performance and handling qualities for the display routine.
In considering display specifics, subjects addressed are the selection of display pilots,
planning considerations for specific show routines, manoeuvres and routine selection.
Philosophies regarding practice, simulator preparation and discipline are essential considerations
in preparing a show routine and as such the flight envelope, carriage of passengers, fuel
allowance and weather considerations are discussed. Flying the actual display is reviewed
through the use of real world examples while the philosophies and ‘rules of thumb’ for flight test
demonstration flights are covered in terms of the role of management, Buyer’s team requirements,
briefings and reporting.
Finally, an effort is made to put the reader ‘into the cockpit’ by exposing the emotions and
particular physiological stressors facing the display pilots flying on ‘show day’. The display pilot,
the psyche of the pilot, effect of cockpit ergonomics, pilot workload, the safety
dynamics/aerodynamics of display flying, airshow accident case studies, including the world's
worst airshow accident, causal factors relating to safety, displaying vintage jet and piston warbirds,
the routine planning, choreography, safety factors, demonstrating the different categories of
aircraft from the C-17 through to the Eurofighter, flight test commercial demonstration flying, etc.
and much more.
The primary aim of the book is to highlight the Man's contribution to airshow accidents
(78%), weakness, challenges and exchange/pass on information and lessons learnt on the
skills/art of demonstration flying in all its various contexts - hopefully stimulating a greater
emphasis on safety of flight in the hazardous arena of low level aerobatics. The air show circuit is
currently under threat following Sept 11, high insurance and security costs, high accident rates,
In 2001, there were at least 15 air show accidents worldwide, in 2002 there were at least
14 - hopefully, there will be no more in 2003. Airshows are big business the world over and every
accident adds to the negative perceptions of the world's second most popular spectator pastime.
If this publication could add to improving an understanding of the human factors involved and
safety of flight just 1%, it would be worth the effort.
The tenets expressed in this book are those of the author and contributors and do
not necessarily represent any Company or Society.
his book should be carefully read by anyone interested in display flying and airshows,
either as a display pilot, an aspirant display pilot, an ex-display pilot, display safety officer, airshow
organiser or enthusiastic spectator. Compiling a book of this nature could not have been done
exclusively without the sharing of real world experiences and contributions by display veterans,
show organisers and display safety officers. As such, a debt of gratitude is owed to those that
shared their vast experiences with the display and demonstration flying fraternity worldwide in an
effort to promote display flying safety – after all, “safety is free”.
The idea for this book was initially conceived by a team which included the author, Colonel
Des Barker (SAAF), Mike Beachyhead (Thunder City, South Africa), Nigel Lamb (Breitling
Collection, Duxford) and Wing Commander Andy Offer (ex – Red Arrows leader). The following
contributors are acknowledged in chronological order for their direct contributions:
Airshow Magazine 2002 Editor, Mark Nicholls for kind permission to reproduce the RAF Harrier
airshow sequence for 2002.
Associated Press (AP), for media extracts on airshow accidents.
Aviation Safety (USA) magazine, for use of extracts from the research article on Spinning by Pat
Veillette “A Spinning Yarn” published in May 2002.
Roger Beazley, Farnborough International, Chairman of the Flying Control Committee for sharing
some of his experiences and philosophies on the problems facing Display Committees.
Peter Chaplin, SAAF Test Flight and Development Centre (TFDC), for proofreading the book.
Paul du Bois for information on South African airshow crashes.
Dave Downs of Fountainville, PA, USA for his contribution on the inadvertent ejection seat
activation by a spectator.
Eurofighter Typhoon, photographs of Eurofighter by Geoffrey Lee.
European Airshow Council (EAC), for permission to reprint extracts from the EAC 2003
Convention proceedings.
Colonel Nattie Ferreira, Director Flying Safety SAAF for support and case studies of SAAF airshow
Flypast Magazine March 2003 for statistics on UK Fatal Accidents of Historics.
Group Captain John Fynes, Commandant RAF Cranwell, for his contribution on the implications of
weather on display flying.
Keith Hartley, ex-BAE Systems, flight test and demonstration pilot for his contribution on
demonstrating the Eurofighter at Farnborough.
Lt Col Rocky Heemstra, SAAF Flight Safety Officer, for proof reading the book and sharing his
experiences and also providing material he had previously used in airshow safety briefings.
Dudley Henriques, Chairman International Fighter Pilots Fellowship, for sharing wisdom derived
over many years on the airshow circuit.
Key Publishing, Airshow 2000 Magazine, Editor Mark Nicholls for use of Harrier airshow sequence
graphics and text.
Major Greg Holden, USAF C-17 Display Pilot for his contribution to displaying the C-17.
Antoine Grondeau, Photographer and Paris University Student, for his European airshow
photographs tomcat@wingshots.net.
Michel Legault, Air Adviser RCAF via RCAF DFS for case studies of RCAF airshow accidents.
Kevin Mace, ex-RAF 11 Squadron Lighting Pilot,
for his contribution in displaying the English
Electric Lightning at RAF Leuchars.
John Miller, SA Flyer Magazine, for the photograph of the Boeing 707 flypast.
David Oliver, author British Military Aircraft Accidents – The Last Twenty-Five Years , for
information on the RAF and Red Arrows accidents.
Trevor Ralston, Denel Aviation, rotary wing test and demonstration pilot for his contribution to
displaying the Rooivalk attack helicopter at Farnborough International.
RAF Benevolent Fund, for the use of an image of Royal International Air Tattoo RAF Cottesmore.
Raymer, D., AIRCRAFT DESIGN: A Conceptual Approach , American Institute of Aeronautics and
Astronautics, Washington, D.C., Third Edition 1999.
, for media extracts on airshow accidents.
Ricardo Traven, Boeing McDonnell Douglas, F-18 demonstration pilot for sharing his philosophies
on display sequence and editing.
Lt Col Vladimir Samek, Slovak Air Attaché London, for information on Slovak airshow accidents.
Colonel Fatih Sert, Turkish Air Attaché
London , for information provided on Turkish airshow
Arun Sharma for the use of his images and information of the Mirage 2000 crash at the Indian Air
Force Day Parade 1989.
Brian Snyder, Graphics Editor, Ventura County Star , California, for the Point Mugu Airshow QF-4S
accident graphic.
The Society of Experimental Test Pilots (SETP), for permission to use extracts from COCKPIT
magazine’s ‘Cobra in the Basket” and for permission to quote from comments by flight
demonstration test pilots included in past issues of COCKPIT magazine.
Robert Stetter for permission to use images of the Frecce Tricolori accident at Ramstein from
Rick Stowell, USA, Master Instructor , for permission to use extracts from his article “Bailout! Could
You, Would You Do It?” which was first published in Sport Aerobatics magazine, May 2001.
Lt Col Neill Thomas, Officer Commanding SAAF Museum, for contributions on the SAAF Spitfire
and Mustang P-51D accidents.
Kobus Toerien Safety Manager, South African Airways, for sharing his philosophies on the display
Wing Commander Mike Whitehouse, ex-RAF Red Arrows Manager, for information regarding RAF
airshow accidents.
Bob Gore, Tom Swalm and Chris Patterakis for formation aerobatics input.
UK, Aircraft Accident Investigation Board (AAIB), for the use of accident investigation board
USA, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), for the use of accident investigation board
Senior Colonel Zao Zhiqiang, Chinese Air Attaché London, for information on Chinese airshow
To my wife Bennie, without her continuous encouragement, this book would never have
seen the light of day.
Royal Air Force Red Arrows at the Salon de Provence AFB national airshow celebrating the
50th anniversary of the Patrouille de France, 18 May 2003. (Antoine Grondeau)
“Any pilot, given the task of providing a display for the public, should set out to thrill the ignorant,
impress the knowledgeable, and frighten no one”. (Squadron Leader Ian Dick, former leader of
the Red Arrows)
Display flying has not only become big business worldwide, but as in any theatre
production in London’s West End or on New York’s Broadway, it is also a major entertainment and
spectator pastime. In the United Kingdom, particularly, it is interesting to note that airshows are
rated as the second largest spectator sport after football and in the United States, such high-flying
events are second only to Major League baseball as America’s favourite family event, even ahead
of NASCAR auto racing. It is also one of the most hazardous and each year, aerobatic pilots are
killed while displaying their aircraft at airshows and commercial demonstrations.
From ‘Barnstormers’ to Blue Angels , antique aircraft to supersonic jets, each year there are
an astonishing 300 to 350 airshows in America alone, entertaining over 24-million spectators.
From futuristic festivals to billion-dollar expos, spectators are able to explore the world of amazing
aerobatics and their ever-evolving aircraft and see how aviation technology has advanced
airshows, and how airshows have advanced aviation. In the UK, a total of 165 airshows were held
during 2001, down from the average of 250, mainly attributable to the foot and mouth epidemic
that occurred in 2001.
The popularity of airshows is understandable because you don’t have to pay £35 a seat or
£3.00 for a bottle of water at an airshow, it’s usually an affordable event and one gets to see some
of the world’s best pilots perform with grace and skill,
sometimes with humour, and certainly with panache .
Some of the pilots are wearing military medals, the
kind that are only given to genuine heroes, others are
simply civilian aviators who sacrifice their time, talent,
and money, just to keep the dream of flight alive.
Unfortunately, unlike some professional athletes and
pop stars, most airshow pilots don’t earn six figure
incomes, even though they are a crucial
entertainment component of the largest attendance
events in the world - but they have something that few
others ever have…extreme job satisfaction!
Hand in hand with spectator attendance
naturally go revenue earnings, enabling the airshow
world to sustain itself to a degree. It is certainly not a
lucrative “money spinning” venture, but it is as a
commercial sales platform, capable of generating
multi-billion dollar contracts at the trade shows. The
actual organising, presentation and participation in
airshows also provides a livelihood for a small
percentage of people worldwide, particularly
professional display pilots and then of course,
benevolent societies and their staff. Larger airshows
such as Farnborough International and the Royal
With 200 aircraft typically on static
International Air Tattoo in the UK, permanently
display at the Royal International Air
employ staff that plan each year’s show a year in
advance, down to the finest detail.
approximately two miles long and the
The first airshow ever is widely acknowledged
airshow is attended by in excess of to have been held at Reims, France as early as
200,000 local and foreign visitors August 1909, where some of Europe’s most famous
during the two public days. (RAF aviators gathered to ‘wow’ the crowds with their new
Benevolent Fund)
flying machines. The ability to just get airborne was in
those early days an achievement on its own. Four
years later in 1913, a Frenchman by the name of Pegoud was the first person to perform
aerobatics in a specially strengthened Bleriot and in the same year, Piotr Nesterov made the first
loop on 20 August 1913 in a Nieuport Monoplane. One of the first airshows in the United States
was held at Los Angeles, California in January 1910, where Glenn Curtiss was among the
participants. By 1912, the U.S. Navy had already staged the first of many simulated dogfights at
airshows and since then, manoeuvre routines have progressed steadily. Today, military flight
demonstrations and aerobatic teams such as the Red Arrows, Thunderbirds and Blue Angels , to
name just a few, are a standard component of the air forces of many nations.
It was Mr Jean Coreau, Avions Marcel Dassault test and demonstration pilot that said:
“Bringing together numbers of different aircraft of all types and categories from different nations on
the same airfield and let them fly all day long in front of spectators, you are building one of the
largest theatres in the world. If the fame of the show is big enough, it increases each year and you
can reach millions of spectators.”
Since the beginning of aviation, the stage has remained the same, but the increase in
performance and choreography has been amazing. A series of very short flights, which hardly
demonstrate even a fraction of the aircraft’s potential, provide the spectator with hours of
entertainment; many spectators secretly wishing to be the pilots actually ‘putting the aircraft
through its paces’. At the same time, the rules governing airshow flying have become increasingly
restrictive in terms of airspeed, altitude and manoeuvres, but modern aircraft, through their
increased performance and agility, are currently able to comply more readily with the everincreasing arena restrictions. For the display pilot, the display arena is a highly charged, hostile
environment that requires absolute professionalism and the demonstration of the highest levels of
flying skills. There is no room for mistakes, poor discipline or poor judgement by the display pilot.
So, with the primary requirement of the display pilot being to entertain and demonstrate the
air vehicle, what are the basic guidelines of a good display? Well, simply to remain in view of the
spectator while demonstrating the performance and flying qualities of the aircraft in a relatively
short space of time, anything from four to eight minutes, typically. Safety rules are imposed not
only to restrict the manoeuvres due to available display volume, but also to reduce the risk to the
spectators – such rules have evolved down the years, based on accidents and incidents of the
earlier display pilots. In more modern times, such rules are obviously easier to comply with by
helicopters, low speed and VSTOL aircraft, but for the high performance aircraft, the piloting skills
level required has increased as has the requirement for aircraft manoeuvring potential and agility.
Since the ‘barnstorming’ days following the end of World War I, when ‘surplus to military
requirement’ pilots and aircraft struggled to make a living in recessionary financial times, the
airshow circuit has progressed steadily. Interestingly enough, the rate at which airshows have
developed worldwide as a business and a spectator sport, has accelerated exponentially over the
past fifteen years. Airshows have attracted many millions of dollars in sponsorship, not only for
the aircraft, but also for benevolent societies, museums and airfields.
There are essentially four different categories of airshows, the commercially orientated
Business or Trade Shows, Military Shows, General Aviation Shows and Special Events such as
“Fly-Ins”, carnivals, music concerts, tall ships and coastal resorts. Business shows, usually
presented on a bi-annual basis such as Britain’s Farnborough International Airshow, France’s
Paris Airshow (Le Bourget), the United State’s Dayton Airshow (also referred to as the United
States Air and Trade Show) and Russia’s MAKS, serve as some of the major showgrounds for
commercial sales in which the primary objective is the sale of aircraft and systems. Such huge
commercial ventures are normally presented on behalf of governments and their Ministry’s of
Trade and Industry, in cooperation with state aircraft, space and defence branches of industry that
organize and present such international aviation and space salons.
Commercial airshows and exhibitions present the latest aerospace products and
technology and have become a traditional and respectable site for negotiating business contracts
of mutual interest. The huge market and unique potential of science and technology, attracts
many specialists representing the world’s aircraft, aerospace and transport industry. Typically, at
Russia’s MAKS exhibition, more than 400 aerospace companies and organizations from twentyfour countries take part in the exhibition while more than 150 aircraft participate in the air displays.
Aircraft of all types and their applications are on display. Vendors of rocket systems,
spacecraft and satellite technologies, aircraft and rocket engine technologies, airborne and
ground-support equipment, navigation and flight control systems, aircraft weapon systems,
missiles, air defence systems, flight safety systems, materials and technologies, airfield
equipment, electronic communication systems and computer technologies, all form part of the
commercial exhibition showcasing their technologies.
During the large commercial airshow flying-programmes, some approximately 380 flights
are typically flown. The attendance by the “who’s who” of the aerospace business makes it
appropriate to concurrently host numerous symposiums and seminars which are also presented to
promote the interchange of scientific and technological information. In terms of attendance over
the 5 days, between 500,000 and 1,000,000 visitors could be expected to attend the major
exhibitions such as Farnborough, Dayton and Paris.
Billed as the world’s premier aerospace event, the Farnborough International 2002 Airshow
saw 1,260 companies exhibiting at the seventeen National Pavilions with fifteen different countries
providing aircraft on display. The Society of British Aerospace Companies (SBAC) announced $9billion worth of sales and contracts and 170,000 trade visitors attended the trade days preceding
the public days.
The second category, Military Airshows, whether Navy, Army or Air Force, has as its main
objective, recruitment of young men and women into the military. In contrast to the Business Trade
Shows, the focus is a personnel recruiting and public relations effort, not necessarily always
showmanship. As an example, the stated mission of the Blue Angels
is “to enhance Navy and
Marine Corps recruiting and to represent the naval service to the civilian community, its elected
leadership and foreign nations”. The Blue Angels serve as role models and goodwill ambassadors
for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, representing the best of naval aviation. A Blue Angel s flying
display exhibits the choreographed refinements of Navy-trained flying skills, presenting aerobatic
manoeuvres of the four-plane diamond, as well as the fast-paced, high performance manoeuvres
of the two solo pilots.
Military airshows are organised by the military themselves and are essential components of
any armed force’s public relations campaign to provide the citizens of that particular country with
exposure to the aviation hardware available to that country. People want to see where their tax
money is going and watching the ‘demos’ like those at the airshows, really shows them what they
get for the billions that they pay in tax. Military airshows can, and have often been used as a
‘show of force’, particularly during the Cold War years.
In the USA, air support officials at the Horsham Air Station said the ‘Sounds of Freedom’
Airshow was designed to invite locals onto the base to see their tax dollars at work. The show had
been held periodically since the Navy took over the base in 1943, and private performances were
held even before that. In 1997, when the Blue Angels performed, the base drew nearly 500,000
spectators. Local and national military officials touted the events as an important recruitment tool,
especially as overall enrolment in the armed forces dwindled. Milton R. Shils, president of the
Delaware Valley Historic Aircraft Association, said that the ‘Sounds of Freedom’ Airshow was
important to his group for publicity and recruitment, and the members anticipated the festivities
each year.
However, more importantly, the World War II veteran said that the events inspired young
adults not only to join the military, but also to become aviators. He pointed to his own past, as a
teenager he had met Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh at an airshow and was encouraged to
become a pilot. “As a child, to reach out and touch these aviators was inspiring,” he said. “They
can be ground mechanics, they can be crew chiefs, or aviators themselves - these are the men
and women that help keep peace around the world.”
In the case of the Royal Air Force, the Red Arrow’s team was for many years a very potent
recruiting agent, although that is less true today. A significant number of officers and airmen, not
just aircrew, used to tell the Recruiting Staff that they wanted to join the RAF because they had
enjoyed watching the Red Arrows
at air
The Red Arrows, in turn,
demonstrate British skill and technology to an
enormous number of people each year,
including over 2.5 million Americans during the
1993 USA Tour and several million more
during the 1995/96 tours of the Middle
Africa, Far East and Australia. At Sydney
Harbour alone, 650,000 spectators watched
on ‘Australia Day’ in January 1996. Since their
establishment on 6 May 1965 until the end of
the 2002 season, the Red Arrows had flown
3,654 public displays in 53 different countries.
The fact that British Industry was prepared to
fund similar tours to the Middle and Far East in
1997 and 1999 seems to confirm the positive The 170,000 member EAA Convention at
return on investment for both the aerospace Oshkosh, normally heldth annually in July of
each year, marked its 50 anniversary in 2002
industry and the Royal Air Force.
and included one of the largest gatherings of
The Royal International Air Tattoo
active military aircraft ever at AirVenture .
(RIAT) in the UK, has as its aims not only the
raising of funds for the RAF Benevolent Fund,
but is also cleverly aimed at facilitating interaction and contact between air forces worldwide,
making it a truly international military airshow. RIAT is in fact, a privately funded enterprise that
pays its own way and celebrated its 31 st anniversary in 2002. It is claimed to be the largest military
airshow in the world with approximately thirty-five air forces providing 150 aircraft in an
uninterrupted eight hour flying display. It is also the only airshow in the world in which air forces
compete against each other over a three-day period for several trophies in different air and ground
The third category is the General Aviation shows, the largest of which is, of course, the
USA’s Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) AirVenture held annually at Oskosh. In this case,
the association uses the airshow to exhibit its latest experimental and home-built types, exchange
information on aircraft, systems, flying techniques, education and social interaction. In spite of the
apparent capitulation by the Experimental Aircraft Association’s leadership to the Marketing gurus,
EAA’s annual AirVenture 2002 was still the ‘primo aviation event’ of that year. Nowhere else in the
world was there such a blend of aircraft, flying, products, performances, projects and sheer
entertainment to satisfy every aviator and enthusiast.
The modern trend is that most airshows tend to have a specific theme or set of themes
supporting the airshow event and in 2001, the theme at AirVenture was ‘Aviation Firsts’. Special
attention was given to those who had participated in any number of firsts, first through the sound
barrier, first to reach Mach 2, first to fly around the world un-refuelled, first around the world in a
balloon, first African-American fighter group, first female space shuttle commander, to mention a
few. Some 750,000 people visited and even though down from previous years, about 10,000
‘flew in’, including over 2,400 show planes, 653 homebuilts, 135
amphibian/floatplanes/sea-planes, 103 antiques, 23 aerobatic, 434 classics, 389 ultralights, 316
contemporaries, 419 warbirds, 8 specials and 1 replica.
For six days, with over 500 educational forums, more than 750 exhibitors including exhibits
by NASA and the USAF, combined with non-stop flying displays, made this one of the prestige
aviation events in the world. Such top-quality airshows naturally not only attract hundreds of
thousands of spectators, but also some of the world’s top aerobatic pilots who provide the best
demonstration flying that aviation has to offer.
In April 2002, the Sun ‘n Fun in Lakeland, Fla., the second-largest aviation event in the
world, attracted more than 630,000 people. There were 7,500 aircraft, 500 exhibitors and 3,000
volunteer staff. Also in 2002, the world famous Biggin Hill Air Fair in the UK celebrated its 39
anniversary while at Duxford, home of the Imperial War Museum’s flying warbird collection, four
major airshows were hosted; each year, approximately 500,000 spectators attend the airshows
and visit the museum.
As the 50th anniversary AirVenture convention wound down on 28 July 2002, EAA
president Tom Poberezny gave his traditional wrap up to the media. “I couldn’t be happier,” he told
reporters. Final numbers weren’t ready, he said, but a reasonable guess at attendance would be
750,000, short of a record, but still a healthy total. With the uncertainty in the economy and 9/11,
they still came out in great numbers,” he said. The number of exhibitors set a record, and vendors
were happy: “This is all anecdotal but by all reports, they did very well and better than expected.
It’s very encouraging at a time when everyone is worried about the economy.” As the number of
aircraft parked at Wittman Field topped 2,500, new areas had to be opened up – participation and
attendance on such a huge scale bears out the popularity of such aviation events in the USA.
Then there are, of course, the hundreds of smaller airshows all over the world – maybe not
necessarily as well publicised and attended as the major international events, but the hazards and
threats to safety of flight are nevertheless the same as at international airshows. In fact, the
smaller airshows at remote airfields may even pose greater hazards and risks due to poor
supervision and regulation enforcement, topography, mountains, high-tension wires, birds and lack
of sophisticated fire and rescue services.
It bears mentioning that many civilian airfields are responsible for the maintenance, repair
and overhead costs of their facilities, all at a cost to the members of on-site flying clubs, the local
community or municipality. Many airfields even house museums and vintage aircraft collections.
Maintaining such facilities is expensive and in many cases, such airfields present an airshow at
least once a year to generate the funds necessary to subsidise their existence and activities.
There is no question about it, airshows are an accepted entertainment medium worldwide with
evidence that it is growing steadily. The future growth rate will however, be determined by threats
to safety and the increased costs induced by security.
Today more and more heavy and high performance aircraft are being operated on the
airshow circuit. A few years ago, the thought of high-powered piston and ex-military jet aircraft
being displayed by civilian pilots around the world, was unthinkable - today it is a reality. Civilian
and ex-military pilots alike, can and do get their hands on high momentum, high-powered
machines and this up’s the ante in terms of potential airshow accidents and incidents. The need to
perform and demonstrate is high and the desire for these pilots to show-off their proud acquisitions
often leads to accidents as their inexperience battles to come to terms with high torque values, old
vintage aerodynamics and high momentum. And then of course, there are a large number of
aircraft operators all competing for a limited ‘budget pie’ which places pressure on the operators,
not only in financial terms, but also in terms of the kind of aircraft and acts that they need to
In some countries and particularly the UK and US where ex-military and some
experimental airshow aircraft operate on a permit or exemption basis, meaning that they may not
be operated for commercial reward, airshow revenue is often the only or major source of financing
this venture. Inadequate funding can also lead to operators not applying the commensurate high
levels of maintenance required, not getting sufficient display practice and perhaps pushing
themselves to provide airshow organizers with a more spectacular ‘act’, particularly when two
similar types are competing for the same slot.
A new entertainment phenomenon on the airshow circuit in the USA and gaining in
popularity as an alternative format to airshows, is air racing. Air racing has moved on from being
an independent racing event and has been integrated into the airshow format on certain
occasions. The Formula V Air Racing Association is the pioneer in adapting air race operations to
the established airshow format and its FAA-approved two-mile racecourse, fits most airshow sites.
Each aircraft carries $1 million liability insurance coverage and all aircraft are single-seat,
homebuilt experimental licensed, built especially for air racing, and powered by 60 hp engines.
These racers reach top speeds around the racecourse of over 170 mph. Using a variety of colour
schemes, raceplane design itself, is regulated by the association while technical and safety
inspections are performed by the association before each event to ensure compliance with the
Closed-course pylon air racing for Formula V is generally two or more daily air races
around a two-mile oval course directly in front of the crowd. The race starts from a stationary start
on the runway; the aircraft takeoff in rows, then turn onto the race course and fly eight laps. What
appears especially exciting for the spectators is that racing altitude is 50 to 100 feet above ground
level which makes for spectacular viewing, in fact, this air sport is regarded as a true competitive
airshow sport with broad spectator appeal, similar to auto races. All race pilots hold FAArecognized “Letters of Air Racing Competency” issued by the Formula V Air Racing Association.
The popularity of these events is slowly increasing amongst airshow spectators looking for that
extra excitement from airshows that regulations have over the years, somewhat dampened. By
the very nature of airshow racing, it is equally hazardous and several spectacular accidents have
occurred in the past few years.
Although no formal definitions appear to exist for the various categories of aviation
exhibitions, based on the Longman Family Dictionary, the following definitions are
appropriate in the context of airshows. The word “exhibition” is defined as “a public showing” and
therefore makes all public aviation showings, be they a static or flying, an exhibition of some sort.
In terms of aviation exhibitions, further subdivisions are possible, the word “demonstration”,
as a noun is defined as “a showing and explanation of the merits of a product to a prospective
buyer” which immediately brings with it the connotation of a commercial venture, thus the
terminology ‘commercial demonstration’. The word “display” as a verb, means “to expose to view”,
and as a noun “a presentation or exhibition of something in the public view”.
Exhibition flying may thus be subdivided into two sub-sections, ‘display flying’ typically
associated with that seen at airshows worldwide and ‘demonstration flying’, such as commercial
demonstrations to prospective customers. The demonstration flights can be further subdivided
into ‘commercial display flying’ and ‘commercial demonstration flying’, dependent on the ultimate
objectives of the flights.
In the case of the ‘commercial display flight’, the pilot displays the all-round performance
and flying characteristics to the prospective buyer’s team watching from the ground. The
‘commercial demonstration’ flight on the other hand, typically includes the carriage of the
prospective buyer’s test pilots, representatives or technical members of the evaluation team; the
technical assessment and details of the aircraft are relevant in assessing the performance and
handling qualities of the aircraft. The ‘commercial’ display or demonstration flights are also
referred to as ‘product demonstration flights’.
So, who normally attends airshows? Why do they go in their thousands, often spending
several hours to reach their destinations? What is it that makes spectators continuously return to
specific airshows year after year? Although accurate information is not readily available, statistics
gathered by the International Council of Airshows (ICAS) in the United States through their Event
Organizer Survey during 2000, estimated that between 15 and 18 million spectators attend
between 300 and 350 airshows throughout North America each year. Figures released by ICAS
Exhibition Flying
Display Flying
Demonstration Flying
Commercial Display Flying
Commercial Demonstration Flying
Schematic Diagram of Exhibition Flying Definitions.
also indicated that airshows draw large numbers of demographically attractive spectators - a welleducated, affluent group of men, women and children of all ages; 36% are female, 64% male, 41%
are single, 59% married. In 2000, more than 70% of the audience at an airshow had some college
education and 75% reported a household income of $35,000 or more. Interestingly enough, the
average spectator was just under 39 years of age, but more than 53% of spectators were between
30 and 50, indicating that airshows cater for a wide spectrum of spectators, both the young, future
aviation recruits and also the more mature, ‘old hand’.
Two years later, the 2002 Airshow Spectator Survey conducted at 20 different locations,
surveyed 4,000 people at airshows in North America with questions ranging from how far they
drove to see the show, to how many people think they’re getting a good enough ‘bang for their
airshow bucks’. The ICAS survey revealed that the average spectator was 41 years old with an
average household income of around $55,000 annually. Most had some college education,
although not necessarily a degree and drove less than twenty miles to bring the family to see the
show at which they will spend between three-and-a-half and five-hours at the event and more than
likely, they have been there before. “Indirectly, the spectators are telling you that they’re going to
be back at your show next year,” said International Council of Airshows President John Cudahy.
“So it would be worth your while to reach out to them, make them feel like part of something.”
Particularly interesting statistics are that only 10 to 15 % of the airshow audience are real ‘aviation
enthusiasts’, the loyal fan base if you will, so 85 % of the crowd choose to go to an airshow for ‘a
day out’! For these people aviation and flying is today taken for granted and it is this group which
need to be focussed on to ensure large attendance at future airshows.
The biggest draw card? In the USA, military aerobatic teams like the Blue Angels
Thunderbirds and Canada’s venerable Snowbirds. “Is that any different than before 9/11?” asked
Cudahy? “No, so that suggests to ICAS that we need to continue to support the military however
we can.” After military demonstration teams, spectators said they came to see modern military
aircraft, military static displays, civilian flying exhibitions and warbird static displays, in that order.
Although the poll is conducted every two years, Cudahy said he wanted to get behind the
numbers. “We want to know more about ‘psycho-graphics’ as opposed to demographics. What
do spectators do for a living? How many times have they gone skydiving? What kind of car do
they own?” The ICAS president said that the organization would begin taking samples on
lifestyles and spending patterns again from 2003. While home ownership and household income
rose between the 2000 and 2002 surveys, education and male-to-female ratios were roughly the
same. What to do with all these numbers? Cudahy said he had a plan. “We’re working to contact
national-level sponsors and brand managers, to tell them there’s a fairly sophisticated audience at
airshows”, he said.
On entrance charges, Cudahy said “My personal feeling is that prices are too low; the
average price for an adult ticket in 2000 was $8.00 and while most military shows, indeed the three
biggest shows in North America are free”, the survey showed most people would be willing to pay
more. A variety of factors obviously affects attendance figures at airshows in a given year. For
instance, does the airshow charge admission or is it free? Is weather a factor, or have there been
scheduling concerns? Traffic congestion is one of the major aspects that adversely affects the
spectators enthusiasm; airfields were not designed to handle the almost instantaneous dumping of
between 120,000 to 200,000 spectators on their doorsteps. Fair comment from a disappointed
enthusiast: “Almost 70,000 spectators at the last ‘all team’ Snowbirds , Red Arrows , Thunderbirds
publicity gala and just getting there was a half-day experience. This from a guy who was up at 4
a.m. to try and get the ‘morning experience’ with just the pilots and aircraft on the flight line at 6
a.m. –7 a.m., and for what?”
RIAT 2002, returning to RAF Fairford after two years at RAF Cottesmore following major
upgrading to Fairford, provided the British enthusiasts with a glimpse into the future format of
airshow logistics following September 11. Personal body searches to each of the 100,000+
spectators and poor vehicle access to parking areas, resulted in a fifteen-mile long traffic tailbacks
which took vehicles up to four-hours to traverse. Many irate spectators turned away and vowed
never to return but rather to use their savings to make the trip to Oskosh instead. Yet, despite the
‘bad traffic days’, there are a number of airshows worldwide whose attendance figures continue to
place them among the highest attended shows in the world.
It would appear that ‘Bad traffic days’ are a common problem for airshow spectators
worldwide. According to a report in the Greenville News (USA), airshows aren’t dead, despite the
best efforts of the uninformed press, the FBI, the TSA, and befuddled local officials. The 2003
Greenville (SC) Air Festival held in April, which featured the Air Force Thunderbirds and the Green
Beret jump team, flooded the Donaldson Center. The resulting throngs created “a massive traffic
jam that snarled cars and trucks and forced some people to park wherever they could and walk
miles to the airshow’s location.”
Some of the show’s 60,000 estimated ticket-buyers wanted their $20 back, saying the
show’s planners didn’t do their jobs, the police traffic detail was too small and the volunteers
weren’t trained. The paper noted that “Chuck Hodge, executive director of Greenville Events, said
about 40,000 watched the show from inside the Donaldson Center on the Saturday afternoon
while another 15,000 watched from outside. “We honestly just got overwhelmed,” he said. People
parked everywhere. Some 5,000 cars made it into the real parking lot; others stopped by the
What was the problem? When something’s this screwed up, in most cases, one has to
look for bureaucratic involvement. Sure enough, in this case, the paper noted, “Part of the
problem was that organizers had to switch where ticket holders entered at 1 p.m. The main
entrance was on Delaware Street but organizers had to reroute drivers to a narrower road to
comply with Federal Aviation Administration regulations on where an airshow audience could sit.”
What is evident from the two preceding examples, is that in modern society, man’s patience has
become shorter, the ability to sustain the frustration of long queues at any event is one of the
major challenges.
The modern fare-paying spectator does not want to ‘struggle’ to be entertained, after all, they are
paying for entertainment, not frustration. Surely, the most important advise to airshow organisers
therefore, is to ensure that the fare paying spectator’s entertainment pleasure is not frustrated by
poor logistics, that the basic essentials are in place. Under basic essentials, the first element is
access, access to the venue must be relatively easy without long hours spent trying to gain entry;
this implies that traffic flow should be relatively unimpeded and that security checks should not
result in a build-up of thousands. Sufficient spectator enclosures must be provided with easy access
to food and beverage outlets while toilet facilities must be readily accessible. Failure by show
organisers to meet the minimum requirement of the spectator’s basic needs at anairshow, will
negate the opportunity of getting the spectators to return next time around.
Although spectators worldwide are required to pay entry fees at most airshows, there are cases at
military airshows in most countries where no entrance fee is charged. This is due mainly to the
fact that since the aircraft and airshow resources are funded by taxpayer’s money, the principle of
charging a fee for the taxpayer to see ‘his own equipment’ demonstrated, is difficult to justify.
However, in recent times, this ‘honourable’ principle has been overridden by the stark realities of
shrinking military budgets worldwide, air forces having to use the entry fees to subsidise the
overhead costs of presenting the airshows.
There is no stereotype airshow spectator; airshow spectators, just as theatre or moviegoers,
extend across the entire range of the personality spectrum and they are selective in their choice of
airshow attendance, wanting to see some specific aircraft types or a specific pilot displaying a
particular aircraft. Rumours, media speculation or reported unserviceabilities are often sufficient to
make the more ‘selective spectator’ hesitant to attend.
Not only is there also a difference in preference between fixed wing and rotary wing enthusiasts,
but also within the fixed wing category, there are significant differences in spectator preferences.
Asked what spectators ‘liked the most at airshows’ in the USA, the reactions varied from person to
person – the answers provide an educational insight into the mind of some of the airshow
spectators. “If showmanship was the criterion, I’d vote for the F-16 displays which are ten times
more exciting than a bunch of aerobatics. I tend to find prop stuff very boring, I like the whole
spectacle of a jet display - the noise, the afterburner flame, the car alarms going off”, was one
On the other side of the opinion spectrum: “aerobatics is about as exciting in jets as
watching a dog sleep - the kind of aerobatics I like to watch have to do with amateurs in piston
engines, then it becomes exciting. Anybody can do aerobatics in a robot airplane, not many can
do it flying by the seat of their pants”. One forthright spectator was rather more direct: “Not to
sound too jaded, airshows are boring. So many people getting drunk, spilling crap all over and
clogging the flight lines with kids-on-shoulders; you can’t take a lawn chair and watch from the
comfort of an umbrella and a beer cooler like you could back in the 70’s and early 80’s”.
Another spectator was disappointed that “safety and noise abatement demands restrict the
variety and scope of show routines, only a given set of manoeuvres may be performed, and these
hardly ever change, year to year. I would rather see simulated air combat manoeuvres, put up
some rock-concert/football stadium screens with the HUD pictures being shown real-time, make
everybody sign an insurance waiver against claiming any form of damages and do the display at
some ‘way-the-hell-out-there’ airports”. Interestingly enough, this is not an uncommon sentiment,
albeit a minority.
This comment from another spectator in the USA: “Until the horrendous crash of the
Frecce Tricolori at Ramstein in 1988, they treated their AM-339’s almost like Lipizanner’s, ‘bowing’
them and doing opposing loops from really low crossing starts with a solo through the middle and
all kinds of neat stuff as well as their famous ‘behind the crowds’ openers. I would like to see more
of this from U.S. teams. Challenging and different show routines and not so much formation
‘arrow-roll-to-diamond-and-back’ stuff. Precise it may be, but so is counting the holes in ceiling
Comment from another more ‘gung-ho’ type: “I for one KNOW I’m risking my life anytime I
let a 400 mph aircraft within about half a mile of me and pointed in my direction, even if it eats dirt
that instant. I would sign any waiver and consider it worthwhile. Let all the wimps listen to the
news broadcasts about ‘dangerous airshows’ and stay at home!” Such comments, however,
actually have no place in the professional airshow environment and should be carefully considered
since it sums up one of the dangers for display pilots. Aware that spectators are becoming more
demanding, pilots may go out and try to perform even more spectacular manoeuvres – its called
showmanship and herein lies a potential trap for the display pilot and the airshow routine design.
It is obvious that the ‘gung-ho’ spectator category really has no understanding of the
dynamics and risks involved – it is not a philosophy that can be accepted or practiced by
organisers and display pilots. It would be unprofessional and totally unacceptable to design an
airshow to satisfy the minority of spectators’ hunger for sensationalism and an ‘adrenaline rush’.
Could it be that ‘highly regulated’ shows are safer? Could it be that some spectators come to
airshows to subsidise their own need for an adrenaline rush? Could it possibly be that some
spectators attend an airshow knowing that the high-risk environment is conducive to an accident or
is this just pure bravado from the ‘macho’ spectator? Would the same sentiments have been
expressed by this specific spectator after watching the Ukrainian Air Force’s Su-27 plough through
the spectator enclosure at Lviv in 2002 killing 86 and injuring more than 156 spectators? Not likely
– such a cavalier approach to aviation and display safety would ring the death knell for airshows all
over the world.
This change in emphasis by spectators is recognised worldwide – spectators wanting more
entertainment from the airshows, more than just the standard manoeuvres that they have watched
over the many years. In South Africa, at the Test Flight and Development Centre bi-annual “FlyIn”, the organisers tried to do meet the increased entertainment demands of the spectators. In an
effort to break away from staid old traditions and provide something different, HUD camera video
was telemetered to large screens, miniature cameras installed in the cockpit were also use to
transmit audio and video to a large sport screen providing the spectator with the closest form of
realism by trying to put the spectator in the aircraft. Since the airfield is co-located on a weapons
range, it is also possible to demonstrate weapon’s releases and the firing of air-to-ground rockets
and guns. At the 75 th and 80th SAAF anniversary celebrations at Air Force Base Waterkloof (South
Africa), a selection of 1 versus 1 choreographed air combat manoeuvres were flown at low level in
an attempt to increase spectator interest in the core functions of military pilots.
Israeli Air Force wings parades used to provide fine examples of firepower demonstrations,
providing the reason to “show-off” the air force, the equipment and the skills of the pilots. In the
past, wings parades included a truly impressive airshow which included simulated air combat
manoeuvres, mock-attacks using the joint forces and the firing of rockets, guns and missiles at
static targets, all this against the backdrop of inspiring classical music. Spectators watched in
fascination as the individual manoeuvres and counter tactics were flown, the use of chaff and
flares adding to the realism – all this, just 500 metres from the display line! The experience is
enough to guarantee enthusiasm and public support for the air force and establish pride in the
country’s military forces while simultaneously providing a never to be forgotten experience for the
In an effort to feed the demands of fare paying spectators, airshow organisers are
attempting to improve on each airshow. At Dayton’s airshow to feature Warbird Acts WWII,
dramatic historical WWII re-enactments with explosive pyrotechnics ignited the 2002 Vectren
Dayton Airshow. The past was brought alive for fans both young and old with TORA TORA
TORA’s Pearl Harbour re-enactment of that day which will live in infamy. WWII
Warbird combat
mission simulations acts also featured realistic, high-tech, crowd-thrilling pyrotechnics that took
spectators into the heat of battle.
As Japanese fighters unexpectedly approached, airshow fans were transported back in
time to 7 December 1941 with precisely choreographed flying, spectacular explosions, strafing,
dogfights, realistic sound effects and a historic narration for a chilling recreation of the attack on
Pearl Harbor. The presentation was dedicated to the men and women who lost their lives at Pearl
Harbor and in WWII. The Japanese Zero fighters flown by the Commemorative Air Force were
expertly crafted replicas featured in a number of motion pictures including “Tora! Tora! Tora!”, the
“Final Countdown,” and “Battle of Midway”. A B-17, B-25 and P-51 simulated a WWII combat
mission complete with riveting bombing and strafing runs. The climax of the mission was the B-17
simulated attack releasing a 2,000-foot “Wall of Fire” which increased the intensity as the “field of
heat” and the aftershock, similar to a small earthquake, shook the airfield. Such realism takes the
spectator as close to reality as possible, it keeps young and old, male and female, fascinated – all
prepared to return next year.
Given the hazards inherent in display flying an aircraft in close proximity to the ground, as
in most dynamic sports, the risk of an accident is always present, much as in motor racing. The
question can rightly be asked: “how safe are airshows for pilots, spectators and the public?” What
risks are involved? Statistically, what are the probabilities of an aircraft accident at an airshow?
Although there were earlier airshow accidents in which spectators were killed, the major
safety watershed, which had a significant impact on the world of airshows and safety regulations,
was the tragic crash of the Italian Air Force’s Frecce Tricolori at Ramstein in 1988 - sixty people
were killed and hundreds more injured. This put a
completely new perspective on safety regulations and
the rules for displaying aircraft to the public. This was
the first year that the hazards of airshow flying were
really brought home in such dramatic fashion, not only
to the display pilots worldwide, but also to the aviation
regulatory authorities and the public.
Certainly, there have been several other
airshows in which spectators were killed, twenty-eight
spectators killed and sixty-three injured at
Three members of the Italian formation
Farnborough, UK, in 1952. Eight spectators were
aerobatic team, Frecce Tricolori,
fatally injured at the Paris Airshow in 1967 when a
collided during an airshow at Ramstein
Fouga Magister of the Patrouille de France failed to
(Germany) killing sixty people and
recover from the 9-ship bomb-burst, the crash debris
injuring several hundred more when
falling amongst the spectators. Again at the ‘Flanders
one of the aircraft crashed into the
Fly-In’ at Ostende, Belgium in 1997, the Royal
spectators. (Robert Stetter)
Jordanian Falcons solo crash killed eight spectators
and injured dozens more, a stark reminder to the
fallibility of the human being and the realities of the hazards of display flying. Although disastrous,
certainly not the first and definitely not the last airshow accident at which spectators would be
killed. In most countries, spectator safety at airshows receives the highest priority in the planning
of the airshows but as in all systems, none are perfect and accidents have occurred in the past
with horrendous results. Just when airshows worldwide appeared to have achieved a standard in
Number of Accidents
1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002
Random sampling of the number of airshow accidents worldwide over a ten-year period
extending from 1993 – 2002. (Refer Chapter 3 for specific detail of each accident)
which the safety of spectators was no longer jeopardised by display line incursions, the Ukraine Air
Force Su-27 crashed into a spectator enclosure at an airshow killing eighty-six people and injuring
156 making it the most devastating airshow in the history of the airshow circuit.
Regulations of course, can only go so far – the introduction of the human into a highly
dynamic, high-energy environment complicates issues. Even though accidents at airshows do
occur, airshows still offer a consistently and historically safe environment for millions of spectators
each year. Since current rules were implemented nearly fifty years ago, there has not been a
single spectator fatality at a North American airshow, an enviable safety record for any business.
Europe and the rest of the world have however, not been as successful, but considering that
approximately 125 airshows of one type or the other are presented annually in the UK, similar
impressive spectator safety statistics do actually exist for the UK.
Within the scope of an analysis conducted on airshow accidents worldwide since 1952,
(Chapter 3), 703 (66%) of the accident victims were spectators in which 202 were killed and in
excess of 501 spectators were injured while attending airshows. During the same period, fourteen
members of the public were killed and 100 injured at airshows worldwide. Analysing a random
sample of airshow accidents worldwide over a ten-year period extending from 1993 to 2002, a total
of at least eighty-eight accidents were recorded. What is significant is that there appears to have
been a significant increase in the trend in the number of airshow accidents since 1996. The year
2001 was the worst year by far with at least fifteen accidents while at the same time, quite
ironically, the 2001 airshow season in the United States was the safest in the history of US
airshows. Although statistical averaging has no specific significance in the analysis, it is instructive
to note that the average number of airshow accidents worldwide since 1996 has been an
unacceptable ten accidents per year, a trend that cannot be allowed to continue without significant
adverse effect on the future of airshows.
The relatively high accident rate of display aircraft outside of the United States during the
2001 season, coupled with the totally unrelated September 11 terrorist tragedy in the United
States, gave rise to an unprecedented increase in the threat to the survivability of the airshow
world. The drastic increase in insurance rates, not only for the aircraft owners, but also for the
show organisers and the requirement to improve anti-terrorist security, adversely affected civilian
airshow organisers that eventually led to the cancellation of several smaller airshows worldwide.
The costs could have been carried over to the public but that would have consequently resulted in
a major decrease in attendance with all the negative spin-offs such as sponsorship withdrawal and
cost overruns.
Poor decision-making and the susceptibility to making errors of judgement, especially in
pressure situations, has resulted in some near misses and then also some of the most dramatic
airshow accidents. All too often throughout the history of aviation, spectators have witnessed
airshows and aerial demonstrations of aircraft that ended in destructive manoeuvres and the loss
of life and aircraft.
The dramatic ejection of the Russian test pilot from the MiG-29 ‘high alpha’ fly-by at the
Paris Airshow in 1989, the crash of the Russian Tu-144 in 1993 and the Sukhoi Su-30 MKI at the
Paris Airshow in 1996, brought the total number of Russian aircraft display accidents at Paris to
three. This kind of high profile failure made it very difficult for the aviation world to develop
confidence in the Russian pilot’s display discipline, equipment and skills and presented the “worst
nightmare scenario” for the Russian aviation industry at large. The synchro-pair of Russian MiG29s colliding with each other at RIAT Fairford in 1993 and the spectacular in-flight structural failure
of the Northrop F-117 in September 1997 in Baltimore, Maryland, USA and many more, have all
brought the realities of display flying hazards directly to the spectators and the public in general.
Accidents at airshows are relatively infrequent, but do happen – wherever man and
machinery are involved, there are risks; the major cause of accidents remains man’s fickleness
and weakness in making sound judgement while operating such machinery in a highly dynamic
It is an accepted fact that flying an airshow is high-risk, which means that the ‘primary task’
is risk reduction. Throughout the aerospace world, risk reduction has usually been achieved by
engineering as much as possible of the aircraft and associated systems for pilot safety, obviously
within the desired mission of the aircraft. However, airshows represent an exception to the
‘primary task’ rule of thumb because, given the accidents
in Ukraine, Ramstein, Ostende and elsewhere, they may
subject innocent bystanders to possible injury and death,
for no particular reason.
Consider if you will, the millions of spectators
attending airshows annually versus the number of people
killed at airshow crashes. Then run some numbers
for other incidents such as airliner crashes and even
automobile crashes. A bad example? It’s like this
though. People driving or flying from A to B are not doing
so to be entertained and are generally not enticed into
doing so with the promise of entertainment, nor is the
event of driving directly staged or organised along the
lines of a calculated risk.
A much better comparison would possibly be with
other events in which machines are displayed for the
public’s entertainment, typically, motor racing, boat races
and so forth. In these cases, the risk of death is also
relatively low. The question then is, “should all such
events that unnecessarily risk death or injury to the
spectators be banned? The answer can be yes, but only
if it is proposed that ALL such activities are banned.
Millions of people attend airshows each year, they know
and accept that there is a small but finite risk as a result
of this activity just as skiing, cycling and roller-skating
carry risks. In a legal sense, they sign no waivers.
On the conclusion of the USA airshow season in
2001, the Charlotte (NC) Observer newspaper released a
report indicating that since 1990, a total of 29 spectators
and 231 drivers had been killed in automobile races.
During that same period, 42 pilot deaths were recorded in
airshows in the United States and Canada, but with no
fatalities among spectators. “Though airshow safety has
demonstrably improved over the last ten years, our entire
industry recognizes that there is still important work to be
done in this area,” said ICAS President John Cudahy.
“We all look forward to the day when the safety record we
had this year becomes the norm rather than the
The philosophy that puts the risk on the customer
may be accepted but actually, it flies in the face of legal
doctrines including, occupational safety. The people who
attend airshows are not told of the possibility of an
accident. Many activities such as mountain climbing,
On 4 June 2001, the Spitfire pilot
hiking, skydiving and playing contact sports are much
reported an on-board fire and turning
riskier but its is not suggested that these activities should
back for a forced landing on the
be banned, nor as hikers and climbers would they want to
airfield, lost control on short final after
see them banned. The reality is that nearly all hikers and
taking evasive manoeuvres to avoid a
climbers make a conscious choice of actively participating
group of spectators that had
whereas the attendees of airshows regard themselves as
encroached the emergency landing
spectators to be entertained – but it is a case of
area, auto-rotating into a fireball on the
conscious choice.
airfield. (François Henriot)
It wouldn’t be expected of a movie theatre
audience to be put at a small or even unnecessary risk.
The airshow audiences are just like movie theatre audiences in this regard, they are not
expendable. What if a fire breaks out? Not everyone will ‘exit in an orderly fashion’, someone
could be trampled on or even smothered. Although a moviegoer is not constantly thinking about
that when at the theatre, it is nevertheless always a possibility - just like the remote likelihood of an
airshow crash. A large theatre chain probably does not have the financial muscle like
government’s do to cater for the litigious modern society.
Is this akin to the lady who sued the manufacturer of the smoke detector? She took the
batteries out of the device to power her ‘portable radio’ and her house subsequently burnt down.
She sued because there was no warning label on the detector saying it wouldn’t work without
batteries! It seems that in the modern world we try harder and harder to legislate ourselves away
from having to use common sense, because it’s growing LESS common. The people who attend
airshows are not told of the possibility of an accident, but nor do they need to be, just as nobody
tells one of the possibility of getting struck by lightning every time there’s a storm, either. With the
spate of liberal political correctness, a litigious society and personal freedom, it is not considered
too far-fetched for someone to be struck and then sue a TV weatherman.
Spectators don’t sign waivers when arriving at theatres or airshows, nor do they when
entering a grocery store, boarding a bus or playing a game of soccer in the park. There was a
time when adults were expected to inform themselves to some degree. The people who attend
airshows are not told of the possibility of accident, however, the airshow programmes all have
significant sections in them explaining the safety rules in place. The commentators make a point
of asking people to stay in designated areas and behind the tapes that delineate the safe zones.
Theatres have burned down in the past, rows of seats have collapsed and people have died of
heart attacks in movie theatres. In fact, it is doubtful that there is ANY difference in the statistical
risk of attending an airshow in the US or UK and a movie theatre.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are still display pilots who lack that bit of maturity
which enables them to understand the criticality of spectator safety, that understand the potential
of a jet aircraft’s power without having to prove it to the innocent spectators. Spectators love to be
thrilled by low-flying, but, there is a limit to just how low. On 21 June 2001, a SAAB Viggen jet
swept very low over a group of spectators watching the display at the airport near Uppsala, 60km
north of Stockholm military airport in Sweden. The aircraft passed so low overhead the spectators
that six of the spectators on the ground suffered burns, three of them seriously. Officials did not
say how low the aircraft was flying, but a news release from the air base said a group of seven
people was watching the exhibition at a distance of about 75 metres from the runway.
Christer Ulriksson, a spokesman for the air force's F16 wing in Uppsala, said the injured
were three men and three women, all in their 20s. “Three suffered serious, but not life-threatening
burns”, he said. The injured were taken to the Akademiska Hospital in Uppsala and one woman
was quickly released, spokesman Claes Juhlin said. The other five remained in hospital, with one
woman in a very serious condition. “She was not so badly burned, but was thrown to the ground
by the shockwave and suffered another serious injury,” Juhlin said. Ulriksson did not know exactly
how low the aircraft was flying but speculated that it could not have been more than 20 metres
above ground level, judging by the injuries.
In all likelihood, to inflict burns, the Viggen would have passed by at a height more like five
metres. He said the distance of the injured people from the runway did not violate airport rules but
was “inconveniently close”. It was not clear why the aircraft flew over the group at such a low
height, Ulriksson said. “We do not know why. But we know the members of the group were
acquainted with the pilots of this wing so he may have wanted to give them some sort of extra
salute,” he said. This incident led to a Police investigation. (Associated Press)
Now there are two very distinct areas that relate directly to airshow safety, particularly with
regard to the spectators and public. The first, crowd protection, was addressed worldwide a long
time ago by the introduction of display minimum safety distances and minimum heights. The
second, has never been adequately addressed anywhere in the world and it directly concerns the
safety of people and property in the peripheral areas that surround a show site. This includes all
people and property that must be overflown by aircraft as they manoeuvre and stage for their flight
path parallel to the show crowd. Even when the 1500 feet ‘stand-off’ line is observed, there are
risks in the turn-around areas. Aircraft in these areas are being flown at maximum performance,
many times at the corners of their respective flight envelopes.
In the case of aerobatic teams such as the Thunderbirds or Blue Angels , a maximum effort
is made to avoid inbound and departing flight paths directly over developments and heavily
populated areas. Even then, after viewing the area maps and carefully planning each available
show line, the inbound and outbound line and a show centre point for the team lead must be
selected. In most cases, this will be a runway that meets the distance criteria from the crowd. The
problem is now, and always has been, the ‘fringe’ areas. It’s not enough to say that people
shouldn’t live within a certain distance of an airport, but unfortunately, that argument seems readily
available to some who like to debate such issues.
There IS danger there, and to be quite frank,
time and time again pilots and airshow organisers
have taken an active part in FAA and military
discussion groups that have tried to address these
issues – the bottom line is that there is no easy
answer. Most display pilots may never have broken
the crowd rules, but make no mistake about it, during
turn-arounds, the pilot and the aircraft are often
‘maxed-out’ in the peripheral areas on both sides of
the show line - and there are houses and people
below the aircraft all the time.
Collateral damage is often a result of an
airshow accident. The hazards facing spectators at
airshows are generally known and regulations are
imposed to address spectator safety, however, in the
case of the general public not even involved with the
airshow, there is no elegant solution. The concerns by
inhabitants of housing estates around the airfield are
certainly well founded with added housing insurance
implications. The area in and around an airfield being
used for an airshow is at risk to collateral damage in
the event of an aircraft crashing outside of the airfield.
In an analysis of airshow accidents, fourteen members
of the public were killed and one hundred were injured
– members of the public that just happened to be in the
wrong place at the wrong time, were killed or injured by
airshow crash debris.
The innocent bystanders, the public killed or
injured by collateral airshow accident damage, is
pertinently illustrated in the case of the Tupolev Tu-144
accident at the Paris Airshow in 1973 in which nine
members of the public were killed and sixty injured by
crash debris coming down on the village of
Goussainville, a few miles from the Le Bourget airport.
No more was the hazardous reality of
There was also the case of the Indian Air Force Mirage
display flying more dramatically
2000 crash in Delhi (1989) which not only claimed the
demonstrated and international
lives of two spectators, but also injured twenty
attention to airshow safety more
members of the public outside the airfield. The USAF
publicly scrutinised than the accident
F-117 catastrophic in-flight break-up at an airshow in
on 28 August 1988 in Ramstein, West
Maryland, USA during September 1997 resulted in
Germany. (Robert Stetter)
injury to four members of the public and also to several
In October 2002, two Indian Navy IL-38 maritime patrol aircraft in formation practicing for
an airshow to mark the 25 th anniversary of the Indian Navy’s 315 Squadron, collided in mid-air in
the western state of Goa killing fifteen people. One of the aircraft impacted on a road and the
other on a building construction site killing all twelve aircrew while crash debris killed three
labourers and injured seven.
These issues of collateral damage will never be able to be satisfactorily addressed. The
shows will continue because people want them and because in reality, there is really no way to
solve the ultimate safety issue concerning the peripheral areas. People will always buy property
next to an airport and some will move away but construction developments will continue and little
will change. Pilots who, after viewing the aerial photograph of the display area and attending the
safety meeting, choose the ‘best available’ approach and departure flight paths to avoid the
populated areas as much as they can, and still arrive at the show line with the required
combination of airspeed, altitude and g.
The realisation of the hazards have not gone unnoticed by the airshow performers,
particularly those in the military. The seriousness and commitment with which professionals have
had to ‘up’ their attitude to zero accident tolerance display flying can best be illustrated by the
example in which the United States Navy’s Blue Angels suspended their demonstration
programme because the team’s leader was concerned about his own flying performance. Cmdr
Donnie Cochran, 41, did not want to jeopardise the safety of the team’s pilots and decided to take
his team back into intensive training after lining up above the wrong runway during a high-speed,
low level manoeuvre at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, VA, on 23 September 2001.
One of the heart-stopping manoeuvres in front of a crowd of 150,000 required four aircraft
to cross over a single point simultaneously from different directions, using two runways as their
‘marks’. Cochran approached the point over the wrong runway, the other pilots saw that he had
made a mistake and adjusted to it. The prudent question is: “In that particular manoeuvre, was
safety impaired?” Well, it could have been, but wasn’t necessarily. Part of professionalism is
being able to recognise an incorrect/unsafe situation and with all formation members situationally
aware, compensating adequately to recover from the impending crisis situation.
The kind of self-evaluation leading to making such a public decision is pretty rare these
days when the pressure is to ‘do at all cost’ and represents its own special brand of courage.
Bearing in mind that a total of 22 Blue Angels pilots have been killed while training or performing
since the unit was formed after WWII in 1946, the hazards and traps are well understood by the
pilots. From this, it appears to be a gutsy decision made by a mature leader.
No analysis of airshow safety would be complete without considering the impact of the
environment on safety at airshows. In this specific case, inherent in the nature of low level flying
demonstrations, lies the risk of birdstrikes that will continue to remain a real threat to low-level
flying aircraft, being even more critical in the presence of spectators. In April 2000 ‘Wild Bill’
Marcellus suffered a ‘too-close encounter’ with the ground at the Barksdale AFB Base, Louisiana
Airshow. Marcellus was nearing the end of a high-energy routine when he hit the ground with
enough force to bend the aircraft’s undercarriage. He was flying at nearly 200 mph about 30 feet
off the ground when a bird apparently flew into the Edge 360’s propeller. The aircraft hit the grass
field and bounced back into the air before Marcellus was able to set it down. During the 1999
SIAD airshow at Bratislava, Slovakia, held on the 5 June 1999, two of the Frecce Tricolori aircraft
ingested birds into their engines during their display, fortunately, both the MB339s were both able
to land safely.
Protection of the public is a critical element of airshow and display flying safety and is
universally acknowledged as a priority by participants and airshow organisers alike. However,
even though every effort is made to make the shows as safe for the spectators as is humanly
possible, the ultimate answer about the safety of the peripheral areas will remain. So, what is the
major threat to improving airshow safety?
Making an error of judgement is not the sole domain or copyright of a certain individual,
group or category of pilots. There is no display pilot that has survived the airshow circuit that
cannot tell of ‘close shaves’ – most pilots have had incidents in which their own skill and
judgement had let them down during their display careers which, but for the grace of ‘Higher
Authority’, would have killed them. In the high threat environment of the low-level display arena,
the use of the term ‘pilot error’ is not really considered appropriate and the term ‘human error’
seems to be more semantically correct. Unfortunately, the term ‘pilot error’ implies negligence
whereas the term ‘human error’, more accurately captures the realities of display flying errors
caused by the fallibility of the pilot to judge, estimate and anticipate accurately and consistently.
Heads of State often make mistakes or poor decisions, top surgeons have been known to
amputate the wrong body part, general managers of international companies have caused the
collapse of companies while accountants have made calculation errors ending in bankruptcy or the
loss of millions of dollars. The bottom line is that every human is generally a weak decision maker,
especially under stress. In the flight display realm, such stress may best be exemplified by ‘lifethreatening’ factors like finding oneself at the top of a low-level, vertical manoeuvre with insufficient
height or airspeed to complete the manoeuvre, or an excessively large ‘nose-drop’ while
performing a low level aileron roll.
In some professions, one is able to hide or even cover up mistakes. However, in display
flying, it may well be the irrevocable ‘point of no return’ that has been passed; there is no second
chance. No excuse or hastily prepared political statement can put the record straight or negate
the disastrous effects of an aircraft accident at a flight demonstration or airshow; the public outcry
similar to that in the United Kingdom during June 2001 following a spate of three accidents, cannot
be wished away. Two accidents at Biggin Hill and one at Paris over three consecutive days in
June 2001, provided the “nightmare scenario” for the airshow world. But airshow accidents
happen even to the most professional aerobatic teams such as the USN Blue Angels , USAF
Thunderbirds, RAF Red Arrows and the Canadian Air Force Snowbirds , not to mention air forces
and general aviation professionals worldwide, have all suffered losses due to accidents.
The concern is that “errors of judgement” are not made on purpose but almost invariably
result in an aircraft accident with, our without loss of life – there is no “second chance”, there is not
another opportunity to stop and then start all over again – like other professionals that would get
an opportunity to maybe start a new career. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that
statistically, approximately 67% of all aviation accidents, military and civilian, are caused by human
performance errors. The display pilot community has not escaped these damning statistics, and
the case studies presented in this book are particularly indicative of the fallibility of the human.
Approximately 79% of all airshow accidents are attributable to MAN in one form or the other. The
difference of 12% between general aviation’s 67% and airshow accidents’ 79% is indicative of the
increased hazards existing within the low-level display arena. The remaining 21% being
attributable to ‘mechanical’ and ‘environmental’ factors.
Historically, the safety statistics of airshow and aerial demonstration accidents are
relatively disappointing, but considering the dynamics of manoeuvring an aircraft at very low level,
this is not surprising. Although no accurate figures are available for display and demonstration
accidents since the start of aviation, from random statistics available since 1952, more than 401
lives have been lost and more than 673 people injured in at least 118 random airshow accidents at
a cost of more than 1 billion dollars in aircraft. In the final analysis, a display accident, excluding
mechanical failures and environmental effects of course, can only be blamed on “human error”,
whether it be pilot’s response/reaction time, anticipation, technique or situational awareness –
these are the weak spots in the human physiology. It is essential for display pilots to made aware
of their shortcomings in this regard and for training to focus on strengthening the deficiencies –
however, it is not possible to completely eliminate such deficiencies in the human physiology, the
best we can hope for is to reduce the error margin through training.
The irony of air display crashes is that the pilots involved are professionals and in most
cases, have a considerable amount of experience. Experience ranges from highly experienced
combat fighter pilots, highly experienced test and demonstration pilots and world aerobatic
champions to professional airshow pilots with more years and more hours experience than most
people care to remember. Charlie Hillard, 58, who was killed in a Sea-Fury accident in 1996 at the
Lakeland Fun ‘n Sun, had logged 42 years and more than 15,000 hours of flight time. Wayne
Handley, a former Naval Aviator, aerobatic champion, ‘ag’ pilot and aerobatic instructor amassed a
phenomenal 25,000 hours of manoeuvring time in his 43-year aviation career before being injured
in an airshow accident flying an Oracle Turbo Raven at the California International Airshow in
1999. His aerobatic ability earned him the title of California Unlimited Aerobatic Champion, not
once, but three times. In April 1999 flying a G-202 he increased his own world record for inverted
flat spins to seventy-eight turns. In 1996 he was presented the Bill Barber Award for
Showmanship and in 1997 the Art Scholl Memorial Showmanship Award, two of the most
prestigious awards in the airshow industry. The 54-year old ‘Hoof’ Proudfoot was another very
highly experienced airshow pilot with 14,500 flying hours that died in a P-38 airshow accident at
Duxford in 1996. Considering the vast experience of those display pilots killed in airshow
accidents, the only logical conclusion that can be reached is that experience alone, is not enough
to guarantee survival on the airshow circuit.
Most, if not all pilots displaying an aircraft in public are very experienced pilots, but
accidents happen, for whatever reason. In the military, display pilots must have a significant
amount of experience on type. However, on privately owned aircraft, the regulatory stipulations
are less severe and demonstration pilots may not necessarily have many hours on type. The fact
that they own the aircraft and have the necessary licence to demonstrate an aircraft, does not
mean that they are totally ‘au fait’ their acquisitions, in fact, they may, in all probability be slightly
short on the experience necessary to provide a low-level aerobatics display.
An interesting observation is that all pilots involved in display flying, fixed wing or rotary
wing, have demonstrated a characteristic passion for aviation, in particular, display flying in one
way or another. Whether it is in rebuilding a vintage type aircraft, having display flying as a hobby,
or being active within the airshow administration business, they have devoted their lives in pursuit
of their passion. Display flying demands more from the demonstration pilot having to travel all
over the world or country from airshow to airshow displaying the aircraft. In many cases, display
pilots have to sacrifice family ties in some cases during the airshow season, wives becoming
‘airshow widows’, even literally in some cases. Moreover, as in most things in life, this passion is
only given recognition posthumously. In a statement following the fatal crash of the Vampire at
Biggin Hill’s Air Fair 2001, the family of Mr Kerr said: “Jonathan was a very special person, who
lived for his passion and died living it. He worked hard and achieved his ambition to reassemble
and fly his own Vampire.”
A similar eulogy was echoed by Tom Poberzny relating to his old time friend and fellow
airshow pilot, Charlie Hillard who was killed when his Sea-Fury flipped over onto its back during a
landing at EAA Lakeland Sun ‘n Fun ‘96. Some of Hillard’s accomplishments included Member
U.S. Skydiving Team 1958, National Aerobatic Champion 1967, World Aerobatic Champion 1972,
Leader of the Eagles Aerobatic Team 1971-1995 and EAA Oskosh airshow boss 1991-1995.
Total commitment to the cause of display flying and the airshow circuit, if ever there was.
Poberezny said that: “Charlie Hillard was a world-class aviator. He was a world aerobatic
champion, the leader of the Eagles Aerobatic Team for 25 years. He was just totally immersed in
aviation. Along with his aviation skills, Charlie was a highly respected member of the community,
as evidenced by the outpouring of support to his family and colleagues in his hometown of Fort
Worth, Texas. He was also an important part of the EAA family. That makes this an especially
difficult loss from both a personal and professional standpoint”. Such accolades could no doubt be
directed at most other display pilots, a total commitment.
An interesting observation from the SAAF’s airshow safety liaison officer, Lt Col ‘Rocky’
Heemstra regarding the types of pilots selected for display flying and the relationship to human
error is that display pilots generally tend be chosen for their ability to fly the aircraft near the limits
of the manoeuvre envelope. A conservative ‘by-the-book’ pilot hardly ever seems to be chosen as
the display pilot. This is possibly a natural consequence resulting from the nature of display flying
and is also the preferred profile of the display pilot by airshow organisers, competition judges
and/or the Commanding Officers who prefer the pilots to display the aircraft at or near the edge. In
essence, the display pilot selectors tend to choose aggressive pilots to become display pilots.
Mind you, not necessarily aggressive personalities, but rather aggressive aviators - pilots who are
prepared to put the aircraft into attitudes necessary to guarantee the safe execution of the specific
low-level task.
Although safety margins are included within an aircraft’s certified flight envelope, once a
display pilot survives a manoeuvre near the edge of the envelope, this particular manoeuvre then
becomes standard and each time it is flown and survived, a conditioning factor is applied. The
next time, the envelope is pushed a little bit further. Each time the pilot survives, the previous
manoeuvre boundary becomes the baseline and the next time it is pushed a little further. Include
the pilot’s ego plus the airshow pressures of displaying the aircraft to the public, then even the
most experienced pilot will get caught and fail from time to time.
A display pilot doesn’t just make an error, there is always some mitigating factor, some
contributory cause that seduces the pilot’s natural instincts, his peripheral cues, that overwhelms
his information processing powers or anticipation, ultimately causing judgement errors. The
challenge to improve airshow safety lies in an awareness to educate display pilots with respect to
their, and the human’s fallibility in decision making, anticipation, response, discipline and training.
Comment on airshow accidents from a former leader of the Thunderbirds : “Every time I
hear of an aircraft accident, be it airshow, airliner, general aviation or military, I pray the cause is
“Human Error.” Why? Because as a pilot, it is the only thing I have complete control of. I cannot
control engine failure, parts malfunction, poor maintenance or eventual structural failure other than
flying the aircraft within its design limits. Even then, it could be a ‘crap shoot’ if others have been
overstressing the bird. The solution is professional training according to an approved syllabus,
reasonable rules and regulations, a safe show line, proficiency and solid air discipline. Of course,
a well maintained aircraft is imperative. Each one of these factors is as important as the other.
This is common sense and we all know that. Now let’s just do all we can to ensure compliance.
Accidents do happen but it should not be due to gross negligence on anyone’s part. We CAN fly
an exciting and entertaining airshow safely and professionally”.
From the time of Wilbur and Orville Wright, in fact, even from as early as the infancy of
flight, mankind’s early experimentation with lighter-than-air vehicles has produced accidents.
Nothing much has changed, except the date. Aircraft accidents at airshows are not a new
phenomenon, they have shocked and fascinated the spectators and general public since the first
flight demonstrations. In fact, the first female aviator killed in an airshow accident occurred on 1
July 1912 as pioneering aviatrix Harriet Quimby (35) and William Willard, a friend, died when their
Blériot fell out of the sky during an airshow over Dorchester Bay, south of Boston, Massachusetts.
Quimby had been the first woman to fly solo across the English Channel and was the fourth
woman flyer to be killed in an aviation accident.
Aerobatic flight, a specialized area of general aviation, is commonly defined as “precise
manoeuvring in three-dimensional space,” which should be considered in terms of three
components, ie. position, velocity, and attitude. An aerobatic aircraft's position should be precisely
controlled about all three axes of pitch, roll, and yaw and can be quickly reoriented to any other
position through manoeuvring. Lincoln Beachey is widely recognized as the “father” of aerobatic
flying, even though his feats were, at first, dismissed by none other than Orville Wright as mere
“optical illusions.” All such doubters were converted during a now-legendary 126-city barnstorming
tour in 1914 when Beachey, known as “the flying fool,” dazzled crowds across the USA flying
stunts in his aircraft, the Little Looper and even Orville Wright retracted his original comments,
describing Beachey's exhibitions as “poetry.”
An airshow accident is a disaster in more ways than one; the negative publicity generated
conjures up an emotional response from the public. If the aircraft is a military aircraft, the
taxpayer’s pocket is directly affected since the loss of a valuable military asset at an airshow,
which is not even a military role or function, cannot be considered or accepted as normal attrition
to a “fighting force”.
Bearing in mind that airports, airfields and military bases are invariably surrounded by builtup residential areas and the collateral damage caused by an aircraft crashing on, or off the airfield,
can and has produced very distressed responses from local residents. The formation of ‘liberal
lobbies’ grouping together advocating the end to airshows or even worse, the closing of an airfield
or airport, is a reality.
An airshow accident is always very sad and unfortunate, but as everyone, including all the
top professional display pilots know, the only way of achieving a zero accident rate for airshows is
to suspend all low-level aerobatic flying. In fact, the air forces around the world would be well
within their rights to do this since they are an operational Service protecting the national security of
their citizens, not just to show off. There is an old saying however, which just about sums up
aviation safety: “Insisting on perfect safety is for people who don’t have the balls to live in the real
At the Biggin Hill Air Fair over the period 2 to 3
June 2001, two displays went horribly wrong. On the
first day in front of a large crowd, a De Havilland
Vampire ‘flicked-in trailing in the wake of a De
Havilland Sea-Vixen during a tight turn at low-level.
The very next day, a vintage P-63 Kingcobra ‘spun-in’
from the top of a low-level loop. Two pilots and a
passenger were killed in two separate airshow
accidents within twenty-four hours. Still recovering
from the astonishment of the previous two
The first demonstration flight fatality in
consecutive day’s accidents, and in the face of
history occurred in 1908 when Lt
ongoing questions and criticism from the public and Thomas Selfridge was killed in this
media alike, television footage portrayed the shocking aircraft piloted by Orville Wright. The
images of the Spitfire crash in Paris on 4 June 2001, accident wascaused by propeller
only one day later. The pilot reported an on-board fire separation. Orville Wright suffered
and turning back for a forced landing on the airfield, broken ribs, pelvis and a leg. (17
lost control on short final after being forced to take September, 1908)
evasive manoeuvres to avoid a group of spectators
that had encroached the emergency landing area,
ultimately auto-rotating into a fireball on the airfield.
Public shock at the catastrophic accidents was
widely published in the media, a not unexpected
reaction considering, but questions had to be asked
about the safety of airshows. More particularly, the
impact on public safety and the wisdom of displaying
vintage aircraft in flight at airshows over built-up
residential areas was criticised. The question asked
was: “Why not keep such valuable vintage aircraft on
the ground for static display only?” In the Biggin Hill
aftermath, the organisers were stretched to reassure
the public and contain any public relations damage.
Official word from Jock Maitland who organised
and ran the first International Air Fair at Biggin Hill in
1963 was: “When the first International Air Fair was
planned, had I known that we would one day lose two
pilots and one crew member in a single weekend, it
After a weekend at Biggin Hill Air Fair
would never have got beyond the planning stage.
where one aircraft crashed just short of
Seventeen years later in 1980, when a display pilot
the runway to be followed by another
and crew were lost at a ‘Battle of Britain’ day here
on the airfield itself a day later, a
flying a vintage A-20 Havoc, everyone concerned was
resident of the area could be forgiven
so badly shaken by the tragedy that it is still frequently
for seeing the location as one of
mentioned and discussed”.
significant danger. As an urgent
“It is necessary to understand the traumatic
priority, the neighbourhood must be
effect of the weekend’s disasters and why it is
reassured that there is minimal cause
necessary to accept them in proper perspective to the
for anxiety (BBC On Line)
overall performance of one of the most popular family
entertainment forms in the United Kingdom. Our first
thoughts and prayers are for the three men who died and for their bereaved families and friends.
Both pilots had spent their adult life flying in peace and war, it is perhaps some comfort to know
that they died following their chosen way of life”.
“That said, as a community event with most supporters being local people, we have to try
to understand and consider how they see themselves as being affected. This applies particularly
to those living very close by, many in sight of the airfield. The airport is one of the busiest in
Europe and the annual International Air Fair has become world famous attracting the latest and
fastest civil and military aircraft. Statistics are so often used to support an argument that they do
not by any means always convince, but it is an unarguable fact that the road past the airport is
enormously more dangerous than the airport itself”.
“Biggin Hill is the world’s longest established airshow site with displays held annually since
the 1920’s. Two accidents are two too many, but compare extremely well with other spectator
sports which will also never be completely safe. It is hoped that these two accidents can be put
into perspective against the record at Biggin Hill and the country at large. It is a fact that not a
single spectator or member of the public has been killed on or off an airfield during a flying display
anywhere in the UK since the Farnborough Airshow on 6 September 1952 when twenty-eight
spectators were killed as the De Havilland DH-110 disintegrated during a high-speed pass”.
“It is the duty of the CAA to review on an ongoing basis, the safety of airshows and it will be
quite proper that they do so after this weekend. There is no question that we will be looking very
closely at our own Air Fair safety regulations and fully intend to address the concerns of our
neighbours. There are about 125 air displays, large and small in the UK each year that will give
pleasure to millions. This is well above the level of other countries in Europe and as safety
regulations become increasingly international, our outstanding record is widely used as an
Number of Accidents
Over a 11-year period in the UK, a total of 16 fatal accidents occurred.
example. The high sense of responsibility of show organisers and the vigilance of the Civil Aviation
Authority will ensure that an already highly safety conscious industry can only continue to
That said, in the UK over the eleven-year period from 1991 to 2001, a total of sixteen fatal
display accidents were recorded, the worst year being 1996 in which four fatal accidents occurred.
There were only two years in which no fatal airshow accidents were recorded, 1993 and 1999.
However, these statistics must be considered against the approximately 125 airshows and aviation
displays held annually in the UK, making it at least 1,375 airshows over the eleven-year period.
No matter how accidents happen, it’s a sad event for all concerned, including the spectators, the
show organisers, the other display pilots, the co-workers, friends of the pilot, and the family of the
pilot. Adding the death of a spectator or a member of the public remote from the airshow, makes it
even worse. It is a fact that airshow routines are hazardous which is often hard to realize when
they’re flown by highly skilled pilots who make it all look so effortless.
In the USA after the crash of an F-14 at Horsham in June 2000, several people questioned
the wisdom of such events, but defenders said the shows are safer than other types of activities.
Each man had more than 1,000 flight hours in the Tomcat, and both were assigned to the VF-101
‘Grim Reapers’ fighter squadron at Oceana Naval Air Station, Va. Their aircraft crashed in a
wooded area off Horsham Road, just yards from homes and businesses but luckily injuring no one
on the ground. Several local homeowners and businesspeople argued that the ‘Sounds of
Freedom’ show should be suspended indefinitely while the tragedy renewed the debate on the real
value of the aerial displays.
A commentator who had seen airshows from both sides, as Commanding Officer of the Willow
Grove Naval Air Station in the 1960s, he helped organize the event, and as township manager a
few years later, spoke about safety concerns. Under similar duress to that of the Biggin Hill Air
Fair organisers: “I feel for the residents that have a problem with this,” he said, echoing locals’
safety concerns. “But at the same time you have to weigh that against the nett good that comes
from airshows”. You can’t put this sort of thing into a formula. Now I just don’t know what’s going
to happen.” The Base’s public affairs officer said they were reviewing the tragic events to
determine whether the base should host the future ‘Sounds of Freedom’ Airshows.
A spokesman for Naval Air Forces Atlantic in Norfolk, Va., said the Navy had no plans to
discontinue performances by Oceana’s F-14 squadrons or to suspend airshows nationwide. This
was the second accident in 2000. In March 2000, an F-16 Fighting Falcon crashed during an
event at Kingsville Naval Air Station in Texas, killing 35-year-old USAF Maj. Brison Phillips. About
15,000 people watched as the pilot crashed attempting a split-S at low altitude.
Kingsville Mayor Phil Esquivel, said the accident, the first in that base’s show history, was a
tragedy for the community. “The crowd just went silent, people fell to their knees and cried but
fortunately, the impact occurred almost five miles from the station’s perimeter in an open field
close to a few buildings and fortunately, no locals were injured in the accident. Both Kingsville,
about twenty miles southwest of Corpus Christi, and Horsham, have about 25,000 residents, but
Esquivel said the Texas town had large open areas around its naval station. “Safety-wise, we’re
very fortunate for that.”
After the crash of the F-16 during the first day
of the Kingsville Airshow, the rest of the weekend’s
events were cancelled, however, officials reviewed
the tragedy and decided not to eliminate future
airshows. The next one wasn’t scheduled until 2002
anyway, but this accident would in no way affect that
event, said Esquivel. “It’s vital our armed forces be
able to show the taxpaying citizens what their money
goes for. It was very tragic, but we’re staunch
supporters of the base and we support the airshow
In the USA from 1990 to 1999, fifty-two
The day after a De Havilland Vampire
accidents occurred at airshows, according to statistics
“flicked-in” trailing in the wake of a De
from the International Council of Airshows, but council
Havilland Sea-Vixen - the very next
President John Cudahy said that the safety record,
day the vintage P-63 Kingcobra “spunwhile unacceptable by its standards, was comparable
in” from the top of a loop. (AAIB)
to, if not better than automobile races, sporting events
and nearly any other sizeable outdoor event. “Airshows are not what people suggest; they are not
a continual series of funerals,” he said. “But at every airshow, there are hundreds of video
cameras ... and that can make for compelling footage.” It is this media coverage of airshow
accidents that brings the accidents into the homes of the general public and creates the negative
Cudahy also noted that since 1952, when current airshow standards were adopted, no
spectators, groundcrew or nearby residents had been killed in performance-related accidents.
“Spectators feel they are protected because they are protected.” Under FAA standards, airshow
organizers must apply for permission to hold the aerial spectacles and set up viewing areas a
sizeable distance from the flight zone. Performers may never point their aircraft towards the
crowd, all manoeuvres must be parallel to or away from the crowd and civilian pilots must be
certified by ICAS.
Dale Snodgrass, a former Navy captain and current airshow performer, said that the
regulations kept the danger away from the spectators but directed it toward the pilot. “But we
understand our risk and try to minimize it,” he said. “Foremost is to make sure never ever to put
the crowd in jeopardy.” Snodgrass was airborne during the ‘Sounds of Freedom’ accident waiting
for clearance to land and despite the tragedy, he said his resolve for performing had not been
shaken, and that the public should not be scared away. “As airshows go, it’s one of the safest
venues there is for spectators.” Still, all the airshow supporters admit the event does carry
inherent hazards, with crashes a painful reminder. “Unfortunately, the ground is very unforgiving,”
Snodgrass said.
Finally, the question raised by many airshow enthusiasts is: “Why do accidents happen at
airshows, aircraft flown by some of the best display pilots in the world? In that case, how do
airshow pilots react to airshow accidents, and what about the spectators? Well, in all truth,
airshow accidents happen for the most part because airshow flying involves putting the aircraft and
the display pilot in the maximum performance areas of the flight envelope at low altitude which is a
potentially hazardous combination. Airshow flying and low altitude aerobatics in particular, can be
a hazardous profession in which fatalities have occurred, and will continue to occur at these
events, despite regulatory constraints.
For most pilots who have worked this life style, the emotional reaction to these crashes
eventually gets replaced by a cold sort of withdrawal that allows them to evaluate the cause and
learn from the experience while keeping their feelings to themselves and their close friends. This
might sound a bit harsh, but remember, the pilots have to go do it again, ...the spectator doesn’t!
Just to provide some perspective on this; imagine being asked to fly a display by the Flying Control
Committee immediately after watching a colleague perish in an accident at the airshow.
Similarly in the case of the spectators, they are generally good people who just come out to
watch and enjoy the show. Seeing somebody killed is the last thing on their mind. When it
happens, there are children who become traumatized and lives can be virtually changed in an
instant. There have been parents holding crying children, widows crying as they tried to come to
terms with their losses because in most cases, wives and family of airshow pilots invariably attend
the local airshows. The bottom line is that if you enjoy airshow flying, or motorcar racing, sooner
or later you will return home after witnessing an accident. It is certainly not an easy business!!
In today’s world, being an airshow organiser has become a stressful occupation. The days
of friendly family show days are past and as in all things in life, have been replaced by highly
professional and competitive showpieces. Spectators have now become ‘paying passengers’
demanding more for their money and for show organisers, just breaking even financially, has
becoming increasingly difficult. Not only is the airshow organiser responsible for providing the
entertainment, but also the health and safety regulations demand strict enforcement and the
provision of a safe environment, including accident and crash rescue services. Failure to comply
with such demands can have devastating penalties for non-compliance, particularly the ‘worstcase scenario’ – the airshow accident and the management of post accident casualties.
The airshow world has been rocked by some grim accidents, and in truth, during the show
planning, it is extremely difficult to predict the ‘worst case scenario’. Typical considerations are
how many and what category of aircraft accidents can be handled by the crash and rescue
services available at the specific display location? Just the logistics alone and the costs of
providing adequate numbers of rescue and medical staff to handle a ‘worst-case scenario
prediction,’ make it practically impossible to provide the all the resources.
Obviously, to provide the show committee with guidance during planning, the display
regulations in place will be assumed to have been conformed with by the pilot and from that basis,
each of the displays would have to be considered before attempting to predict the worst-case
situation. In the calm of a planning environment, planners tend to forget the real world picture of
panic and chaos following an accident, especially if the accident not only includes the aircraft, but
also spectators or members of the general public remote from the display site.
Command and control requires excellent communications systems and well practiced
crash rescue personnel equipped with the necessary tools to cover the entire spectrum of
accidents and incidents from snakebite serum to the total range of intravenous drips. Airshow
organisers at SAAF ‘80, the 80 th anniversary airshow of the SAAF held at AFB Waterkloof, relied
extensively on cellular phones for communications but with approximately 220,000 spectators
attending, the local cellular phone repeater stations were jammed by overload, rendering the
communication network useless. During AAD 2002, also held at AFB Waterkloof, two more
repeaters had to be installed to cover the incredible increase in cellular network coverage and
alleviate the satellite communication’s saturation.
Actually, it is nearly impossible for the airshow organisers to cater for the entire spectrum of
possible emergencies, contingencies and mobile First Aid facilities. It is for this reason that all
hospitals surrounding the display location are usually brought on standby to assist in handling
emergencies outside the scope of the on-site crash rescue paramedic capabilities.
Then there are the evacuation facilities, helicopters and ambulances, the same questions
must be answered in terms of communications, personnel, command and control and emergency
routes. With the popularity of modern airshows, the numbers of spectators that could be injured
has increased by orders of magnitude and in turn, the probability of many people being injured has
also increased for accident scenarios while the logistics for handling major emergencies has
increased far beyond what most airshow organisers and planners are able or prepared to commit
Planners are loath to commit to worst-case scenarios due to the impracticality of
implementation programmes and often find it rather easier to increase display regulations to ‘cover
their arses’.
It is instructional to consider the Frecce Tricolori accident at Ramstein in August 1988 as a
case study of the real world of post crash management. Who would have envisaged a
catastrophe of this order during the planning stages? Three AM-339 aircraft of the Italian Air
Force precision aerobatic team Frecci Tricolori collided during the airshow at Ramstein AFB,
Germany. After colliding with two other aircraft, the solo pilot’s aircraft, heading directly for the
crowd during the cross-over, crashed into the spectator’s enclosure, killing approximately forty of
the spectators during the first minutes and injuring several hundreds, mainly with burns.
The impact point was near the Army Medevac Huey that was on standby near the runway
and killed an Army aviator. A British Medevac Puma crew that had all their kit spread out around
their helicopter in the static display park, threw all their equipment back into the aircraft and
immediately took off and started doing their job within minutes of the crash, surrounded by stunned
spectators. Ironically, with all of Ramstein responding to the calls for blood donors, at the same
time, there were Germans protesting against airshows outside the main gate.
After the immediate panic and escape, thousands of people tried to return to the site of the
accident which made the rescue operation even more difficult. Fire fighting vehicles managed,
with the help of rotating blue beacons and blowing horns, to reach the fire, which, when all the fuel
had burned out, could be easily extinguished. A few minutes later, ambulances and helicopters
arrived but because of all the noise, radio and telecommunications systems could not be used
The four “First-Aid” stations were obviously not equipped for an accident of this size and
they only had a few litres of fluid. Injured people were instead spontaneously taken to three other
defined areas for sorting and medical help before being transported to hospitals. The US military
personnel evacuated the patients as fast as possible to hospital while only minor treatments were
administered at the site of the accident. No infusions were given before the arrival at the hospital.
Most of the activity was rather improvised and no one had a true picture of the actual situation, the
injured were taken to several different hospitals. In Landstuhl, close to Ramstein, a well-equipped
American military hospital accepted 120 patients from the accident, sixty of these, all German
citizens, were transferred to other hospitals on the same day. More than forty patients were
released from the military hospital the same day after receiving treatment.
Because of the great number of injured arriving at the hospitals, it was necessary to
prepare surgery in advance in the emergency departments, more particularly tracheotomy and
amputations. In Landstuhl, there was also a civilian hospital with 406 beds that received seventy
patients, most of which were sorted in the ambulance hall. Seriously injured patients were taken
care of by an anaesthesiologist and a nurse. Fifty of the seventy patients brought to the hospital
were admitted but ten with severe burns were transported to Ludwigshafen which was a specialist
hospital for the treatment of trauma cases with competence in orthopaedic, traumatology, intensive
care, plastic surgery and burns treatment. This hospital received thirty patients with burns of
which twenty-eight arrived within the first five hours after the accident; four patients died during the
first hour.
In Kaiserslautern, there was a civilian hospital with special competence in traumatology
and thorax surgery and altogether ninety-eight patients from the accident were taken there, fortytwo of which were admitted. Injured people from the accident were also taken to other hospitals in
surrounding towns. Besides that, several burn’s clinics in Western Germany had prepared to
receive patients from Ramstein but did not get any, at least not during the first days because the
patients were preferably taken to hospitals in the vicinity of Ramstein. One day later, on 29
August, a medical team arrived from San Antonio in Texas to Ramstein to evacuate four patients
with severe burns to Brooke Army Medical Centre in San Antonio. The death toll from the accident
rose during the following two months to sixty-nine, of those injured, 50% had burn injuries.
In modern society, when considering medical support, airshow organisers must also
consider the aspect of payment for medical services. Although there may be hospitals in the area,
some private hospitals refuse to accept patients unless they are paid up members of that particular
hospital or Medical Aid Fund. This was the case with AAD 2002 in South Africa. The airshow
organisers had to be specific which hospitals could take the injured in the case of an accident.
Another less well-known case of poor airshow and crash management was the accident in
front of several thousand spectators at the ‘Africa Aerospace Airshow 1981.’ South African
aerobatic champion Nick Turvey recovered from a thirteen turn inverted spin but with inadequate
height to affect a safe recovery pullout, the aircraft impacted approximately eighty metres behind
the spectator showline in an open gully between the showline and the hangars. Miraculously the
aircraft did not explode on impact and the no one was killed but Nick Turvey was hospitalised for
several months as his badly injured body recovered.
This accident was marred by poor crowd control, the crowds surging forward to the
crashed aircraft and hampering the rescue vehicles and para-medics. It was obviously never
envisaged during the planning stages of the airshow that an aircraft would crash behind the crowd
line. According to a witness at the time: “The show organisers clearly had no proper emergency
plan in place, or they certainly didn’t rehearse for it! From my own experience, I know how soon
one forgets the drill when not practiced. No proper crowd control, no procedure (fire engine
caught in the fence), too many spectators ‘lending a helping hand’ thus preventing the medic’s
from doing their job and no crew manning the emergency helicopter.”
Although hospital and medevac planning and support will not prevent an airshow accident,
it is an essential component of the overall airshow planning process – it is a foolish and
irresponsible Organising Committee that will not prepare adequately for all emergency
contingencies at an airshow.
Following the world’s worst airshow disaster in the Ukraine on 27 July 2002 where eightysix people were killed and 156 injured when an Su-27 crashed into a crowd of spectators, airshow
organisers in Europe and the USA were concerned that the negative publicity would adversely
affect the future of airshows. Both Farnborough (UK) and Oshkosh (USA) were running
concurrently. Typical reaction from show organisers was that the “media is going to fry us over
this” and “those reporters won’t get the story right. They never do.” “This won’t do anything but
hurt aviation.” All this angst was over the terrible tragedy in the Ukraine. It was a tragedy.
John Cudahy, President of the International Council of Airshows, huddled first with EAA
officials, gasping over the graphic pictures that had just crossed the wires. They clearly showed
the Russian-made interceptor fatally low, wing-down, angling for the spectator enclosure.
Successive frames showed the wing hitting the ground, then the horrible somersault and fireball
that inevitably followed. They shook their heads with the realization that the media would soon be
heading their way, asking tough questions about airshow safety. It was clear the leadership of
these two organizations believed they had to do something. The question was, what to do?
“I guess we should hold a news conference,” said Cudahy. “What should we say?” asked
an ICAS public relations specialist. “Keep it general. Don’t give them a chance to nail you,” was
the advice from one ‘stunt pilot’. The leaders of ICAS and the EAA were in hunker-down mode,
ready to fend off bloodthirsty reporters who wanted to crucify general aviation as a whole and the
Oshkosh show in particular.
As tragic as the Ukraine crash was, it presented both organizations with a chance to prove
that the American way of conducting airshows was the safest, most entertaining way in the world.
That’s no accident, it’s the result of hard lessons, high standards and good planning.
Nevertheless, not everyone sees it that way. Some wanted to hold a news conference, while
others wanted to wait for the media to come to Oshkosh. Still others wanted to deal with the issue
by handing out a generic news release. ICAS President John Cudahy’s views were grief at the
loss of innocent lives. “Could it happen here?” “No,” Cudahy said definitively.
Why not? Similar to the regulations in force in the UK the following were listed as the
reasons militating against such an accident in the USA. “Firstly, no aircraft performing aerobatics
is allowed to fly in such a way that points its energy at the crowd. Secondly, no aerobatics are
performed within 1,500 feet of the line holding spectators back. That way, if there’s a mechanical
problem or a personnel issue on board the aircraft, no debris will reach the crowd. Thirdly, every
acrobatic pilot at every airshow has to go through rigorous training before being allowed to perform
at an airshow. They have to be competent and they have to prove it.”
There have been disasters at American airshows, but none of them have resulted in
spectator fatalities in more than fifty years which bears strong testimony to the quality of American
airshow standards and certainly tells a positive, reassuring story to the millions of people who,
over and over, will watch the video of that crash in the future. Fifty years is a long, long time to go
without a spectator fatality.
So, how does one deal with the media after an airshow accident? There are obviously
several guidelines that have evolved over the years. Firstly, don’t be afraid to tell the story and
secondly, don’t be afraid to answer the tough questions. Reporters can indeed be like sharks in
the water when they smell fear, but if you stand up and tell the truth, you’ll be understood,
vindicated or appreciated, depending on the circumstances. The sooner airshow organizers
realize this, the sooner they’ll enjoy heartily improved relations with the media. They’ll be more
able to get their message out instead of reacting negatively to tragedies like the recent crash in the
The worst-case scenario obviously is a mud-slinging denial between the relevant parties
trying to duck issues that could implicate them in negligence with the consequent ramifications of
legislation and possible jail sentences. In an article published in the Russian media on 15 August
2002, headlines claimed: “Lvov Mayor Blames Journalists for the Tragic Airshow”. The Lvov
newspapers Express, Visoky Zamok and Postup accused the city government of lies concerning
the degree of their participation in the organization of the tragic airshow in Lvov. They wrote that
the mayor had lied to the citizens of Lvov. The mayor of Lvov, Lubomyr Bunyak had stated in a
television interview that he did not know that the airshow was taking place on 27 July 2002 and he
had nothing to do with its organization.
Several newspapers subsequently published copies of documents, which cast doubts on
that statement. They demanded that the mayor should publicly apologize. In return, the mayor
accused journalists of attracting people to the disastrous show and stressed that he did not sign
any papers regarding the show. The press service of the municipal council of Lvov wrote in its
statement that the newspapers published notes and advertisements for the coming airshow,
inviting everyone to attend. Lubomyr Bunyak said: “I would like to know, why they didn’t confess,
who rendered the precise information regarding the programme of the show, who advertised it,
and finally, who paid for those publications?” The mayor also claimed that it was the journalists
that had to apologize “for their criminal agitation.” He also advised them “to pray at church.”
In the meantime, journalist Bogdan Kufryk from the newspaper Express , sued Lubomyr
Bunyak, claiming that the mayor illegally made him leave the pressroom at the briefing on 7
August 2002. The reason for such an action was explained in the following way: “Your newspaper
was not invited for the briefing”. The journalist perceived that as revenge to his recent critical
There is of course another angle to the media, uninformed show organisers and
advertisers, without realising it, in their search for sensationalism, often do the airshow circuit a
great injustice by referring to airshow pilots as ‘daredevils’ or ‘crazy stunt pilots’. Feeding the
frenzy of ‘adrenaline junkies’ that go to airshows to feed their need for excitement, worst of all,
creating the impression that the airshows are without regulation and a free for all, ‘come for a wild
In the main, the media, newspapers, TV, radio, etc, seem to be totally uninformed about
aviation in general and airshows in particular. Sensationalism is seemingly the only focus while
often using inaccurate reporting and dramatic terminology in an attempt to attract the attention of
the masses. There are many examples of inaccuracy but the one that beats most is that referring
to a Harvard forced landing in South Africa following the AAD airshow in September 2002 in which
the media reported that the two pilots had ejected safely from the Harvard. The media not
realising that the Harvard, a vintage trainer, has never, and would never be fitted with ejection
seats, didn’t seem to realise the adverse impact on their credibility. Credibility is earned through
investigative journalism that confirms the facts and not necessarily the sensationalism of the
A bad media in any business can prove disastrous and in many cases essential safety of
flight information is possibly withheld as organisers and managers scramble to avoid accepting
any form of responsibility. The worst effect, however, is the negative publicity for aviation in
general and airshows in particular.
For all the demonstrated support for airshows worldwide, the public, especially those living
in close proximity to the airfields, generally understand the hazards and threats posed by
airshows. Irrespective of the fact that they knowingly purchased their homes near to an active
airfield, the anti-airshow lobby, consisting of aviation and non-aviation enthusiasts alike, has
serious misgivings about airshows. There is an anti-airshow lobby and in the minority they may
be, but they do however, exist. History is resplendent in examples of the achievements of
dynamic and vociferous minorities that have often swung an argument in their favour, even in the
face of huge majorities. The threat imposed to airshows by anti-airshow lobbies, must not be
under estimated.
One of the particular gripes according to a member of such a lobby is that “military aircraft
are inherently dangerous to be around, I suppose you could say the same for stunt aircraft.
Having been around them as I have been, I really have to question the sanity of airshows. There
isn’t a year that goes by where there aren’t casualties involved. Pretty senseless since they never
had to happen in the first place. Had those two guys in the Tomcat that crashed at Willow Grove,
USA in 2000 during the wave-off manoeuvre been doing their thing out over the water or over
relatively uninhabited areas at higher altitudes, like they usually are, they could have ejected and
lived as opposed to killing themselves so that innocent civilians could be spared. Airshows suck”.
“I am surprised that they still allow airshows. Sure, there may be fewer incidents, injuries
and fatalities from those than from other entertainment forms, but considering the strict regulations
for air traffic and the safety considerations, it is a wonder that they have not been abolished. The
last airshow I watched was at the Friendship Festival in Fort Erie a few years ago; there was a
crash at that one. Aside from the loss of human life in some of these crashes, sometimes even
spectators, there is incredible financial loss. It’s hard to understand an air force risking the loss of
multi-million dollar aircraft to entertain a crowd”.
Commenting on the F-14 accident at Willow Grove, a senior analyst of the Center for
Defense Information in the United States, said his group had confidence that the military worked to
minimize the risks involved with an airshow. However, the group questioned the monetary cost of
the performances and whether taxpayers should foot the bill for the entertainment. “At a certain
level they are no longer recruitment tools, the whole idea is the military loves great public
relations,” he said.
In particular, he attacked the media and celebrity flights that often preceded such events,
calling them an unfair opportunity and a waste of funds and said that a good compromise might be
more static displays and fewer performances, offering access to the military bases, but not
overspending to attract people. Still, the group realized that such a sentiment would not be
popular with airshow regulars. “Locals would rather see the fly-bys,” he said, “and unfortunately, I
end up paying for it.”
A Warrington (USA) resident and spectator at the ‘Sounds of Freedom’ airshow who
served as a survival equipment specialist in the Navy for twenty years, said he thinks events like
the ‘Sounds of Freedom’ show contradicts the normal safety procedures of the military. “When the
planes are banking around, these guys don’t stay over the base,” he said. “We’re just lucky the F14 didn’t crash into a built-up area.” Under normal operational conditions, the base identifies
potential accident zones and prohibits flight patterns above certain residential areas. However, for
the airshow, the FAA grants waivers, bending some of those rules to protect the large crowds on
the base. He also suggested that performers should be banned from their own hometowns, for
everyone’s safety. “They’ll usually have local guys as the pilots, and so they’re going to push it a
little more to impress their family and friends”. One last counter thought though, criticizing the
pilots is unfair, the display pilots in most cases are not a bunch of ‘stunters’, they are trained,
skilled aviators.
Following the crash of the four-engined Royal Air Force Nimrod into Lake Ontario, the
silent disbelief paralysed the more than 100,000 spectators crowded along the shoreline attending
the Canadian National Exhibition in September 1995. Comment from an observer on the day:
“While I love to see military demonstrations at airshows, I can’t help but wonder why the command
that sends the aircraft doesn’t sit the crew down and have a long hard talk about showboating.
After all, a B-52 is NOT an F-16, and you do not need not prove it to the crowd. The Nimrod show
basically consisted of lots of steep turns at extremely low altitude, followed by radically nose-high
Helicopters raced to the site about two kilometres from the shore, and divers reached the
wreckage of the plane lying in about 20 metres of water, shortly after the crash. The search was
called off when darkness fell and there were no reports of survivors. Shivering witnesses wiped
tears from their eyes late Saturday as they sat staring out at the blackened waters. “It makes me
sick, I can’t believe it,” said one spectator, “I haven’t been able to stop shaking.” The three-day
airshow was put on hold after the crash, the eighth accident in the Canadian International
Airshow’s 46-year history, and some were calling for an end to the show. “I don’t feel like the
entertainment value of the airshow is worth dying for,” said another distraught spectator.
Following the Ukrainian Su-27 Flanker airshow accident on 27 July 2002, CNN launched a
survey in which it quizzed 56,335 respondents with the question “Is it time for a ban on public
airshows?” 70% (39,430) responded NO, while a significant 30% (16,905), responded YES! It is
interesting that there had been a lot a baying the cancellation of airshows by the public following
recent airshow accidents, but however callous it may sound, the ratio of the relatively few number
of people killed versus the millions of people that have attended airshows over the years, is small.
If one considers how many times football stands have collapsed killing or maiming many fans; the
Ellis Park Rugby stand collapse in South Africa and the Hillsborough soccer disaster in the UK are
two examples in question. So why were there no calls for football to be banned? Surely the most
logical course of action would rather be to take steps to improve the situation through education,
regulation, safety standards and skills upgrading.
In August 2002, the organisers of the long standing Biggin Hill Air Fair eventually decided
to also call it a day, not because of accident rates, although their recent run of bad luck is a
sadness, but because of the high cost of the required police presence and the security burden. By
late December 2002, the decision was changed again; the Biggin Hill International Air Fair had
been saved by News Shopper newspaper after months of negotiation between the newspaper, Air
Fair organisers and business chiefs. The newspaper became involved when it was revealed that
2003 event would have to be axed because of escalating costs.
With £100,000 needed to
guarantee that the event would be held, was a tough task, but News Shopper
came to the rescue.
Publisher Martyn Willis, who led the negotiations, said: “I am absolutely delighted we have
been able to step in at the eleventh hour and save the Air Fair. This airshow and its links with
historic Biggin Hill are famous around the world and it would have been terrible if it had folded”.
Jock Maitland, of Air Displays International, which organised the annual event, said that it was vital
that the show was saved since it filled an important date in the UK air display calendar. He said: “I
am very pleased and relieved that this historic display is to go ahead”.
In the ongoing onslaught against airshows, the combined impact of 11 September and the
relatively poor international airshow safety record, the next victim to fall was the biggest airshow in
Russia, both a marketplace for arms sales and a chance for aviation enthusiasts to see the best of
Eastern European aviation. Just a little more than two weeks after the Su-27 crashed into the
crowd of spectators at an airshow in the Ukraine, military aerobatics at Moscow’s Civil Aviation
Airshow were abruptly cancelled on 15 August 2002. The Russian formation aerobatic team and
Italian Air Force’s Frecce Tricolori formation aerobatic team were supposed to have performed
during the ‘Open Sky’ section of the airshow. Instead, ‘Open Sky’ featured static displays and a
demonstration by the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry on fire-fighting and rescue
operations. The
Moscow Times
quotes Alexander Neradko, head of the Russian Civil Aviation
Service as saying, “We cannot ignore the Lviv disaster.”
Even though the aircraft itself hadn’t officially been faulted in the Lviv tragedy at that stage
of the accident investigation, Russian CAS Neradko told the Moscow Times : “The signals we are
getting do not give us grounds to use these aircraft in demonstration flights.” Sergei Rudakov, the
general director of the Domodedovo Airport where the week-long airshow was taking place,
expected fewer people to attend because of the cancellations. Still, he said, “as many as 80,000
spectators will show up on Saturday and Sunday”.
It is clear from the foregoing that the dynamics of low level manoeuvring poses a hazard
not only to the display pilot, but also the spectator and even the non-spectator member of the
general public who just happens to be in the vicinity of an airshow. The commercial drive by
organisers to make money for their respective causes on the one hand, and the pilot’s desire to
provide a scintillating airshow on the other, is a contradiction in terms of safety. In this specific
contradiction, airshow safety stands the risk of becoming the ‘sacrificial lamb’. It is therefore
necessary, as are most things in life, for some form of regulation to protect all parties involved, in
particular, the pilots, the organisers, the spectators, the general public and of course, public and
private property. Within today’s regulatory society, the show organisers are increasingly being
held accountable, health and safety regulators have to enforce ‘best practice’ in an effort to avoid
litigation from airshow injuries and accidents.
Unfortunately, there are bound to be some unscrupulous show organisers but there are
also some pilots out there for which regulations bring out the worst in their personalities. The one
type of pilot that airshow organisers cannot afford is the ‘Prima Donna’. Often the old hand that
has been flying the airshow circuit long before the regulatory authorities were even in place –
knows not only all the answers, but also all the questions. Doing it ‘my way’, there is nothing that
anyone can tell him about the aircraft or how to fly displays because accidents only happen to
others. Not understanding that the regulations are primarily imposed to improve the safety
margins for spectators, the sole driver in this case is the ego and no amount of reasoning is
accepted. The mindset is ‘juvenile’, “its my aircraft, I paid for it, I rebuilt it and I will fly it at
whatever speed and height I like – if you don’t like it, I’ll take my aircraft home and will not fly in
your show”! Yes, this did actually happen.
Worst-case experiences for show organisers and to quote one in South Africa: “We
promulgate stringent crowd control and safety measures to ensure that no member of the crowd
can get injured even if a pilot ‘cocks-up’, but we get lots of resistance from the ‘show must go on
attitude’ of both the organisers and pilots. Its amazing how quick organisers back down when their
most spectacular display aircraft threatens to withdraw if the pilot doesn’t get his way. Ninety-nine
percent of the time, however, if you can call their bluff, they will back down, alternatively, the
aircraft’s sponsors can be solicited to assist in enforcing the regulations and to ‘settle’ any disputes
that may exist.”
“The initial briefing to pilots must be such that there is no doubt as to the requirements of
the airshow, in fact, preferably even before the pilots arrive at the airfield. In the past there have
been recorded instances at a number of airshows throughout South Africa where pilots attended
the formal briefings and received prior conditions for airshow participation, but yet still
‘misbehaved’. These pilots are often professional pilots who when invited to the smaller airshows
where the organisation is somewhat lacking in stringent control, arrive overhead the airfield
inverted in line astern at 30 to 40 ft agl, to announce their arrival (where would number two go in
the event of an engine failure?). They then proceed to tell the organisers how they will conduct
their flights, which are often way below accepted minimum standards”.
How low is low enough? How low before the pilot vindicates his ego? And then the
question of angle of attack versus pitch attitude. How much preparation went into planning
this part of the sequence? How far does the Airshow Safety Director let the pilots go before
reining them in? Lucky? (Air Zimbabwe Boeing 707 flypast at Charles Prince Airport,
Harare, on Sunday, May 9, 1993, during the Mashonaland Flying Club's Air Day'93. (John
“The airshow organisers are only too happy to have them there and therefore accept
anything that will attract more of the paying public since the airshow is organised on a shoe-string
budget. These types of pilots test the airshow organisers every time they arrive and will expect a
rebuke of some sorts and live with it. If a rebuke is however, not given, they continue to fly at their
own whim, much to spectator delight of course, but definitely not in the best interests of airshow
“Then there are those airshows which just have no clue about safety. Allowing cars to park
on both thresholds, ‘first come, first served’ – a crowd-line 20 metres from the active runway,
where flypasts are conducted from 6 feet to 100 feet. Each participant trying to out do the next.
Although the CAA was present, at no time did they intervene. This silent observation, merely gave
the airshow organisers and participating pilots the go-ahead to continue as they please. Criticism
raised after the show regarding the poor safety regulation imposition was met with the standard
retort: “but the CAA was here and they said nothing, so what are you on about?”
Comment from another airshow organiser in South Africa: “I sent the Sea Fury away on a
display at AFB Swartkops because the pilot refused to conform with SAAF show regulations and
limitations, his sponsors soon put him in his place though and he eventually complied with the
show specifications”. Considering “Man’s” excessively large contribution of 78% to airshow
accidents, the arrogant attitude toward safety regulations is difficult to understand. There is a
significant difference between arrogant ego and a healthy display aggressiveness – the first one
can most certainly kill you, the second one can produce an aesthetically appealing display.
Unprofessional display pilot habits are a universal phenomenon. In another scenario
sketched by one of the largest international airshow Flight Display Officers, is the frustration of
working with certain pilots. “There is no doubt in my mind, although of course it is a wild
generalisation, that the greatest difficulties I have experienced in supervising air displays is the so
called ‘professional pilot’ flying a puddle jumper or warbird at the weekend. Put the combination of
a 747-400 captain in a ‘historic’ at the weekend and you can have all the wrong combinations.
Inappropriate experience, status which is faulted, operational support which is not there,
documentation a real shambles because that’s someone else’s job and no one to make the coffee
- sometimes, a real pain”.
This phenomenon is not only found in the smaller countries where a few pilots have the
monopoly in the local airshow circuit and in terms of their overall experience, are able to
overwhelm the regulatory authorities and dictate the limits of the show boundaries. However
unprofessional it may be, they become a law unto themselves. It is precisely because of such
elements that regulatory authorities with legislative powers must exist if display flying and airshows
are going to continue to remain safe venues for the pilots, spectators and the public.
Although airshow and flight display accidents occur occasionally the world over, there is no
formal international body equivalent to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) or any
other similar authority that exercises international jurisdiction over airshows and addresses
airshow accidents and safety issues in particular. In most countries, general aviation airshows and
display flying are all controlled by their respective Federal or Civil Aviation Authority (CAA),
General Aviation Safety Council (GASC), or some other regulatory body, except in Europe and the
United States. In European context, the European Airshow Council (EAC) was established to
promote excellence and safety for airshows within Europe. The International Council of Airshows
(ICAS) exists in the United States and addresses regulatory issues, but only within the USA and
Canada. Both EAC and ICAS each have an annual convention that has as its purpose, the
sharing of safety and knowledge.
Within the realm of flight test demonstrations and airshows and considering the frequency
of accidents and the non-existence of a universal regulatory body, the Society of Experimental
Test Pilots (SETP) in the USA concluded that a vast of amount of airshow experience resided
within the test pilot fraternity. Since there was no single forum collating the vast amount of airshow
experience, the Airshow Safety Committee was established to research airshow experience with
the purpose of providing a database from which other airshow performers could learn the lessons
of the past masters. Sadly, this forum was abandoned. However, anything that the SETP used to
have in the way of an Airshow Safety Committee, while not a regulatory body such as ICAS, was
more safety and procedural in nature.
In the USA, the Aerobatic Competency Evaluation (ACE) programme administered by
ICAS, provides the entire airshow industry with a tool for periodically evaluating the aerobatic
competence of airshow pilots. ACE’s main objective is to establish industry standards for airshow
pilots who perform in the USA and Canada. In a rare partnership between ICAS, Transport
Canada and the FAA, the ACE programme prescribes minimum standards, the rules and
regulations by which evaluations are conducted, and the necessary qualifications for both
evaluators and airshow pilots.
ICAS developed the ‘Aerobatic Competency Evaluation Program’ (ACE), similar to a
Display Authorisation in the UK, which allows different levels of minimum flight altitude that can be
achieved through experience and evaluation. Since 1991, ICAS has administered the programme
on behalf of the U.S. FAA and Transport Canada. The organisation maintains the paperwork and
a database and as an indirect result of ICAS efforts, there has been zero spectator fatalities since
1952 while there has been a 68% reduction in airshow accidents since 1990.
In earlier years in the USA, the FAA authorized the local Flight Standards District Offices
(FSDO) to watch a practice and as long as the display pilot did not flagrantly break any rules, the
Aerobatic Competency card was issued. However, in 1998, the FAA handed over the ‘regulatory’
side of qualifications to the International Council of Airshows, Inc (ICAS). The ICAS ACE program
is real and is intensive in its requirements for both initial qualification and recurrency. What is
interesting is that in order to get a US Department of Transportation FAA Statement of Aerobatic
Competency card, it has to be approved through ICAS, a corporation?
The scale and diversity of airshows throughout Europe is vast, from the largest military
airshow in the world, the Royal International Air Tattoo in the UK, to the rural airfields in France
and Belgium, organisers, performers and aviation authorities need to adapt to best practice,
ensuring that every eventuality is assessed to improve airshow quality and safety. During 2001,
workgroups were established to set common European standards and identify ways of
standardising safety regulations across Europe.
The British CAAs response to a spate of four accidents in the 1996 UK airshow season,
three fatal and one non-fatal, led to the establishment of a Review Group to analyse all display
related accidents and to make recommendations to prevent a recurrence of such accidents.
Recommendations were made addressing the total spectrum of display activities, including the
Display Authority Evaluators (DAE) responsibilities, display pilot’s practice and currency
requirements, including a requirement to demonstrate spin recovery knowledge and practice when
renewing the DA. Formation flying requirements, specifically those dealing with leadership, were
completely revised. Finally, Display Organisers guidance and regulations, particularly with
reference to the use of Flying Control Committees, were implemented and a recommendation was
made that the Flying Display Director should not take part in the flying programme during major
Within the UK specifically, two organisations are responsible for the conduct of flying
displays, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) for those displays held at military venues or where all the
participants are military, and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for all other displays. There are no
significant differences in policy and regulation and the common denominator is ‘public safety’. The
civil requirements have a legal basis in Article 70 of the Air Navigation Order (ANO) which requires
the Show Organiser or Display Director to obtain permission from the CAA to host an airshow.
The pilot of the display aircraft in turn, must ensure that the Organiser has authority while the
Organiser must in turn, ensure that the display pilot is the holder of an appropriate CAA-issued,
Display Authorisation.
These legal requirements are translated into practical guidance in a Civil Air Publication,
CAP 403, the “Flying Displays and Special Events: A Guide to Safety and Administrative
Arrangements”. Having first been published in 1973, the ninth edition was published in 2002. The
CAP provides the airshow organisers and display pilots with a standardised framework to comply
with the requirements of the ANO, addressing issues of legal impediment, preliminary planning,
site management, CAA policies, pilot display competency and much more. Finally, each airshow
is monitored by the CAA through a Flying Control Committee consisting of experienced display
pilots. This committee is independent of the Organising Committee and is authorised to censure a
pilot, curtail a display or, as a last resort, to stop either an individual or the entire display.
Display pilots are required to pass an initial evaluation to gain a Display Authorisation (DA)
and need to revalidate their DA every twelve months. The CAA appointed a team of
approximately fifty highly-experienced DAEs whose primary purpose is to monitor airshow safety,
ensure regular communication between Display Pilots and the CAA and host an annual pre- and
post-season seminar where safety matters and the season’s activities are discussed. This
mechanism obviously also serves as the platform for continuously monitoring the need for change.
It is important that display pilots understand the logic underpinning the regulations, the
need to adhere to them and to have a positive approach to safety. The message propagated by
the CAA is that safety takes priority over all aspects of the display. To quote from the CAA Display
Newsletter: “A positive approach to display currency, adequate practice in general and on type,
and probably the most important, a significantly increased awareness of the need for, and the
benefits of, supervision and oversight. Furthermore, as display pilots, we must be comfortable
both with receiving and with giving constructive criticism, its pretty useless, after an accident, to
say: “I always thought he would do that, after the event”.
Facing the challenges posed by the rising costs, security threats and the requirement to
attract crowds to airshows in Europe, at the European Airshow Council (EAC) Convention 2003
held in Hasselt, Belgium in February 2003, the title theme for the annual convention was “Bringing
Europe Together – by sharing experience to face the future”. The future of airshows in Europe,
commonality of airshow regulations, safety standards, plus the ever-rising costs of staging
airshows were the dominant themes. The convention brought together more than eighty delegates
from the airshow industry, comprising organisers, performers and aircraft operators, plus military
and civil safety experts – the largest convention delegation yet in the EAC’s history.
In particular, the first-time presence of a delegate from Russia was welcomed as evidence
that the EAC was, at last, successfully forging links with airshow industry representatives in the
CIS and Russian Federation countries. Performers from Jordan who made the trip to the
convention also demonstrated the desire of Middle Eastern display pilots to achieve common
understanding between themselves and their counterparts in Europe, especially as an increasing
number of Arabic and North African national display teams now appear each year on the
European airshow calendar. Special guests of the EAC from North America were the president of
the International Council of Airshows, John Cudahy, and the USAF’s display co-ordinator, Larry
Schleser, who each gave a US perspective on airshows during the two-day convention.
It was no coincidence that the convention opened and closed by questioning the future of
airshows in Europe. Using aviation magazines as a source of reference, EAC vice-chairman Paul
Bowen claimed that UK airshows had declined in numbers by nearly one-third since 1990 (his
figures excluded rallies, aerobatic competitions, garden fetes and small-scale local aero club
events). The dramatically rising costs of staging airshows were, Bowen claimed, largely the cause
of the decline. “We’re in a costs spiral and, if we don’t act, the costs are going to beat us”, he
forthrightly told the convention in his keynote address on the first day. “We’ve got to acknowledge
that the costs are going up, so the price of attending is going to have to go up.
We have to ask
ourselves: What is the maximum we can charge?”
No one present questioned Bowen’s assertion that the costs of staging airshows are in
danger of spiralling out of control. As in Canada, insurance premiums, in particular post-9/11,
were among the biggest contributors to an airshow organiser’s financial headache in 2003.
Businessman Alan Smith, who was also a non-executive director of the Royal International Air
Tattoo (RIAT), told delegates: “Insurance companies have taken advantage of what has happened
within the past few years, to greatly increase their premiums”. Charges made to airshow
organisers by European Ministries of Defence, police forces and by other organisations which, in
more liberal times, had their manpower and financial resources absorbed by central government,
were all now progressively being passed on to the public as they enter the airfield gate. The most
searching issue for the EAC delegates was how to meet these cost challenges without pricing
airshows out of the public entertainment business.
Ray Thilthorpe, Display Director for sea front airshows staged at Southend, Essex, and
Southport, Lancashire, believed that organisers had to be realistic: “If it is necessary to pay the
market price to stage an airshow, then organisers have to charge the market price to the public”,
he asserted. In addition, payments made to the owners and operators of historic aircraft are
currently not adequate for them to meet their running costs, stated Rod Dean, Head of the UK Civil
Aviation Authority (CAA)’s General Aviation Department. “Pilots want to be paid a realistic amount
for their aircraft”, he told the convention. EAC delegates in Hasselt acknowledged that performers
and owners of historic machines did the best they could to defray the costs of their displays to
airshow organisers. Dean asked the Convention how EAC members could combat ‘unrealistic’
hikes in premiums being forced onto event organisers. He reminded the audience that even some
of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee events in 2002 fell by the wayside because they could not meet the
huge insurance premiums being demanded of them. It was not, therefore, a problem unique to the
airshow industry.
From a performer’s perspective Jacques Bothelin, director and leader of the Khalifa Jet
Team, felt that the airshow industry benefited from having very professional pilots who risked their
lives, for what by comparison with other forms of high-energy technology entertainment, was very
little money. “The closest we are, is to being like a circus”, he told the convention. “It is like paying
ten Euros to watch a trapeze artist perform. I don’t think Formula 1 racing drivers would risk their
lives for ten Euros!” When asked what the public would get for their money if they were asked to
pay more at the gate for airshows, he was emphatic in his reply: “Emotion! An airshow should be
a whole entertainment, with special emotion – like you would get if you go to the theatre, or see a
good music performance, or even going out for a good meal at a nice restaurant”.
“The public will not pay just to watch you fly any more”, he reminded his fellow display
performers in the EAC audience. “There are so many opportunities for people in France and the
UK to see major display teams that it is no longer exceptional for them any more. Instead, you
must think about the emotion you bring to a display, to make it special – not just think about the
technical performance”. Mike Brennan, CEO of Main Event Catering, one of the most experienced
companies in providing expertise and support to outdoor event organisers, was unequivocal in his
advice to the convention: “Put the ticket price up with pride!”, he told them. “People will spend
more if we give them a 100% experience”. It was important, he emphasized, to find a happy
medium, to balance the overall cost of airshows with the right price for an entrance ticket. The
cost to the organiser lay in improved airshow infrastructure, including good quality catering, WC
and security facilities, all of which are vital for an outdoor event to succeed, whether it be Formula
1, a major sports occasion, or a rock festival.
In addition, Brennan had good news for aviation enthusiasts when he reminded the
convention: “It’s not a bad thing to have airshows run by enthusiasts for enthusiasts, providing the
product is good enough”. For Brennan, the flying display was pivotal and organisers needed to
pay special attention to the content they put on show – which meant, not just fast jets, but an
entertaining mix of aircraft types and airshow acts.
The variations in flight safety rules between different European nations, particularly in
relation to display height minima, were also of major concern to delegates. Dean asserted that the
UK had in place a mature set of rules and regulations, which were still being revised, but, in his
opinion, did not require radical change. But, is the application of the rules consistent? he asked.
Flying Control Committees (FCCs) are not mandated in the UK, but the CAA’s Safety Regulations
Group strongly recommends their use. “It is the smaller shows which give us the most area of
concern”, said Dean during his presentation, “because there is usually no one to monitor their
operation”. He also focussed on the increasing problem in the UK of police and Health & Safety
services impinging on the aviation authorities’ areas of responsibilities, which had created some
local problems for airshow organisers.
Feedback from group discussions highlighted the need for commonality between military
and civil safety regulations, ideally agreed within the JAA. There was a role for the EAC in
promoting the airshow industry’s concerns over the lack of safety standardisation. “We need to go
back to our own MODs and highlight the weaknesses”, former Red Arrows team manager Les
Garside-Beattie told the convention, having chaired a group discussion on civil and military
authorities. “The EAC has a role in promoting safety training courses”, he claimed, especially
through a document that would act as a voice from experts within the airshow industry; plus there
could be more symposiums to aid the transfer of experience. Gilbert Buekenberghs, EAC
chairman, reported on his event organisers’ group discussion by saying that there was real value
in organisers sharing experiences on the Internet. His group raised the question of holding forums
throughout the year, to follow-up subjects featured in the convention.
Jacques Bothelin, reporting back on airshow participants, said that his group felt there was
a lack of co-ordination between the dates of major airshows within Europe: “There needs to be
dialogue between the big military shows to spread their dates throughout the season”, he
emphasized. He also said his group were concerned as to who, how and when should anyone
intervene with a “pilot who is not safe”. Is it the Flight Safety Committee’s task, or the other
airshow pilots’ responsibility to do this?” Bothelin’s group also highlighted how important for flight
safety the need is for comfortable overnight accommodation for airshow pilots – a bad night’s
sleep before a display can adversely affect performance and, consequently, safety. But, while the
costs and safety issues were the main focus for the convention, delegates were also treated to a
very wide-ranging selection of presentations from individuals and organizations that contributed to
Europe’s diverse airshow industry.
Graham Hurley and Sean Maffett, TV producer and airshow commentator respectively,
presented the ‘Theatre of the Air’ concept which was pioneered by the RIAT at Fairford. The use
of big screens, scripted scenarios involving trained actors and pre-rehearsed demo pilots,
including especially stage-managed set-pieces to create airshow theatricals was mooted. Gilbert
Buekenberghs complemented this presentation by describing how the Sanicole International
Airshow in Belgium, of which he was the director, blended airshow acts with pop concerts and big
screen live entertainment. “Spectators demanded a good variety of entertainment at an airshow”,
Buekenberghs reminded the convention, “talk shows, music, promotional acts, interviews with the
pilots, clowns, artists – all can make an airshow lively and enjoyable, as well as providing
entertainment for the early arrivals and the late departures”. “Attract people who have never been
to airshows”, Buekenberghs enthused, and especially bring in more young people who may make
future careers in aviation.
Linked to this presentation, Jean-Louis Monnet, CEO of the FAI’s World Grand Prix event,
described how successful the concept of an ‘Air Musical’ had proved to be in China and Japan.
An ‘Air Musical’ typically involved fifteen airshow performers flying choreographed displays, exactly
in tune with especially composed music, to tell a story in the air. A seated audience within a
defined area was needed for such a show, otherwise it would be difficult to maintain their attention,
Monnet espoused. Finding such locations was more difficult in Europe than in the Far East, but he
believed there was real potential for this new form of aerial entertainment.
The use of IT in the airshow industry was featured in three presentations. Martin
Schoonderbeek of ADS-Solution demonstrated how a software package can aid the administrative
process of an international airshow, from the outset when participating aircraft are being invited, to
their final departure after the show – this system had already been used successfully by the Royal
Netherlands Air Force for its annual Open Day’s organization. Jurgen Freytag, ground operations
director for the ILA Berlin exhibition, described how IT and good communications equipment can
assist the planning and manoeuvring of display aircraft on static and dispersal sites at airshows.
ILA is unique, in that it used a completely portable modular airshow operations suite, set up in the
centre of the spectator line, from which all aspects of the airshow were controlled except for ATC,
which was managed by Schonefeld Airport’s tower opposite the exhibition area. Display directors
of demonstration flights have direct communications contact with demo pilots from within the ILA
operations suite, which also hosts the airshow commentators and SAR/EMS controllers.
Carl Hall, director of GAN Media Group, described how to promote airshow organisers and
performers on the Internet, through video streaming and DVDs, to sell events via websites to
sponsors, guests and the public. GAN Media Group had created an on-line club for airshows and
enthusiasts entitled WorldAviationClub, which marketed airshow DVDs – the Malta International
Airshow 2002 DVD was available at the convention to EAC delegates.
John Cudahy, president of the US-based International Council of Airshows (ICAS) for North
America, was the welcome guest of the EAC in Hasselt. ICAS was formed in 1968 and currently
had 950-plus members predominantly from the USA and Canada, a full-time staff of six persons,
and an annual budget of $1.2 million USD. The ICAS membership included both military and
civilian event organisers, plus performers, support services providers and producers – including
food/drink vendors and the all-important public convenience suppliers. ICAS has taken airshows
forward the North American way, said Cudahy, based on a strong foundation and a shared
perspective on safety – the latter finally resulted in a harmonization of US/Canadian airshow
regulations, achieved in September 2002. This meant that rules for airshow flying and operations
were now virtually identical in Canada and the USA. Cudahy felt the ICAS model could be of help
to the EAC in its push for European-wide harmonization.
Cudahy informed the convention that ICAS has been instrumental in helping to reduce the
airshow accident rate in North America to a virtual nil statistic. Up to ten years ago there were, on
average, between 10 to 12 airshow accidents per annum; now that figure has been cut to nil in
2001 and a single accident in 2002. “Underpinning this achievement are rules requiring that no
aerobatic manoeuvres with energy be directed towards the spectator area, a ‘sterile aerobatic
area’ free of all but essential personnel during aerobatic displays (which includes evacuating
homes beneath the aerobatic performance area!), and the ICAS-administered ACE programme for
civilian aerobatic pilots.
Cudahy told the convention that North American airshow organisers have come to feel that
ticket prices for States-side shows are too low as well and, as for their EAC colleagues,
sponsorship was “overwhelmingly the largest issue for US airshow performers and organisers”.
The “wholesome family nature of airshows”, coupled with their vastly improved safety record within
the past ten years, have helped to make aerial entertainment attractive to sponsors. ICAS had
hired a full-time sponsorship representative, among whose tasks had been to agree a package of
US military airshows to offer to prospective sponsors, a system which, as Cudahy underlined,
proved the effectiveness of a strong group of organisers being able to achieve far more than
individuals acting alone.
Like the EAC, its North American opposite number held its annual Convention at the outset
of the airshow season. With the number of American airshows running at between 300 and 350
annually, airshows remain a ‘big business. The annual ICAS Convention has been running
annually since the start in 1968 and more than 1,600 delegates and 200 exhibitors are usually
welcomed to the Convention; in addition, more than 50 educational sessions are organised by
ICAS each year. The Convention has become a special event in the US, not only for the release
of the annual airshow calendar, but also a significant trade area as well where organizers hand out
most of the contracts to the participants.
The standard procedure is for the Blue Angels , Thunderbirds and Snowbirds to release
their airshow schedules and members benefited from being able to arrange their show dates to fit
in with the display schedules of the Thunderbirds ,
and Snowbirds
representatives of whom attend each ICAS convention.
ICAS was very interested in dev
relationships with the EAC, Cudahy told the delegates. “There are a number of things we do
which I believe we can help you with”, he said, “and there are a number of things that we need to
learn from you”. The seeds may have been sewn in Belgium for much greater trans-US/European
co-operation on airshows in the future.
There is an irreducible risk in virtually every human endeavour but the current status of
display flying indicates that the risks are generally controlled from the public’s point of view. The
aim of all current actions must be to bring about a marked reduction in the frequency of display
accidents. To quote the CAAs guide for display pilots: “The art of airshow flying is to make the
easy look difficult, to make the difficult appear impossible, and to leave the impossible well alone”.
The lack of an internationally recognised Airshow Council catering for the airshow fraternity
worldwide, is a deficiency within the display world that will continue to handicap the exchange of
information and best practice and impact negatively on the safety statistics of airshows worldwide.
The pressure of imposing regulations is on not only the military, but also the civilian
airshows. Roger Beazley, Display Director at Farnborough International since 1990 summed up
the situation prevailing in the airshow circuit in 2002. “I have to say that as Display Director at
Farnborough International 2002, my immediate reaction on the completion of the thirteen days of
flying was one of relief in finishing with the same number of aircraft as we started with, rather than
any other feeling of achievement or self-congratulatory emotion. What is significant is the fact that
over the last ten to fifteen years, the liability or onus on the flying display organisation has swung
from the man in the cockpit to the organiser/supervisor”.
Beazley went on to say: “This swing in liability does not seem to be recognised by many in
the business with some participants of the view that what they do is their business and the
organisation should get on with selling tickets and fixing the toilets. I have to say, however, that
this view was never evident at Farnborough where over the years participants have largely
accepted the view of the Flying Control Committee, albeit sometimes with just a little bit of
“Building a relationship between the Flying Control (or Safety) Committee and the
participants is a vital step in getting the interaction right between the organisers, the supervisors
and the participants. At Farnborough, it is relatively easy since the validation, trade and public day
flying goes on for almost two weeks; you therefore get to know the individual aircrew very well.
You also get to know the individual display profiles so well that your team can quickly spot any
subtle change from day to day. What has to be accepted of course is that towards the end of such
a long event, displays really do tighten up because not only are the participants probably as well
practiced as they have ever been, but they are thoroughly used to the venue and local area.
Maturing a display cannot be expected to take place at the one or two day airshow”.
“Turning again to that relationship between the Flying Control Committee and the
participant, and certainly at the larger international airshows, I have always felt that the Flying
Control Committee should be more on the side of the participant than on the side or the organisers
– in a strange country with minimal support, the participant needs all the help available! Again,
this is relatively easy at a large international event but not so at a small event where the organiser
might be rushing about doing all manner of things and the participant might have two other shows
elsewhere that same day”.
“An essential tenet of building that relationship is trying to promote the concept that we are
all in this together with “the joint task” being to produce a safe and convincing display for the
spectators with the Committee very much helping the participant in that role. At the longer
duration events such as international displays involving professional aircrew, a broad based
relationship is fairly easy to build although current wisdom, including that promoted by the UK
CAA, suggests that the Safety Committees should concentrate on the display and not become
involved in the individual participant’s day-to-day problems. I tend to disagree with this approach
since I genuinely believe that a participant’s problem is by definition, a flying supervisory problem”.
“I also believe that provided the display briefings are kept private with the marketing, media
and other non-operational people kept outside, general debate about difficulties and mistakes
occurring during the previous day’s flying should be openly discussed and where mistakes were
made on both sides of the organisation, these should be fully aired. Professional aircrew are
essentially a fairly robust bunch that work well in a team as long as that team is constrained to the
actual individuals involved and no point scoring or personal invective is entered into; good-natured
‘banter’ is also a very effective icebreaker. Again, the UK CAA discourages open discussion in
these circumstances preferring the quiet word on the side. This I fully understand when dealing
with people you do not know in circumstances which are less than fully under control; all I am
saying here is that an open and free debate in private on the previous days problems involving all
participants works wonders in clearing the air and starting the new day afresh.
“An important issue is to accept that air display flying regulations not only provide a safety
net for the spectators, the local population and the participant, but also a set of guidelines and an
environment for the Flying Control Committee to use as a supervisory framework. But what is
really important is to make the flying safe rather
than merely inside the regulations. I do not
suggest that regulations are unsafe but more that
a state of affairs can develop whereby slavish
adherence to a particular regulation, might well
be an unsafe option. For example, we have seen
display crashes caused by the participant trying
to obtain extra performance from an aircraft
which is already at its maximum, when a
controlled fly through a lateral limit for example,
might have been the far safer approach. I have
always made the point that faced with such a
choice, fly safely and lets then discuss the
problem over a coffee after landing”.
Already severely damaged from earlier
“In all this one does however need to be impact with an An-24 static display, the Sutotally open and consistent and if a minor 27 cartwheeled into unsuspecting
incident by a participant from a distant land is spectators sitting along the crowd line.
mentioned, then a similar incident generated by a (Reuters)
premier full time aerobatic team operating on
their own soil, also has to be mentioned. One also has to ensure that the Flying Control
Committee speaks as one and in this regard at Farnborough, I have always been very fortunate in
leading an experienced and competent team. When the Chairman stands up and has to take a
firm line with either a participant or the organisation, knowing that one is supported 100% by such
a team, engenders a level of conviction which in turn flows through to the participant about to fly
his or her display”.
To add substance to Beazley’s comments, the Ukraine Air Force Su-27 accident, which
killed eighty-six spectators in July 2002, resulted in the Ukraine President sacking four generals,
and dismissing the Deputy Defence Minister whilst at the same time acknowledging that they did
not even know the cause of the Su-27 accident. Following this accident, many ‘Western’
countries’ so-called safety experts were very quick to claim the ‘moral high ground’, claiming that
the probability of such an accident happening in the USA or UK was virtually nil and further
suggesting that the ‘ex-Eastern’ bloc countries should follow the West’s examples of airshow
regulation enforcement. This was tempting fate, such statements have a horrible habit of coming
back to bite. The point is that it doesn’t matter how many restrictions are built into airshow
regulations, the high momentum of an aircraft manoeuvring in a confined air space can make a
mockery of the 450 metres ‘safety margins’ for a manoeuvring aircraft.
Comment from the USA: “The Su-27 accident in the Ukraine was an enormous tragedy and
our thoughts are with the families of those killed or injured in the accident,” said John Cudahy,
president of the International Council of Airshows. “The FAA and Transport Canada strictly
enforce regulations that keep these kinds of accidents from happening at North American
airshows. According to Cudahy, those regulations have both eliminated accidents involving
spectators and also dramatically reduced even those accidents involving only airshow pilots. The
safety record of airshows in North America is the envy of the entire motor sports industry,” said
In similar fashion to that in the UK, the North American programme depends on the strict
enforcement of existing regulations by airshow-trained inspectors from the Federal Aviation
Administration (FAA) and Transport Canada. The Federal regulator and inspectors in North
America mostly enjoy a strong and mutually supportive relationship with airshow professionals in
the United States and Canada although there have been some problems. The strict enforcement
of existing regulations is acknowledged within the industry as a critical part of our overall safety
Another significant threat facing Airshows, Exhibitions and also display pilots worldwide, is
the aspect of insurance. In Europe, the relatively high 2001 airshow accident rate, combined with
the atrocities of 11 September 2001 in the USA, added impetus to a worldwide increase in the
costs of insurance. Airshows are increasingly under siege and could be lost altogether unless
urgent attention is given to the plight of show organisers and display pilots. In May 2002, some of
the major airports in Canada told airshow organizers holding events at their airports that there was
going to be substantially greater insurance costs associated with the use of their facilities in the
future. The same pattern also emerged in the UK but the increased costs could prove prohibitive
in the future for all stakeholders.
On 19 April 2002, John D. Issenman, Chairman, Ottawa International Airshow, provided a
synopsis of the issues at stake: “We must act now and get the word out to our Politicians,
Presidents of Chambers of Commerce, Business and Military Leaders, Charities and non-profit
organizations who benefit from these shows. Canadian Airshows may cease to exist if direct,
immediate intervention is not taken. It is obvious that the main role players do not understand the
full negative consequences of the death of airshows. The traditional ‘let’s wait and hope for the
best’ will not cut it.”
Certain Canadian airports required organizers of the proposed airshows at their locations
to provide proof of insurance for general liability. The required amount was $50 million USD; these
airports also required the airshows to provide coverage for War Risk (terrorism, etc.) for the full
$50 million USD as well - the most coverage previously provided by any airshow in Canada was
$20 million CDN. The cost of the aforementioned coverage was estimated by Insurance
Technologies and Programs Inc (ITPI), to be a minimum of $70,000 per show site.
Clearly, this premium is prohibitive for any airshow organizer, ITPI and their underwriters could not
understand why any event would even consider this type and amount of coverage, as neither they
nor their underwriters had identified airshows at airports in Canada as an elevated or enhanced
risk. They had most to gain by airshows being forced into buying additional insurance, but they
didn’t’ think airshows needed the additional coverage. At Transport Canada, neither the event
Regulator (General & Commercial Aviation) nor those responsible for insurance issues affecting
the aviation industry, required the additional coverage previously mentioned. Further searching for
results of any ‘threat assessment’ carried out to determine the level of risk presented by airshows
at Canadian airports, produced nothing. Insurance brokers who sold the group policy to the
effected airports, as well as a number of underwriters, indicated that nobody had ever requested or
received a threat assessment to determine if any elevated level of risk existed to justify any
requirement for the additional coverage.
Threat assessments were however, conducted by the Canadian Department of National Defence
as well as the United States Department of Defense, specifically to identify risk associated with
airshows at Canadian airports. Not only was the level of threat identified as extremely low, but
also high value assets from both countries as well as from other NATO allies were authorised by
their own governments to attend and participate in Canadian airshows. It appears that there really
was no issue. The premise on which the perceived need for additional insurance was based, did
not exist, or was false.
These issues were discussed with the office of the deputy Prime Minister, the insurance brokers
who represented the airports in question, ICAS, Transport Canada, the Department of National
Defence, the Air Transport Association of Canada (ATAC), representatives of the Aerospace
Industries Association and management of the first four events to be effected by such additional
insurance requirements.
If the requirement for additional insurance was not immediately retracted or the coverage
provided free of charge without deductible as part of the indemnification supplied by either the
airports themselves or the government, the airshows would have no option but to terminate their
operations and cancel all plans for their respective events in 2002. Airshows in Canada are, for
the most part, non-profit events, proceeds from airshows are distributed to charities and non-profit
organizations in the communities where the events are held. Airshows generate hundreds of
thousands of dollars of business in the communities they serve (hotels, fuel, rental vehicles,
printing, concessions, merchandising, patron visits to local restaurants, sites, security services,
taxis, buses, rental equipment from tents to toilets, advertising and marketing).
Hundreds of full and part-time staff at airshows across the country would be laid off and
millions of dollars of proceeds from airshows normally donated to charities and service clubs
across the country, would not be made (cancer research, Lions, Kiwanis, Rotary, etc). Hundreds
of thousands of dollars would be lost in each and every community where an airshow once had
been. Hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours would not be provided to the airshows for which
these individual and group volunteers have trained and planned, including students who required a
minimum number of volunteer hours as a condition of their graduation from high school.
Major corporations across Canada who had invested in airshows as a community partner,
or for branding, retail, recruiting or other opportunities, would be cut off. Aerospace companies
who showcased their products at these events would be denied the opportunity to present their
latest and best to the public as well as their markets. The military would be denied the chance to
demonstrate to the Canadian public the type, nature and capabilities of the personnel and
equipment paid for by the Canadian taxpayer. The military would be denied some of the most
effective recruiting opportunities they use and the Canadian Forces Snowbirds could be disbanded
as there would not be any events in Canada at which they could perform, effectively ending their
role as a Canadian icon. Finally, and most significantly, millions of young, impressionable
Canadian children and adults would be denied the chance to experience the educational,
entertaining and exciting airshows that generations before them had the benefit to enjoy.
The role models presented by young servicemen and women cannot be duplicated
elsewhere. How many careers in the military, aerospace and aviation industries and sciences
were first sparked at an airshow. Airshows are the one event that provides children with the
dreams of opportunities that become the reality of hard work, staying in school and contributing to
society. They don’t see this in rock stars or overpaid professional sportsmen and women.
The demise of airshows was a very real probability if airports, insurance
brokers/underwriters and government did not step in to rectify this requirement based on a false
premise for unjustifiable additional insurance. No one seemed to know how high premiums would
go but that didn’t stop some from predicting increases as much as tenfold over the previous year’s
rates. For the city of Toronto, there was more at stake than national pride, the three-day event
traditionally attracted thousands of visitors and contributed significantly to the city’s economy.
There’s a lot of money that comes into town on that weekend, and it would be devastating for
Toronto to lose that.
The threat of increased premiums was a boondoggle by the insurance industry, according
to some, there is not any substantive data that explained what the ‘new’ risks were. Based on
universal experience, what could be expected, was that there would be more police on the airfield,
more people scrutinizing people as they passed through the gates, no backpacks allowed, that
kind of thing. All of this put in place as a result of 9/11, without confirmation that anyone had done
a proper assessment of risks. This is exactly what happened at the first RIAT 2002, post
September 11. Individual body searches on each of the approximately 280,000 people that
reportedly attended the airshow, caused tailbacks in queues resulting in spectators taking hours to
enter RAF Fairford. UK aviation magazines and Internet 'chatrooms' were inundated with irate
spectators vowing never to return to RIAT, some even threatening to save their money and rather
travel to Oshkosh.
At about the same time in Canada, the following announcement was published after
serious negotiations. “Due to the recent issues regarding War & Terrorism Insurance, the financial
viability of this world class event and the repercussions this has caused with sponsors, advertising,
entertainment and aircrew, we regret to announce that the London Airshow & Balloon Festival will
NOT be taking place in 2002. With fifty-four committees, over 1,000 volunteers and an
International reputation, this is a very sad day for all of us. The long history of airshows and
specifically our show, could never have seen this coming. This is a loss to all of us, including
almost $5 million dollars in economic impact, more than fifty-five jobs generated and over $40,000
that is contributed to local charity!”
“Perhaps more importantly, we will not be here to leave an impact on the children who are
awed by the jets, or an autograph from the Snowbirds , the opportunity to explore aviation and the
dream of flying one of those Jets, Helicopters or Balloons. At this time, those efforts have been
unsuccessful, but this work is much appreciated and we are committed to continue our efforts to
resolve this matter for future airshows. We trust that sanity will prevail and the show will return in
2003”. (Tourism London and the Canadian Tourism Research Institute)
The negative impact of airshow accidents and security considerations also claimed their toll
on one of the world’s oldest airshows, the annual Biggin Hill Air Fair. Jim Maitland issued the
following press release to Flightline UK about the troubles one of Britain’s favourite airshows was
facing. “The International Air Fair of 2002 was another significant achievement in terms of the
flying display and the wide ranging ground activities. However, despite this apparent success, the
Air Fair, which is the only unsubsidised event of its kind in Europe, is now facing a financial crisis.”
Maitland said: “The crisis has been precipitated by costs which have escalated on several
fronts over several years but spiralled drastically in 2002. The London Ambulance Service, the
RAF and, since 2002, the police, have added between them £50,000 to costs. Secondly,
insurance premiums have tripled since September 11 which not only pushes up the cost of
insuring the airshow, but all the individual aircraft operators have to pass on their premium
increases to the organiser. Finally, the increasing rigorous standards set by Health & Safety
legislation and the need for tighter airport security, have very significant cost implications”.
“Up until 2002, the Air Fair has been able to absorb these costs but the very marked
increases of 2002 have brought the situation to a head. Despite its unique history, location and
reputation, the financial realities of putting on a flying display have caught up with the Air Fair just
as they have with every other major privately organised flying display. Virtually all the major flying
displays are subsidised by the tax payer in some way, either as military events or sponsored by
the authority”.
“The Air Fair is unique in being the private enterprise of a small family-run business. It is
with huge regret that we have decided that we cannot justify the financial risk of continuing to
stage the Biggin Hill Air Fair unless we are able to attract substantial financial backing. No one will
doubt our own disappointment but that of the general public will be far greater. A significant
number of people have not missed an Air Fair since the beginning in 1963 and, for the first time
(barring the interval needed to fight a war), since 1922, there is the prospect that there will not be
an airshow at Biggin Hill”.
The major cost drivers at the RIAT 2002 were £124,000 for insurance, £180,000 for
policing, £125,000 for security and £27,000 for an MOD Licensing fee. Nearly one-half a million
pounds to just set the stage for the airshow – smaller show organisers will not be able to sustain
such high costs to create the airshow arena. By late December 2002, the decision to cancel
Biggin Hill was rescinded, sponsorship having been provided by a local News Shopper newspaper
coming to the rescue of the historic event.
In Hampton, Langley Air Force Base scaled back plans to hold a three-day show in 2002
because of the security costs, a two-day show was held instead. Elsewhere, the Navy cancelled a
two-day airshow at Patuxent River Naval Air Station - Air Expo ‘02, on the Navy base in St. Mary’s
County, Md., which would have included performances by the Air Force’s Thunderbirds . Officials
at the time cited an anticipated increase in security costs. So great were those security costs that
the Department of Defense almost cancelled its open house in May 2002 at Andrews Air Force
Base in Maryland.
But, after being cancelled in 2001, the US Navy’s largest airshow returned to the skies in
2002 over a changed landscape with hundreds of thousands of spectators expected at Oceana
during the three-day show. There are no admission or parking fees.
When long-time fans talk about the Oceana airshow, they tend to use superlatives, “the
best organized”, “the latest hardware” and “the most action-packed - it’s the only thing more
exciting than auto racing,” are typical praises offered by spectators and aviation enthusiasts. A
former military aircraft engineer from Appleton, Wis., with his 20-year-old son attended each of the
days and had this to say: “the smell of jet fuel and that sound of freedom - they keep the tanks
from coming down the street. If my tax dollars go towards funding airshows, that’s fine with me.
You start throwing rocks at the other shows after you’ve been to Oceana,” he said.
The air station’s executive officer, said that the security forces on the base had been tripled
to accommodate the airshow crowds. “Other naval installations in the region would aid the
security effort,” said the airshow coordinator. There had been no conversation among officials to
downsize or cancel the Oceana event, which had an annual budget of $500,000 and an estimated
$15 million economic impact on the region. “We have been operating at a high level of security
since 1998,’’ said the coordinator, “patrons, need to bring a picture identification and leave their
coolers and backpacks at home - small bags would also be searched”.
Although a large majority of spectators would appear to favour the noise and speed of the
fast jets at airshows, since the 1980’s, helicopter technology advances have produced a platform
in which high agility and manoeuvrability can be impressively demonstrated by helicopters at
airshows. Looping and rolling manoeuvres have become part of their demonstration package but
not without first having to overcome major aerodynamic and mechanical challenges.
The advantage that a helicopter has, especially a large helicopter, is simply that any
dynamic manoeuvring or aerobatics performed by a helicopter of that size, is very impressive. In
addition, the small turning radii and relatively slow airspeeds, brings the display closer to the
spectator thereby increasing the aesthetic appeal of the aircraft. The first helicopter to
successfully perform a loop was the lowly HUP (H-25), way back in the early 1950’s. Of course
that one wasn’t entirely on purpose, it happened during the testing of the autostabilizer, when the
aircraft experienced an uncommanded pitch-up and by the time the pilot had control over the
aircraft, not necessarily command, the nose was so high that keeping the g on and pulling it
through, was smarter than pushing over.
In manoeuvring flight, the helicopter has some really unique problems compared with fixed
wing aircraft. The conventional helicopter cannot pull negative ‘g’ - so the rolls are really barrel
rolls; the problems aren’t only with airflow, but mechanically and structurally as well. No matter
what type of rotor hub is used, the blades bend because of the differing levels of lift across the
span of the blade - very little airspeed inboard, lots of airspeed outboard. If the relative wind from
the forward motion is added, it gets complicated very quickly, even the so-called rigid rotor hubs
rely on blade flexibility for this.
Prouty, a renowned helicopter aerodynamicist, discussing helicopter aerobatics, concluded
with the question: “Can a helicopter do steady inverted flight?” His answer was - theoretically, yes,
but practically, no! A rotor could produce enough negative thrust to support the helicopter’s weight
if it were designed with enough negative collective pitch range, but this would require a collectivecontrol system with at least twice the normal travel. If this were not the case, the helicopter would
be capable of inverted flight, which it isn’t.
Many helicopters have had problems, the UH-1/AH-1 tail strikes occurring when pushing
over at about 0.5g, resulting in the later Sikorsky S.55’’s and H-19’s having their tail booms angled
downward to get it further from the main rotor. The H-43 (and HOK) used to chop its tail off with
distressing regularity, it didn’t use a teetering rotor, but a semi-hinged design with no flapping
hinges in the hub, just lag hinges, and it used a flexible rotor (controlled by trim tabs) for flapping
and pitch control. There are many other examples.
‘Mast bumping’ is but one of the things that can go wrong, fully articulated rotors have their
own sets of problems, which was one of the reasons for changing the tail on the S.55. ‘Mast
bumping’ is a phenomenon associated with teetering head rotor systems and the solution is to
keep the aircraft under positive ‘g’ by effectively lowering the tailboom seems more consistent and
facilitates better control authority at low speeds, when larger disk travel is necessary to generate
higher rates.
Basically, all helicopters are subject to having nasty things happen to the plane (cone,
actually) of the rotors when flying at anything other than 1g level hovering flight. Much of this is
compensated for by all the flexing and hinging, but there are limits. It is sometimes useful to think
of the fuselage and rotor as two separate systems, with the fuselage hanging from the rotor(s) at
the shafts. This can be seen in shots of helicopters flying dead toward or away from the observer the rotor cone is canted to one side due to the asymmetrical lift.
Given the physical constraints imposed by helicopter designs, several helicopters have
done documented loops and rolls, beginning with the S-52 in 1949, the giant CH-53 in 1968, and
the various hingeless and bearingless (rigid) rotor systems that are flying today (MBB BO-105,
Westland Lynx, etc). As yet, no helicopter is officially certified or approved for aerobatics and most
of those that have done aerobatics are classified as experimental or prototypes.
However, loops and rolls were performed by two German teams on MBB BO-105 during
the International Helicopter Aerobatics Championship 1980 in Piotrkow Trybunalski, Poland.
These teams won first and third place. The second place was awarded to the then USSR team
flying a Mi-1 piston-engined helicopter. On the final day of the championships the Russians
performed almost the same programme as the
Germans (except for inverted aerobatics, of course)
but in a much more dynamic manner which wasn’t
surprising considering that the piston engine’s
response is higher than that of the turboshaft
engined helicopter. The British Lynx is capable of
loops and rolls with roll rates of up to 100º/sec - the
Hughes 500 is even capable of doing tailslides.
Lockheed’s research into compound rigid
rotor helicopters already began in the early 1960s The Lynx, with its semi-rigid titanium
of high
using the XH-51. In 1966, Lockheed’s design for an rotor head, iscapable
operational attack helicopter, the AH-56 Cheyenne,
won the contract to build the US Army’s Advanced
Aerial Fire Support System (AAFSS).
The also to combine its agility with the
graceful four-ship Gazelle formation.
Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne’s revolutionary rigid
(Blue Eagles)
rotor system, which had been proven in previous
development testing, was fully capable of rolls and
loops. The Cheyenne had a 3,435 SHP General Electric T64-GE-16 turboshaft engine that
powered a rigid 50 ft four-bladed rotor, as well as a 10 ft three-bladed pusher propeller and a fourbladed anti-torque rotor on the tail. In horizontal flight, almost the entire engine output is used to
drive the propeller. The third of ten prototypes crashed on 12 March 1969 when the rotor
impacted the front and rear fuselage, killing the pilot. The AH-56 was highly agile and a very
capable weapon system, but development was halted in 1972, due to defence cutbacks.
The Cheyenne could fly like a fixed wing aircraft and since the rotors were absolutely rigidly
mounted without bearings or hinges, it could do exceptional aerobatics. The problem with loops,
Prouty pointed out, is that “at the top of the loop, where the rotor thrust is zero or at least very low,
all helicopters have reduced control power in pitch and roll. Those with teetering rotors may have
none at all, leading to mast bumping and for droop-stop pounding on fully articulated rotors.
Although not regarded as aerobatic aircraft as such, the British Army has quite uniquely,
since the early 1970s, fielded the only helicopter formation aerobatic team in the world. Flying four
Gazelles and a Lynx, the team is well known in Europe for its close formation sequences, dramatic
solo and pairs manoeuvres, opposition passes and the distinctive choreography of their display.
Typical manoeuvre flown include the Spread Eagle, Back Flip, Crossover-Break and Eagle Roll,
which were developed by the team.
Helicopters are not excluded from the ignominy of airshow accidents. Within the analysis
of 118 airshow accidents, six involved helicopters. The Sikorsky S-67 Blackhawk competitor was
lost at the Farnborough Airshow 1974 in front of the crowd after ‘dishing out’ from the last of the
two consecutive low-level rolls. A Danish Navy Westland Lynx S-170 crashed during an airshow
at Goraszka Air Picnic, Warsaw, Poland in 1997, the pilot pulled out of the recovery from a
wingover, too late. Fortunately, the crew sustained only minor injuries and the damage to the S170 was not major and was subsequently capable of being overhauled and returned to service.
So yes, the rotary wing industry has managed to overcome the aerodynamic challenges of
helicopter flight to provide agile machines in which aerobatics are possible, but as in the fixed-wing
regime, the penalties for failure are high.
An airshow accident is a tragic affair on its own and is usually marked by sadness, but an
airshow accident by a vintage ‘warbirds’ adds another dimension, to the distress level. Vociferous
criticism from veterans and military personnel who operated such aircraft in wartime conditions or
during their military careers, usually follows. Amongst the veterans specifically, there is the strong
belief that their commitment and sacrifice should not be lost to memory and it is against this
background that the emotional outbursts are expressed at the loss of a vintage aircraft type.
Quite naturally, much attention is typically focussed on airshow accidents within the
airshow world, and unfortunately, a large proportion
of airshow accidents involve vintage ‘warbirds’. The
definition of vintage or historic aircraft and that
similarly used by the US Experimental Aircraft
Association’s ‘Antique’ and ‘Classic’ definitions, is
“an aircraft designed more than forty years
In a random sample of some 118 airshow
accidents between 1952 until 2002, (Chapter 3) a
1998 1999 2000 2001 2002
total of 22% of aircraft involved in airshow accidents
were vintage propeller (19%) or jet (3%) aircraft.
This against fighters at 29% and jet trainers at 23%,
no wonder then that the aerobatic flying of vintage
UK Fatal Accidents in Historic Aircraft
aircraft at airshows is such an emotive issue.
Dwelling on the statistics of vintage aircraft (Flypast Magazine March 2003)
accidents for a moment, it is instructive to consider
that in the UK, according to Flypast magazine (March 2003), there were a total of seventeen fatal
‘historics’ accidents from 1998 to 2002 which accounted for a total of twenty-two fatalities in
seventeen accidents, but not all at airshows.
Increasingly, wealthy hobbyists, museums and aviation enthusiasts are restoring vintage
aircraft and since 1985, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of vintage ‘warbirds’
flying at airshows worldwide while homebuilt and experimental aircraft are increasingly also
entering the air-race circuit in the United States. In the UK and USA particularly, there are a large
number of vintage aircraft and the loss of a specific type can normally be readily supplemented by
the restoration of another, in most cases. In countries outside of the United States and the UK,
however, this is not necessarily the case and vintage types may be very rare; the loss of a ‘one-off’
vintage aircraft can mean the loss from that museum’s collection, forever.
The catastrophic engine failure of the South African Air Force Museum’s only airworthy
Spitfire in 2000 and the ‘wheels-up’ landing of the only airworthy Mustang P-51D in 2001 during
airshows, serve as points in case. The cause of the Spitfire engine failure was attributed to a
combination of a slipped supercharger clutch plate and a hardened carburettor diaphragm, while
the mechanical failure of an undercarriage up-lock hook on the Mustang, resulted in a partial
wheels-up landing, both aircraft suffering extensive structural damage – in fact, the Spitfire
suffered Category 5 damage, a ‘write-off’. The public outcry, particularly from ex-Servicemen,
veterans and aviation enthusiasts, was damning; a vociferous call demanding that single copies of
valuable aircraft not be allowed to fly. This same sentiment and argument exists in the USA and
also in the UK.
Typical response from the public to similar accidents in the United States adequately
amplifies these sentiments and the reaction from aviation enthusiast groups can be summarised
by the statement: “I hate to be crass, airshow pilots are easy to replace but P-51 Mustangs are
not! Tell me how many P-63s are left with us?” “Why do we take such chances with rare aircraft?”
The counter response from the owners of such vintage aircraft cannot really be argued
against: “Because people pay their own money to restore and fly these planes, otherwise, they
would not be in any condition that the public would want to see. People went in search of wrecks
and planes in unflyable condition, spent lots of
hours and tons of money to make them flyable.
Let them fly. If you want to see a P-51 or any
other type of rare warbird sitting on the ground
and not flying, go to a military museum! If you
want to hear and see them fly, go to an airshow.
It takes even more work, and even more money
to keep those planes flying.” This argument is
obviously valid only in the case of private
individuals or groups, if however, the aircraft is
restored with taxpayer’s money, then the
argument is strictly speaking, not valid.
It is evident that there are very strong
views regarding whether warbirds should be
flown or not. The most common call against
SAAF Museum Spitfire Mk IX, a
flying the survivors from WWII is their value,
heartbreaking sight for WWII veterans and
which is considered too great to be risked in this
aviation enthusiasts, particularly those who
way. In the UK, the decision to fly the only
had put hundreds of thousands of manairworthy and fully representative Me-109G-6, is
hours into the re-build programme. (SAAF
a case in point. In a discussion between two
Directorate Flying Safety)
aviation enthusiasts on the subject of flying
vintage aircraft: “I’ll go crazy if ‘Black 6’ crashes
before it is eventually grounded!” “Why, what good is a plane that can’t fly? Just scrap metal!
There are plenty of other Bf-109s that cannot fly lying around in various museums. ‘Black 6’ is
precious because it can fly, not because it was a German warplane - I say keep her in the air”.
Spectators in the UK that had had the pleasure of seeing ‘Black 6’ fly on many occasions,
were in awe every time the sound of it’s engine was heard; it was impressive, especially the
supercharger whine when it came in for a low pass, described by some enthusiasts as “absolute
magic!” In South Africa, there have even been occasions when spectators requested that the
commentary and musical accompaniment to be silenced when the warbirds flew past so that the
‘old-timers and enthusiasts’ could hear the sounds of the engine of the aircraft flying past; the four
Rolls-Royce Griffon engines of the Shackleton being a particular favourite.
The viewpoint of another UK airshow enthusiast: “Maybe it’s a sign of increasing age, but
I’ve grown rather weary of Duxford’s presentation, which seems to have the aim of putting as
many aircraft as possible into the circuit at the same time (and with backing music too, just like on
TV!). It’s almost a ‘theme park’ approach, which sure brings in the crowds for the spectacle, but I
find my enjoyment and appreciation of the individual aircraft, and their personal sounds, much
Another more objective argument: “The will and enthusiasm to keep various warbirds
flying is praiseworthy and most would express great delight in watching and most importantly,
listening to those beautiful old warbirds. The problem is that the future generations would also like
to see these aircraft, if not in the air, then on the ground. The point that is often made, is that we
have a responsibility to preserve such aircraft for the next generations and no matter how
experienced a pilot is, accidents can and will happen. It is not easy to understand why ‘Black 6’
should have been risked year after year until the final accident”.
“This does not mean that warbirds should never be flown; but clearly, they are more
valuable if kept in that condition and only flown on special occasions to minimize the risk and then
not flown in aerobatic sequences, but rather just flypasts. ‘Black 6’ was a very special aircraft that
could not be compared with others, it was the only flyable German-built 109, its history was well
researched and it was accurately painted, few other German WWII survivors are”. The sarcastic
response: “So what should we do if it crashed never to be seen in the air again, show a few videos
of it to our children?” Taking the argument one step further, “if you just want to ‘look’ at an aircraft,
does its history really matter?” “You only need a highly detailed model that is not airworthy to say hey, that’s a Messerschmitt Bf 109G-6 that was used in Africa during WW2”. Some warbirds are
more numerous than others ie Spitfires and Mustangs, but rare ones demand special care”.
“The supposed logic of flying the warbirds resulted in not one single B-26 Marauder being
left in flying condition. The world’s only airworthy B-26 maintained by the Confederate Air Force,
which crashed outside of Odessa, Texas in September 1995, was completely destroyed and all
five aboard were killed just south of the airfield while on a routine practice flight for the upcoming
airshow. More importantly, pilots, aircrew and passengers died foolishly and needlessly for
absolutely no good reason other than to give aviation enthusiasts a thrill at airshows. Hardly worth
losing lives and rare aircraft for”.
“The aircraft was flown by a very experienced pilot who hadn’t flown the hazardous and
tricky B-26 in four years. In order to fly an aircraft competently, one needs regular continuation
training to maintain proficiency, which is nearly impossible with these ‘old timers’. It makes no
sense to put lives at risk just to enjoy the fabulous sights and sounds”. Given the choice, the
opinion generally expressed by the veterans is: “The hell with the fabulous sights and sounds, I’ll
take the plane instead and don’t forget that a pilots life is at risk for something as trivial as the
spectators amusement”.
Nevertheless, getting to the crux of the problem and another side to the argument: “It’s not
the flying of the vintage aircraft at an airshow that has been the problem, it’s ‘how’ the aircraft have
been flown. Fly-bys are great, but why all the aerobatics? The sights and sounds are fabulous,
but it is the ‘tricks by slicks’ that have created the problems. Adequate maintenance and properly
applied piloting skills should not create any problems for a warbird, the problem is one of
As one of many examples, the crash of the then 51-year-old DH.98 Mosquito T.3, based
and maintained at British Aerospace’s North Wales factory at Broughton, near Chester, is typical.
The pilot and navigator were killed while displaying at a nearby airshow at Barton, Manchester,
England on Sunday, 21 July 1996. The aircraft was one of only two known airworthy Mosquitoes
in the world, the other being Kermit Weeks’ Mosquito B.35 bomber in the USA. The emotions
voiced by aviation enthusiasts all around Britain, and in particular the veterans from WW II that
were weaned on the Mosquito, was quite damning.
Newscast video showed the Mosquito approaching the top of a wingover at approximately
1,000 feet agl when control was lost, the aircraft pitched nose-down then entered a spin. The pilot
managed to recover, but unfortunately had insufficient height for the recovery pull-out and the
aircraft crashed into a wood about one mile from the airfield in a wings-level, nose-down attitude.
The aircraft was built in 1945, having just missed war service, and was acquired by the
Chester site in airworthy condition in 1963 for just £100. It had been maintained in flying condition
and flown at air displays in Britain and Europe ever since. The aircraft had been totally stripped
down and refurbished in 1992 for that year’s flying displays and it re-appeared in its usual
grey/green camouflage but with the distinctive D-day black and white stripes added. Flying hours
at the time of refurbishment were only 1,746. The previous display of the ‘Mossie’ at North Weald
was voted as the best piece of flying and not an excessive manoeuvre in sight. Maybe this is the
way all these beautiful old aircraft should be flown, but, as the Manchester crash demonstrated,
even when this is adhered to, any sort of problem, no matter how small, can still result in a
Comment from a veteran: “Not to get argumentative, but the question that begs asking is:
“Why would someone flying a very rare, restored 50+ year old aircraft attempt aerobatics that
might have been discouraged even when the aircraft was new?” “Is it the desire to please the
audience, aren’t they just satisfied with just seeing a fly-past of this great aircraft? Given the loss
of two lives and a nearly irreplaceable vintage aircraft, should there not be some rethink on the
safety issues of flying rare warbirds? However, I can comment that the ‘Mossie’ was generally
handled with respect; typically though, the display routine included a number of climbing passes
into a wingover to return at high speed along the display line. The TV video showed some quick
reactions to exit the spin, so pilot incapacity was probably not a factor in this case”.
Jimmy Rawnsley, navigator to the legendary Mosquito pilot John Cunningham, wrote in his
memoirs that rolls were not generally recommended for ‘Mossies’ although the manoeuvre was
considered safe in the hands of an experienced pilot. Even so, one of 85 Squadron’s top pilots,
Bill Maguire, was killed executing rolls while testing new Mosquitoes at RAF Ford. As part of the
collective mourning over the demise of the Hatfield airfield, an ex-BAE photographic unit had put
together a 70-minute video summary of the site’s history in which one of the clips showed a
Mosquito being rolled with one prop feathered.
The point of a wingover is that it is a gentle manoeuvre with the aircraft largely unloaded at
the apex of the turn. It is essential to maintain balance as the airspeed can get quite low
depending on entry speed but we are not talking low-time crew here. After this specific accident,
the main thrust of a letter sent from Barry Tempest (UK CAA) to all display pilots was that while he
was not pre-judging any investigation outcome, he was asking all display pilots to think carefully
about their display routine and whether it had to be flown at the minimum height authorised on
their display authorisation.
An interesting point of view voiced by another veteran regarding pilot skills levels and
continuation training was: “The aircrew died in the crash and drove a very rare and airworthy DH
Mosquito into the ground at another airshow. This is really not very surprising. After all, warbirds
aren’t flown enough hours to get even one pilot proficient on them. This is because they are so
expensive to maintain and fuel which implies that they are often owned by organizations, which
means that more than one pilot is probably flying the very few hours available, which makes
matters even worse”.
Worse yet, in some cases, the pilots that usually do fly the aircraft, are not necessarily the
most skilled pilots but they have the right political pull within the organization. A little low-level
aerobatics later, you get a hole in the ground. Now, some people do own warbirds privately but
the problem is that everyone only has twenty-four hours in a day - we all have to eat and sleep,
too. In some cases, someone who can afford a warbird has, in many cases, spent all his time
earning money at his own business instead of flying airplanes professionally. In the particular
case of the Mosquito, however, it was owned and operated by British Aerospace who imposed
high standards of flight safety. The pilot was very experienced and had flown this particular
aircraft many times.
In terms of cost, operating these aircraft is unbelievably expensive and the huge crowds
drawn to the big displays are essential if the aircraft are to continue at all. Thus, the display must
be sufficiently exciting to appeal to the non-enthusiast who has paid his money to get in and wants
to be entertained. The challenge for the pilots and display director is to give the impression of
great activity and excitement while actually maintaining a safe operation. The UK shows such as
‘Flying Legends’ and ‘Fighter Meet’ have done this very well for many years, without that income,
not many of the warbirds would still be flying!
Additional comment on the issue: “Over the past couple of years, I have to admit leaving
some airshows at the end of the day relieved when nothing had been damaged. I prefer to go to
the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden these days. I get that reassuring feeling my admission
money is contributing to the performers’ conservation, not their consumption. The great wonder of
this particular aircraft was that it was not a restoration, it had simply managed to survive in working
order since it was built, and it was cared for by the direct descendants of those who built it.
Genuine aviation enthusiasts would probably be content with the gentlest of fly-bys at low-cruise
It is thus obvious that aviation enthusiasts the world over are somewhat torn between the
two extremes, they love to see the vintage aircraft flying as they were meant to be flown, but would
also hate to see all examples of a type destroyed in crashes. The debate into flying vintage
machines or not, without understanding the strict rules that are adhered to by all organisations that
undertake their continued maintenance, is irrelevant. The pilots deserve better. There is a side
issue challenging the future survival of the vintage rebuild market however, it is a single issue that
might ground at least some ‘warbirds’ in the future and that is insurance. Even if you risk not
insuring the airframe, how much will the premium be raised now? Too much for some? Most
So, to fly or not to fly, that is the question. In the words of the restorer of the vintage AT-21
in the USA: “I know that when my AT-21 finally gets back into the air, it will probably not be flown
at the few airshows I take it to. I want to be able to show it off, but I also want it to survive for
generations to come. I say this for a couple of reasons. It is the sole remaining AT-21 in
existence and it’s taken me a tremendous amount of time and money to restore. Technically, it
has to be flown as single person crew, but the visibility out of the cockpit ‘sucks’ in every direction
except straight ahead and to the pilot’s left. Because it is the sole remaining AT-21 in existence, it
will possibly end up in one of two museum collections. Besides, it’s such a large beast that I am
going to have trouble hangaring it once it starts being reassembled”.
“It’s a hassle sometimes putting an airplane like that on static display. You really have to
be careful about security. I remember an old friend who owned a beautiful Mk XVI Spitfire turning
around one afternoon to find a kid hanging on the rudder trim tab. Another veteran airshow
display pilot from the USA had a solution to the problem of over eager spectators: “I used to carry
four signs with me in the gun bays. When I parked the P-51 at a show site, I’d install the stack
plugs, pitot cover, (we had a pitot cover that said, ‘high voltage’) and rope off the airplane. Then
I’d place the signs around the rope”.
A commonly held opinion is that the vintage aircraft are well past their ‘sell by date’ and
that even if the components have never been used, their rack life is expired. In many cases,
however, they are every bit as airworthy now as they were when they came off the production line.
‘Sell by dates’ cannot be applied strictly to aircraft that are maintained to such high standards, they
do not go ‘off’ with time. As knowledge of materials and methods of detecting weakness in
materials (non-destructive testing) has improved over the years, these aircraft are now better
understood than when they were first designed. Along with this has come a better understanding
of the materials used in WWII aircraft and improved ways of detecting weaknesses within.
Forty years of aero engineering progress has led to many safety and reliability
improvements, the main advances have been in the types of materials used for airframe
construction, advances in electronics for navigation and in-flight systems management. The
engines used in piston-powered aircraft have, however, hardly changed at all. During the era that
such aircraft were designed, there was a need to extract more power from them to help achieve
high altitude performance and combat. This was done with staged superchargers and running the
engines on much higher-octane fuels. Today these aircraft are not flown to the levels of power
(boost) that they were designed for and are run on lower octane fuels, the effect of this is that the
engines are running well within their design limits.
Add to this the modern methods of inspection and maintenance and you have a very safe
combination. The airframes of WWII aircraft were
designed to take levels of stress that would be
expected from a machine operated to its limits in a
combat environment. These airframes are now
operated to a much lower level of stress loading.
Before anyone says “but they are old now”, yes, but
in most cases, the wings have mainly been rebuilt
with new spars and are every bit as strong as the
day they were built. For example, the Battle of
Britain Museum Flight Lancaster had its main wing
spars replaced.
The basic engine in a Piper or Cessna is still
Vintage aircraft and ‘warbirds’ have
horizontally opposed design that it was when
become major airshow attractions in their
first introduced many years ago, yet
own right. (Colonel A. Biasus, Brazilian Air
them across the Atlantic and expect
them, with good reason, to be reliable. A good
design can withstand the test of time. A typical student PPL learning to fly in a Cessna or Piper is
flying an aircraft that might have logged maybe 4 to 5,000 hours of flight time. It may have been
designed in the 50’s, built in the 70’s and have been subjected to the handling of many trainee
pilots having been landed in just about every way imaginable. Given the choice of this aircraft or a
Spitfire just re-built by experts, flown only a few hours by some of the best pilots in a country,
which one would you prefer to fly over shark infested oceans? An interesting observation is that in
the analysis of 118 random airshow accidents (Chapter 3), there were twenty-seven vintage
aircraft accidents, none of which was due to structural failure. However, six cases of vintage
aircraft engine failure were recorded against three engine failures on non-vintage aircraft types.
The basics of aerodynamics have not changed at all, the principles of flight are still the
same, the medium within which aircraft fly, is still the same, if maybe somewhat more polluted.
Also, our understanding of aerodynamics has improved and this should be transferred to the
overall operation of these types, if there is any area for debate, then it could be this. Since there
are so few of these vintage aircraft remaining, and because the maintenance requirements are so
strict, the cost of each flight hour is very high and therefore they are not flown as much as they
should be in the ideal world. This obviously adversely affects pilot currency on type and no design
or computer aided solutions can in anyway substitute good old-fashioned ‘seat time’.
Training to fly vintage aircraft is not a Federal Aviation Administration requirement. Anyone
with a pilot’s license that has high-performance and tailwheel endorsements can hop into a
Mustang (the non-racer variety) and go; anybody who has taken off and landed the aircraft three
times can take a passenger along. The original designers of vintage aircraft used first order
principles and ‘aerodynamic fixes’ to disguise shortcomings and deficiencies in handling qualities.
Many of the ‘rules of thumb’ developed by operational pilots under the duress of wartime flying,
have long since been forgotten and are not necessarily passed down to hobbyists purchasing a
rebuilt vintage aircraft. Most probably, one of the most dangerous situations arises from the
wealthy aviation enthusiast purchasing a rebuild without an experienced instructor to provide the
necessary training.
As an example, one of the grave dangers typically posed by the Mustang is its behaviour
during an accelerated stall, a loss of lift caused by disturbed airflow over the wing in a high-g
manoeuvre like a tight turn. The Mustang can react violently, snapping into a roll and sometimes
flipping over on its back, giving the pilot virtually no warning. It is essential for pilots to receive
sensitivity training; they need learn to notice the subtle vibration in the stick that precedes an
accelerated stall. They also need to learn the procedures for recovering, in other words, the need
to learn to ‘feel’ the aircraft. Perhaps the hardest part of the recovery is that the pilot must be
patient enough and obviously have enough altitude to allow the air to resume laminar flow before
trying to pull out. Don Lopez, deputy director of the National Air and Space Museum and former
Flying Tiger and test pilot, once recalled seeing a pilot get into an accelerated stall in a Mustang in
India, recover slightly, pull out too quick, and re-enter the stall. “He did that three times before he
hit the ground,” he said.
In considering the question of flying vintage aircraft objectively then, amongst the twentyseven vintage aircraft that crashed over the past years, three of the only airworthy ‘one-off’ vintage
aircraft types such as the Me-109 ‘Black-6’, the B-26 Marauder and the DH Mosquito have
crashed. Having listened to both sides of the argument, the gist of the argument must then be
fairly cold-blooded and unemotional; if the primary intent is to preserve these aircraft, then it is
obvious that vintage aircraft should not be flown. The wisdom of best practice would suggest that
the more responsible course of action would be to preserve the ‘real thing’, and fly the replicas, but
you can’t preserve and fly warbirds at the same time – these are conflicting goals, a contradiction
in terms.
Although the argument may seem trivial, there cannot really be an argument, it is just that
in this case, you can’t do both. The emotional complexity of the problem however, is that people
enjoy owning them and flying them. Taken one step further, the argument is that if people were
not buying them and flying them, they would not be around now anyway. If preservation is the
objective, especially with ‘one-off types’, then if you really want to preserve the warbirds
permanently, not temporarily, then there is only one option, the unpopular recommendation, stop
flying them.
Taking the argument of flying vintage aircraft at airshows one step further, the next
question leads to the question of ‘rebuilds vs replicas’. Within the vintage aircraft milieu, the issue
of what constitutes a ‘replica’, ‘rebuild’, ‘restoration’ or ‘original’, is emotive in the sense that the
owners/builders have invested hundreds and thousands of man-hours and dollars in their
individual projects. In particular, they pride themselves with having produced an aircraft that has
aesthetic appeal of historical significance and will in all likelihood, as a side issue, consider the
economic benefits of subsequent resale; a replica will obviously not necessarily fetch the same
price as a restoration.
Considering the argument about the flying of vintage aircraft, one enters the murkiness of
definition; definitions of determining whether, within the preservation process, the particular aircraft
is a ‘rebuild’, ‘replica’ or ‘original’. Rebuilding an aircraft by replicating 70%, 80% or even 90% of it
from smashed and destroyed bits and pieces is not ‘preserving’ the original aircraft, it is building a
replica, but where do you draw the line between ‘rebuild’ and ‘replica’? For the record, the Oxford
dictionary defines a replica as an ‘exact copy’ or duplicate and uses terms such as ‘once more’,
‘afresh’, ‘anew’.
In the crash of a P-40 Warhawk in the USA, it’s back was broken in two places, fore of the
cockpit and fore of the empennage; the engine was torn away from the mount and the port
undercarriage was written off. To repair it, the fuselage longerons were replaced as was the
propeller, while the nose and engine had to be rebuilt. In the worst case, 50% of the aircraft was
replaced. Is it a rebuild, a restoration or a replica? By definition, it’s not, at the very least, the
‘original’ aircraft.
If the rebuilds that were occurring during the war are considered, broken wings were being
pulled off good fuselages and melted down. New wings, or wings from other damaged aircraft
were mated on, and the aircraft put back into service, whatever it took to get them back into the
air. Those aircraft were, by the argument, also no longer original either. So what is the difference
if the repair takes place immediately, or, as in the case of the Aleutian Islands P-40, forty years
later? Another angle to the argument is that in the case of restorations, the period technology of
the aircraft is just as important as the airframe; there should be a World War cockpit in a World
War aircraft! Today, the inside of these rebuilds and replicas mostly have digital avionics and the
cockpit is full of modern equipment.
Of course the required modern equipment must be fitted, but it can be done without the
hacked-up trashing that often occurs in restorations. One veteran’s comments on restored aircraft:
“I went into the Evergreen B-17 a couple of years ago, beautiful bird, but the radio room made me
very sad, Navy command sets screwed to the bulkhead.” However, this is quite a different issue
from the topic of ‘replica vs rebuild vs original’. For example, what if a pristine B-17 shrinkwrapped from 1945 had a command set screwed to the bulkhead, would that make the aircraft
non-original and therefore less worthy? What if the command set is then taken out?
Replicas are sometimes the only way to present historic aircraft when there aren’t any
good airframes left, like the Zeros and Oscars that are being replicated. A replica gets built and
that goes flying. Consider the example of a P-51D Mustang that as stock issue, doesn’t have
room for a jump seat, the original radio is too big. Remove that WWII radio and replace it with a
small modern unit and there’s place for a jump seat and the experience of flying a Mustang can be
shared with someone else. Would that really be such a bad thing?
The question is: “When exactly does an ‘original’ become a ‘restore’ become a ‘rebuild’
become a ‘replica’?” By definition then, there is no original vintage aircraft left. The P-40K and
‘Black 6’ emotionally lamented as “another original biting the dust” by an aviation enthusiast, may
well NOT have been an original by definition. Exactly what then constitutes a ‘restore’?
Theoretically, all you would need to ‘restore’ an original Spitfire, apart from inordinate amounts of
money, of course, is an authentic manufacturers plate with a serial number on it! The jigs,
experience and expertise to produce most warbirds from scratch are there. This is true even of
some rarer types.
In an issue of “Warbirds Worldwide”, a restoration company in the UK claims to be able to
“tackle any Bf-109 project, no matter what sort of shape the original airframe is in”. Is an original
aircraft identity plate enough to turn a replica into an original? Irrespective of what Companies and
restorers may claim, No! Is there a certain percentage of original structure below which an aircraft
falls into the ‘replica’ or ‘rebuild’ categories? No! On the other hand, is there some other way to
tell the ‘real ones’ from the ‘fakes’? Maybe! In the final analysis, it is merely semantics since by
definition it is neither an original, nor a replica and can therefore only be a restoration or rebuild. A
replica is exactly what the dictionary says it is: “an exact copy or duplicate” and may not
necessarily be the exact same scale as the original.
But, to complicate matters on flying replicas, there are some strong sentiments on the
issue and it is necessary to consider the appreciation of the spectator or veteran in the case of
warbirds. To quote an avid airshow attendee: “Seeing a flying replica is not the real thing, it is just
a copy and the real thing didn’t fly like that”. “Seeing a real Spitfire, Bf-109 or whatever, makes
heads turn - listening to the purr of a ‘real’ Merlin instead of some ‘suped-up’ Jaguar V12 engine,
demonstrating the technology of WWII”. Well, a Spitfire made out of titanium and carbon fibre
composites would not necessarily ‘look’ different to a sheet metal one if the master templates were
done properly, but it wouldn’t necessarily fly and handle like the Spitfire we all know. Replicas can
certainly be made that are flyable, that is not the problem, but realism and originality are lost.
One of the major challenges to maintaining originality or period equipment in the vintage
warbirds, is the question of spare parts. It is very difficult, if not nearly impossible, to get all
genuine parts again. There are some parts for which only one or two examples exist in the world
and if they fail functionally, they cannot just be ordered again. But why should we restore a plane
with genuine parts if it is not intended to fly it later on? If an aircraft is just being rebuilt for a
museum, perfectly made static replica parts can be used instead of the original parts.
Still on the question of flying replicas: “Black 6’ is a wonderful aircraft that should only be
permitted to fly in perfect conditions, no risks. Our children and grandchildren will surely have a
chance of seeing a Me-109 somewhere in a museum, no question, but does it really hurt if they
see well-made replicas?” At the end of the day, does it really matter? Some connoisseurs of
aviation would not like seeing a replica, heaven forbid! It’s like the difference between a replica of
Michelangelo’s David and the real thing.
In closing this rather frustrating argument which tends to go around in circles, it eventually
comes down to semantics. But that said, there’s something mystical about looking at something
and knowing it’s the real thing. The design of an aircraft is indeed significant, but one’s wonder at
its history is amplified to know it was actually there. A favourite piece at the Nimitz Museum in
Fredericksburg is their rusty, bomb-damaged Val. The post-war trainer Avenger is in much better
condition, but that Val was an actual part of the war, sitting on a runway somewhere when a bomb
took its nose off. It makes the events of the day seem real, not just pictures and words in a
textbook. You don’t get that sense of history from a replica.
From the foregoing it is clear that although airshows continue to provide some of the finest
entertainment and is watched by some of the largest numbers of spectators at any given
spectator-sport, however, serious challenges exist to the future sustainment of airshows.
Unfortunately, no single international body or authority exists to steer airshows along a visionary
route of dynamicism with an increased focus on safer performances. There is of course, ICAS and
EAC, and although located on two different continents, if there is one point of agreement between
ICAS and EAC, then it is that the challenges facing the long-term survival of airshows have
changed significantly. To this end, a strategy to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of airshow enthusiasts
and the general public is essential to guarantee the future of airshows.
To achieve the objectives of the stated strategy, ICAS agreed that as from 2003, to focus
on certain strategic market areas including the publication of a quarterly news magazine, the
publication of a well-planned airshow calendar, the publication of an annual industry guide,
Government lobbying, a biennial spectator survey, networking/mentoring and joint marketing
It took fifteen years of effort to achieve harmonisation of U.S. and Canadian airshow
regulations and it has become a possible model for European harmonization as well – in fact, it
should become the international model designed for worldwide application. Looking to the future,
ICAS additionally undertook to work on intra-industry communications, industry survey
programmes, airshow safety programmes, marketing of multiple shows in a single consortium,
attendance auditing, the development of national sponsorship programmes and to expand the
airshow ‘fan base’. In terms of future collaboration, ICAS intended to cooperate even more closely
with EAC and to assist EAC in avoiding learning the lessons that it took ICAS thirty-five years to
learn. These objectives would be achieved through information exchange programmes to learn
from each other, expanding regulatory harmonization efforts to Europe and ready access to ICAS
developed documents and literature
Following the EAC 2003 Convention and in the same vein as ICAS, the survival strategy in
terms of the European airshows was defined as: “securing the future for airshows”. To this end,
the critical success factors were divided into seven action areas, ie. Customers, Sponsors, Aircraft,
Venues, Profit, Organizers and the Brand. The main thoughts being that a customer can only
spend his money once and it was up to the airshow organisers to ensure that that spectators
choose airshow events over other mass-events. The competition from the entertainment world is
real, airshows do not have a monopoly, and as such it is imperative that airshows offer the best
possible ‘value for money’. In addition, the customer has to feel safe and convenient, at all times.
If the spectacle promised delivers on the quality, the audience will pay the market price! It is thus
important to have a good understanding of the customers for whom airshows are being organised
- is it the enthusiast or the family?” Shifting the emphasis to ‘family’ could open new vistas for the
airshow world.
In terms of sponsors, EAC advised all airshow participants to ensure that they know the
answer to the following question well; “why should a sponsor invest in the specific event?” Greater
effort will be required to provide sponsors with information making it worth their while to support a
specific airshow; an audit of the audience will become necessary in order to present a sponsor
with realistic figures. So who or what products will be prepared to sponsor airshow activities?
Aviation related companies will obviously be more than welcome, but the growing market seems to
be the manufacturers of consumer products, the brands the widespread airshow audience can
easily relate to, products that directly appeal to them. Of course, the retailers must not be
forgotten and then of course, the Government - airshows have and will always be needed to
promote aviation!
Questions that must be answered are, will there be a place for amateurs in the future, or
will the airshow market be taken over by profit making organisations? Is there still going to be
scope for some individual efforts? Will the flying clubs be able stay in the airshow industry?
Questions which cannot be answered at this stage, but what is for sure is that that there will be
further cutbacks on military participants due to budget constraints and operational commitments.
Therefore the ‘quasi-military’, the privately owned jets, will become even more important to the
world’s airshow community. Sponsored ex-military jets are certainly becoming a regular feature at
airshows and while sponsors are readily available to support civilian acts, this mechanism is not
readily implementable in the military. The civilian acts have earned their place and will see an
increase in airshow contracts, they have become just as important. But in the final analysis,
airshow organisers, military or civilian will have to provide enough variety to the flying programme
as long as the primary aim is to satisfy the spectators!
In terms of airshow venues, the security issue will become the main aspect in choice of
location. Military and civilian airfields will continue to host airshows, but the problems of crowd
movement and control to address the issues of security, will have to be approached from new
angles and consideration to alternatives will have to be made like seaside shows, country houses,
natural arenas, etc.
No pun intended, but the bottom line is that there is no fun in organising an airshow if the
final line is red! The input vs return on investment must be carefully balanced and should consider
whether the show is a commercial priority or a charity airshow? Are the staff employees, or
volunteers? What about coverage of the insurance costs, the airshow participant’s costs, in fact,
all the other costs versus the total income.
One of the most important considerations in terms of marketing of airshows in future must
be, just like any other product in the market that appeals to a widespread audience, that is, to be
sure that airshow organisers know well what they represent. Brand awareness will be one of the
keys to success. Aspects that must be considered are: “the ‘family’ customer or the ‘enthusiast’
customer; is the airshow presented as a major military event or a warbird show, etc.
So, to answer the question: “Is there a future for airshows”? Yes, absolutely yes! But most
likely there will be fewer events, more civilian based content and organised on a far more
commercial basis with a larger percentage of the costs being carried by the spectators. EAC
estimated that by the year 2010, the UK might typically only offer ten to twenty significant events
from June to August each year, some major military shows, some warbird shows, a few seaside
shows and following a newer, changed approach, some very different ‘family’ type airshows.
Ever since the Wright Brothers’ first successful powered flight at Kittyhawk 100 years ago,
it was accepted that all flying would involve an element of risk, but in the world of display flying, a
risk even more critical. With the growth of display and demonstration flying since then, those risks
have multiplied as pilots and aircraft have been flown to, and often beyond, their respective limits.
The number of hours flown annually at flight demonstrations and airshows is an insignificant
percentage compared with the total hours flown. Although no accurate consolidated statistical
data exists on international airshow accident rates, it is evident that the number of airshow
accidents, makes the accident rate for display flying excessive when measured against the
universal norm of number of accidents per 10,000 flying hours. It can therefore be concluded that
display flying in its various forms can be a hazardous activity for the pilots, the spectators and the
public alike.
There are however, many successful display pilots that have survived the airshow circuit in
spite of the inherent dangers – their survival can be attributed to concentrated focus on complying
with the regulations in force and each pilot’s own strict personal professional creed. The threats
imposed by the low-level displays are ever present and there is no means to rid display flying of
such hazards – there is only one way to alleviate the effects of the threats, and that is through
knowledge, self-discipline and the development of practiced skills. Even then, there can be no
guarantee that accidents will not occur. Visitors to airshows will usually be treated to some truly
memorable flying and because it is so polished, it is all too easy to forget the degree of skill
needed to demonstrate an aircraft effectively.
Pilots have to think carefully about showing off their aircraft to the best possible advantage
while always being aware of the risks to safety. Altitude restrictions, the crowd line, local schools
and hospitals – everything must be considered and all this while being subjected to heavy doses of
negative and positive ‘g’ and very high accelerations; analogous to being blasted off the pad at
Cape Canaveral every few seconds in some cases. Whether it is a highly dynamic high-g display,
displaying a heavy transport within the confines of a small display area, or even a competition
aerobatic display, one thing is for certain, the skills required are world class. So, the next time you
watch an airshow, remember that you’re witnessing some of the world’s best pilots at work, the
aeronautical equivalent of the Olympic Games, a Broadway Show or a Festival Hall concert – all
rolled into one.
To avoid the pitfalls of display flying, the pilot must focus with concentrated determination on the regulations and on one’s own strict
personal professional creed in order to find the tough narrow compromise between a conservative “wet” display and an “edge of the
envelope” super-show. Easier said than done!
(Reproduced with the kind permission of Geoffrey Lee, Eurofighter Typhoon)
Fouga Magister low flypast at Chateaudun AFB national airshow (France) on 10 May
2003. (Antoine Grondeau)
“As a pilot, only two bad things can happen to you: One day you will walk out
to the aircraft knowing that it is your last flight in an aircraft. One day you will
walk out to the aircraft not knowing that it is your last flight in an aircraft”.
On numerous occasions worldwide, thousands of spectators have watched the horror of
aircraft accidents unfolding before their eyes. Irrespective of the specific country’s status as ‘first’
or ‘third world’, military or civilian aircraft, professional or amateur pilot, it is a fact that no culture,
creed, or aircraft category escapes the ignominious realm of airshow accidents. Military fighters,
large military transports, vintage warbirds, ultra-lights, trainers and flight test prototypes, all feature
indiscriminately in excerpts from newspapers, television networks and aviation magazines
reporting on some of the horrors of airshow accidents.
The following excerpts are evidence of the hazardous world of display flying. The
accidents presented are certainly not comprehensive but rather a random selection of 118 airshow
accidents covering the entire spectrum of airshow accidents. The sources of the information
include the records of air forces, the NTSB, the AAIB, newspapers, TV video newscasts, Internet
discussions and spectator reports. In an effort to achieve conciseness, this section includes only
the most relevant information extracts that have bearing on the history, chronology and flight
safety aspects of the accidents. Some of the summaries are, therefore, only a few sentences long
but others several paragraphs. In an effort to capture and retain, where possible, the real world
emotions of airshow accidents, the commentary has intentionally not been taken verbatim from
formal accident investigation reports but rather from the open media reports.
What constitutes an airshow accident, what qualifies an accident for inclusion in this
database of random airshow accidents? For the purpose of airshow accident analysis then, any
flight that is authorised for the sole purpose to practice, display, participate, or use the aircraft in an
aviation exhibition, qualifies. The database does not include examples of unauthorised low-level
aerobatics of which there are hundreds of examples and are excluded on the grounds that they
were not authorised specifically with the view to airshow participation.
The warbird and airshow community in the United States lost another aviation luminary
with the untimely passing of F4U-4 Corsair Pilot Joe Tobul in an airshow accident. Performing to a
crowd of approximately 70,000 at Columbia Owens Airport’s “Celebrate Freedom Festival” in
South Carolina, Tobul, 68, reportedly suffered an engine failure, going down approximately one
and a half miles off the end of Runway 31.
The aircraft caught fire on impact, resulting in fatal injury to the pilot. Tragically, his son
was flying the ‘wing’ while the formation was positioning for a flypast and watched him go down.
Even though the airport had been somewhat hampered over controversies involving noise
abatement issues and a no-fly zone over a local coliseum, the event was well attended and well
organised. A local media report quoted a Tobul friend as saying, “I understand there was smoke
coming out of the engine on a pass as the plane came across the field for the airshow. A lot of
people thought it was airshow smoke, but a Corsair doesn’t have airshow smoke. There was
some kind of failure in the engine. It apparently got out the way of homes and trees but then
crashed in the swamp.” The airshow continued shortly after the accident, although no word of the
fate of Tobul was released during the show.
The Chance Vought F4U-4 Corsair, named Korean War Hero , had retained three combat
flak repair patches on the starboard wing and rear fuselage area and had served two tours of duty
with over 200 combat missions, before being retired from Naval service on 5 July 1956. From
approximately 1960 to 1970, the aircraft flew with the Honduran Air Force. In 1970, it was sold to
an American Airline pilot and brought to the USA before Joe & Jim Tobul bought the aircraft in
1981 and started a very long rebuilding project. Ten years later, Korean War Hero
proudly flew
again on 8 December 1991 and had been a major presence at airshows all over the country.
The Indian Navy suffered its worst disaster in its aviation history when two Indian Navy IL38 maritime patrol aircraft practicing for the upcoming anniversary airshow, collided in mid-air in
the western state of Goa, killing twenty-two people. The Russian-made Ilyushin-38 maritime patrol
aircraft were performing a close formation flypast for the airshow to mark the 25th anniversary of
the Indian Navy’s 315 Air Squadron.
The two aircraft, each carrying six crewmembers, took off from the resort state’s main
airport in Panaji and collided with each other in echelon formation over the nearby area of
Zuarinagar while positioning for the flypast. One of the aircraft impacted on a road and the other
on a building that was under construction. Most of the dead were aircrew members but sadly,
three labourers were killed and seven injured by crash debris at the building site.
The Panaji airport was immediately shut down and all flights in and out delayed. “Although
standard operating procedures were in-force, which included height and separation distances of
the aircraft, for some reason, the two aircraft came closer and collided in mid-air. “It could be
because of an error in judgement, malfunctioning or catastrophic failure of the control”, said Chief
of Naval Staff, Admiral Madhvendra Singh”.
Leading a four-ship formation from the South African Air Force Museum’s vintage collection
of Harvard, Aermacchi AM-3 Bosbok, Atlas Aviation Kudu and Piaggio P-166S at the Africa
Aerospace and Defence Exhibition 2002, the Harvard suffered a catastrophic engine failure. Just
after turning out left and at approximately 1,500 ft agl, the leader, Colonel Geoff Earle radioed that
the Harvard engine was vibrating excessively and loosing power rapidly. The rest of formation
was still in line astern in the process of forming-up.
While turning right hand about, the pilot tried to find a ‘sweeter spot’ with the throttle and
called that he was going for an off-field, forced landing. The Bosbok, acting as airborne search
and rescue co-ordinator followed the stricken Harvard down and took over the rescue
communications while Earle selected a field and set up for the landing with undercarriage up.
At approximately 30 ft agl, the pilot selected full flap (very short field) and at this stage he
reported a loud grinding noise from the engine and then the propeller stopped dead, inducing a
very sudden increase in the rate of sink. The left wing then clipped power lines spinning the
aircraft flat through approximately 160º before bouncing hard on the ground, the impact ripping off
the pilot’s flying helmet in the process. On the next bounce, the aircraft came to a rapid stop, only
30 metres from the original contact point with the power lines. The aircraft caught fire on impact
resulting in burns to the pilot’s face; he also suffered a broken rib and a cut on the lower jaw from
control stick. The aircraft burnt out completely, resulting in Category 5 damage.
The Bosbok pilot now controlling the search and rescue effort saw the pilot egress safely
and the rescue chopper reached the pilot within eight minutes, getting the pilot to the nearest
Military hospital in 42 minutes. The formation then rejoined and continued the flypast without
further incident.
An RAF Harrier GR7 of 20 Squadron RAF Wittering, crashed into the sea at the Lowestoft
annual airshow on 02 August 2002. Nearing the end of the display sequence in the hover and
preparing for the ‘bow’ in front of the 40,000-strong crowd, a loud engine ‘explosion’ was
reportedly heard by spectators, the Harrier lost power and descended rapidly from the hover. The
Harrier is loud, but the explosion left no doubt that it was not part of the act. At about 50 feet
above sea level, the pilot Flight Lt. Tony Cann, ejected.
The pilot’s chute opened just in time to complete one pendulum before he landed on the
sinking Harrier, the pilot breaking his ankle on impact with the aircraft. Had the accident occurred
over land and the aircraft exploded, the pilot would most certainly have landed in the post impact
fireball. The pilot was immediately picked up by a rescue dinghy before being transferred to
Lowestoft Lifeboat. Within minutes he was winched aboard an Air-Sea Rescue helicopter and
waved to the crowd before being flown to hospital for a routine check up. Nobody else was hurt in
the accident and the show resumed about thirty minutes later.
Just when airshows worldwide appeared to have achieved a standard in which the safety
of spectators was no longer jeopardised by display line incursions, a Ukraine Air Force Su-27
crashed into a spectator enclosure at an airshow killing 85 people (including 27 children) and
injuring more than 156 making it the most disastrous airshow accident in the history of the airshow
circuit. The accident occurred at Skniliv airfield in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv to mark the
60th anniversary of the 14 th Air Division of Ukraine’s air force.
Approximately two minutes into the display routine, the aircraft was in a left hand, level
steep turn when suddenly it over-rolled through approximately 200º to the nose-low inverted
position from which the pilot proceeded to pull out from. Now twisted off the show line directly at
the spectator enclosures, the pilot could not recover due to insufficient height. It is highly unlikely
that this manoeuvre was intentional since no pilot in his right mind would have attempted this ‘halfroll pull through’ from such a low height.
In a ‘deja-vu’ of the 1999 Paris Airshow Su-27 low-level ejection, both pilots, Toponar and
Yuri Yegrov, his co-pilot, survived the ultra-low ejection but suffered fractured vertebrae. The
pilots ejected only after they had exhausted all options at preventing the aircraft from crashing into
the spectator enclosures, a possible indication that they were struggling to get control of the
aircraft and steer it away from the spectator enclosures. Spectators watched in horror as the
aircraft smashed into onlookers and ploughed across the airfield before bursting into flames.
Dazed and bloodied survivors of the tragedy looked in shock and horror at bodies of the victims
strewn over the ground.
All aspects of the preparation of the show and responsible personnel actions were
investigated, as well as the radio communications with the ground. From reports emanating from
the investigation it emerged that the flight crew did not have a flight card and had not been briefed
about the features of the airfield. Even more amazingly, there had been no practice flights flown
over the display area prior to the display.
Certainly a sad indictment of poor supervision if ever there was one. When the aircrew
violated the display zone, the ground controller did not warn them and even after they had
performed the very first loop and it became obvious that they were extremely close to the crowd,
neither of the Display Controllers in contact with the aircraft took steps to instruct or inform the pilot
of the show line incursions. Furthermore, the flight data showed that the manoeuvres were flown
at an altitude lower than 200 metres, which was below the airshow lower limit.
Gross negligence and poor supervision resulted in an enraged Ukrainian President, Leonid
Kuchma, immediately dismissing the Chief of the Air Force and the Airshow Organiser and banned
all further military airshows. Speaking at the site of the tragedy, a shocked Kuchma said that the
air force should concentrate on their military duties rather than performing for crowds. “In my
opinion we need to stop these kind of air performances. People should do their military business
and should train, not take part in these airshows,” Kuchma told local television stations. Kuchma
refused to accept the resignation of the Minister of Defence. (Chapter 4 provides a comprehensive
overview of the politics involved in this particular accident)
Demonstrating an assault approach and
short-field landing at RIAT 2002, the pilot of an
Italian Air Force medium-lift Alenia G-222TCM,
misjudged the rate of descent on the steep
approach, flared too late and landed heavily on
the nose-wheel, bounced and then forced the
nose-wheel down to enable application of
wheelbrakes and reverse thrust. The force
with which the nose-wheel contacted the
runway pushed the nose-wheel assembly right
into the cockpit, the sparks caused by the
The sparks from the Italian Air Force’s G-222
ignited a hydraulic fire which extinguished
itself once the fluid had been exhausted. (Col
A. Biasus, Brazilean Air Force)
airframe scrapping on the runway were sufficient to ignite a small hydraulic fluid fire in the
wheelwell. In addition, a liquid oxygen container ignited inside the aircraft during the impact and
burnt fiercely. The crash rescue services were quickly on hand to extinguish the fires.
Fortunately the aircraft did not depart the runway, which could have induced asymmetrical forces
with consequent catastrophic failure. Minor damage was inflicted on the aircraft with no collateral
damage caused to infrastructure. The airshow was delayed for approximately two hours while the
crash rescue services removed the aircraft from the runway using cranes and airbags.
One of the three Rutan AcroEze aircraft of the French civilian team Patrouille Reva, crashed at
Nancy Airshow, France, killing the pilot, Michel Coste, a 49 year-old ex-military pilot. An
eyewitness reported that the team had just executed a triple break when the right wingman’s
aircraft wingtip struck the ground sending the aircraft cartwheeling into trees, away from the public
enclosure. The Rutan AcroEz is an enhanced version of the original VariEz, including
strengthened airframe and a more powerful engine.
The airshow ceased immediately after the crash, but resumed approximately ½ hour later with
Patrouille Cartouche Doré performing their display. The team were scheduled to perform at the
Colmar-Meyenheim Airshow in France just one week later but understandably, did not perform at
the show, instead the remaining two aircraft arrived at Colmar in the late afternoon and made a
single flypast with smoke on as a tribute to their ‘fallen’ colleague.
A QF-4S Phantom II, assigned to the Naval Air Weapons Test Squadron at Point Mugu
crashed during the 38 th Point Mugu Airshow (CA), killing its two-crew members, Navy pilot Cmdr.
Michael Norman, 39, and radar intercept officer, Marine Capt. Andrew Muhs, 31. Spectators,
watched in horror as the Phantom, in a right hand turn at approximately 400 ft, exhausted a
sudden vapour stream followed shortly thereafter by two short bursts of flame from the jet pipe.
The aircraft crashed in a fireball about a quarter of a mile away, in a secluded area west of the
base. There were no injuries on the ground and fire crews took ten minutes to extinguish the fire.
The show was cancelled and the thousands of spectators were asked to leave the base and
although it was announced that the show would continue the next day, on Sunday, it was
eventually cancelled completely.
The accident aircraft was flying on the left of a four-ship diamond flypast in straight and
level flight. Each aircraft individually pitched into a standard right-hand break, one at a time,
Graphic depiction of final seconds of the QF-4S. (Brian Snyder, Ventura County Star, Ventura,
California. ("Reprinted from the Ventura County Star.")
leaving the formation as if they were peeling-off for landing. About two seconds before the turn
into the break, the F-4 began streaming continuous white smoke from one of the engines - not a
huge gush, but there was a very clear trail visible in the sky. Established in a steep right bank the
QF-4S seemed to be maintaining altitude at that time and with the smoke trail still visible, two
small balls of flame were suddenly expelled from the jet pipes in quick succession. They were not
tongues of flame licking out of the aircraft, but rather just little balls of fire that ‘spat’ from the
aircraft as it continued moving through the turn.
Immediately after that, the F-4 experienced large roll excursions, at one point rolling almost
inverted, estimated at 150º bank to the right during one of the excursions. The bank angle
decreased significantly under what appeared to be the pilot commanding the recovery roll, but did
not reach the wings level attitude. The bank increased again to about 90º, all the while in a rapid
descent that was maintained right up to impact. It did not appear as if the pilot was able to
command the wings level attitude or break the descent rate. Just before impact, the aircrew
The considered opinion of a former F-4 driver: “The mishap aircraft was last in the
formation. The aircraft was seen proceeding ahead taking normal break spacing, then a stream of
white vapour pulsed from both engines, probably indicating burner selection in anticipation of an
ultra-tight break for the crowd. The burners didn’t light but the pilot continued the break anyway.
At high ‘g’, the aircraft was decelerating rapidly and the airflow through the intakes at high AOA
was sufficiently disturbed that no afterburner light-up occurred”.
“Then, the combination of fuel in the burner cans and ignition ‘popped-off’ creating a severe
compressor stall in both engines causing the brief flash of flame seen in the hard right turn. In a
high bank angle, decreasing airspeed and high sink rate, the back seater initiated ejection, but the
zero-zero seat capability could not overcome the downward vector and the occupants separated
from the aircraft just prior to impact.” Comment by another experienced F-4 driver: “Both engines
appeared to flame-out and then it dropped like the brick which the “spook” is well known for at low
airspeed. The F-4’s survival and existence was speed, it could only do so much when at high
speed, but at the low speed end of the envelope, the F-4 was risky, ask any ‘rhino’ crew. Sad way
to see a forty-year old MiG killer with Vietnam experience go down, but at least it survived
‘droning’, only to be lost in a non-operational mission”.
The official US Navy report, compiled by a team of investigators from the Naval Weapons
Test Squadron at Naval Base Ventura County, assigned ‘Pilot Error’ as the primary cause and
ruled out mechanical failure, birdstrikes or faulty maintenance as causes of the crash. The report
blamed Norman’s handling of the jet of the run-in break manoeuvre and the veteran pilot’s relative
inexperience with F-4 aircraft. Although Norman had racked up more than 3,300 hours of flying
time in military jets during his 16-year career, he had logged just 79 hours flying the QF-4S, an
experience level that was considered “below average,” by the Board.
The investigation report, obtained by The Star through a Freedom of Information Act
request, detailed how Norman aggressively pulled the QF-4S Phantom II into the break from a
diamond formation flying at approximately 350KIAS and at 675 feet above ground level. In the
process, the pilot exceeded the stall angle causing the aircraft to decelerate rapidly, the
investigation concluded. To recover, the flight manual called for the pilot to decrease the angle of
attack, but Norman once again pulled aggressively. The initial hard break into the turn exceeded
the briefed g-level for the practice and airshow flyby. The reason for the second hard pull was
indeterminable although it may have been an attempt to ‘square the corner’ of the turn to give the
appearance of a sharp break, the Board surmised.
After the second pull, the engine suffered a compressor stall causing two short flashes of
flame from the left engine that prompted initial speculation that the 34-year old aircraft had
suffered a mechanical malfunction or bird ingestion. Having entered the ragged edge of an
accelerated departure, the jet began to wobble, rolling through to 120º then to a nearly inverted
position. The pilot was able to recover transiently to 90º and get the nose pitched down, but the
aircraft plummeted to the ground taking just five seconds from the moment the aircraft departed
until impact.
The crewmembers had no real opportunity to eject safely, investigators found, Muhs, 31,
ejected at 150 feet, followed by Norman at nearly ground level. Investigators found that the
ejection mechanisms were serviceable. Video footage showed the back-seater clearing the jet
seconds before it hit the ground in front of 25,000 spectators but his parachute never deployed
fully and he plunged through a huge fireball into the ground. The autopsies showed that the cause
of death to both aircrew was attributed to blunt-force trauma from striking the ground. Wreckage
was strewn over a swath 350 yards long and 100 yards wide.
Investigators furthermore concluded that Norman did not account for the weight of 8,000
pounds of fuel on board, which was about 4,000 pounds more than the aircraft was carrying during
a practice run three days earlier. The sharp break manoeuvre and the resultant fuel shift had
moved the Phantom’s centre of gravity further aft and there that there was no discussion of the
heavier weight among the pilots before they broke into the turn, something that should have
occurred, investigators suggested. It was suggested that although an experienced aviator would
normally allow for the different fuel condition and adjust as needed to fly the aircraft, more
awareness about the inexperience of the pilot with regard to the heavy landing condition should
have resulted in calls before the break such as, “QF-4s, we’re heavy, watch the pull,” the report
The investigation’s findings prompted Navy officials to increase minimum experience
criteria for pilots in Point Mugu’s QF-4 programme. Only pilots with a minimum of 200 flight hours
on F-4s of all types and 600 to 800 hours of tactical jet experience, including flying in formation,
would in future be assigned to fly the QF-4S. Under the new standards, Norman would not have
been allowed to fly in the airshow. As a result of the crash, the F-14 Tomcats and QF-4S would no
longer participate in future Point Mugu airshows. Whether the show would be held in 2003 also
remained uncertain largely because of difficulty of booking a military jet precision flying team such
as the Navy’s Blue Angels .
The number 4 pilot, Flt. Lt. Daniel Marchand, who was destined to become team leader of
Patrouille de France in 2003, was killed when his Alpha Jet crashed at a military base in the Salonde-Provence in southeast France at the end of a rehearsal. No other collateral damage occurred.
The pilot was able to eject from the aircraft, but died when his parachute failed to open completely,
being outside of the ejection seat envelope at ejection.
Four pilots were killed when two Indonesian Hawk Mk. 53 jets of Indonesia’s elite Jupiter
aerobatic team crashed after clipping wings during rehearsals for an upcoming airshow. The
accident occurred in good weather near Iswahyudi Air Force base in Madiun, about 375 miles
southeast of Jakarta while attempting a ‘victory roll manoeuvre’ around the leader.
A witness reported that: “The aircraft were flying in the same direction and collided with
each other when they attempted to cross each other’s paths at approximately 2,000 feet above
ground level, both aircraft bursting into flames when they hit the ground, killing the two pilots and
their co-pilots. There were no ejections, just a big sudden boom when the aircraft collided during
the manoeuvre”, the witness said.
Subsequent to the Ukrainian Air Forces’ Su-27 crash in July 2002 in which eighty-six
spectators were killed and more than 156 injured, Indonesia’s Jupiter Blue precision flying team
was grounded by order of the air force commander, Marshal Chappy Hakim. The pilots were
prohibited from flying displays or even, according to reports, display training flights. He said they
were grounded, “pending the examination of the mental state of the pilots and the physical state of
the aircraft.” Indonesia’s air force had recently been hurting for funding and pilots were down to
flying just fifteen flying hours a month, about a quarter of what had previously been allotted.
The frustrations of the Air Force Commander can be understood in light of the fact that
Indonesia’s fighter pilots had previously crashed three Mk. 53 Hawks (one, a member of Jupiter
Blue , in a midair collision at the end of March). The Marshal concluded that there just wasn’t
enough flight training going on so he grounded the team.
An F-16A of the Portuguese Air Force crashed just short of the runway at Monte Real in
Portugal while practicing a loop for an upcoming airshow to celebrate the 50 th anniversary of the
Portuguese Air Force. The height available for the recovery pull-out was insufficient, the pilot,
Capt Pilav Horge Moura did not eject and was killed in the crash. Unusually, the aircraft was
configured with underwing fuel drop tanks for the practice display.
Two Hawk Mk. 65A aircraft of the Royal Saudi Air Force Green Falcons
aerobatic team
collided during a formation landing practice for an upcoming airshow. The accident occurred while
the aircraft were on approach to their home base of Tabuk and although both pilots escaped with
only minor injuries after ejecting, four members of the public suffered minor injuries when the
aircraft impacted inside an Army base.
Colonel Milton Andrade, the commander of the Air Force was killed when the Fouga
Magister he was flying crashed onto the runway and exploded while practicing for an upcoming
Kirby Chambliss, former 1998 U.S. National Aerobatic Champion, crashed into the Jilin
River during his display at the 2001 Grand Prix in China. The aircraft impacted into the river at
approximately 200 mph after a ‘turn-around’ manoeuvre but due to the excellent response of the
emergency services put in place by Jilin City, Kirby was quickly rescued from the water and taken
to the hospital. Although he did not have any broken bones, he received several cuts to his head
and face. Chambliss not only recovered from his superficial injuries, but went on to be named US
National Aerobatic Champion at the US National Championships in 2002.
Airshow pilot, Minor ‘Scoop’ Smith of Rio Rancho, New Mexico, was killed along with his
passenger during a pre-show practice flight before the Raton, New Mexico airshow. Eyewitnesses
stated that Scoop was performing a ‘hammerhead stall’ but lost control and was unable to effect
recovery due to the low altitude of the manoeuvre. ‘Scoop’ was the husband of Julie Phile Smith,
a past member of the U.S. Aerobatic Team.
Airshow pilot Carey Moore was killed when his Hawker Sea Fury crashed while performing
at the Sarnia International Airshow in Ontario. Eyewitnesses reported seeing the aircraft enter an
incipient spin from a climbing turn after a slow airspeed, low-level pass. No one on the ground
was injured in the accident but his fourteen year-old son, along with thousands of spectators,
watched in horror as the vintage aircraft crashed.
“He had taken off and had completed two passes and was setting up for his third pass,”
said Blake Evans, air-boss for the show. Evans was asked about safety precautions in the wake
of the recent Canadian Snowbird crash in Lake Erie (21 June 2001) and the Biggin Hill Airshow
tragedies of 2/3 June 2001. “All of the safety regulations were given to the flight crews at this
show as they are at all the shows we do, both yesterday morning and this morning,” he said. The
pilot had a lot of time on T-28’s and similar category aircraft, and about 21 hours on the Sea-Fury.
The question that begged asking was: “Is 20 hours on type sufficient to be putting on a public
The aircraft went down in a soybean field in front of a farmhouse, east of Chris Hadfield
Airport, shortly after 2 p.m. A witnesses said: “the aircraft banked over the farm, the left wing on
the aircraft was high as it turned then dropped and impacted like a folded accordion on the
ground”. “It just looked like it rolled over, the last thing I saw was the blue belly of the aircraft
before it went down into the trees”.
The force of the impact was clear from the damage; most of the aircraft was
unrecognisable. The rudder was still intact though, as was one of the five prop blades that stuck
out of the ground. A shaken Tom Walsh, ex-manager of the Biggin Hill International Airshow, said
it was too early to say whether there would be another show the following year. “We would hope
that it would be but the matter is in the federal agency’s hands at this point,” he said. Walsh said
that he had never had a fatality at any show he had organized. “I’ve been doing this for twentyeight years and this is the first,” he said. No one else was injured in the crash.
Jim Foubister, a Sarnia city councillor who was at the airport, also said it was too early to
say if the city would still support the show, then in its third year. “Today is probably not the day to
make that decision,” but said the operation is “first-class” and had his support. In an interview with
a Sarnia newspaper, Walsh said he wasn’t overly concerned about the safety of the event as his
co-ordinators tried to keep it as safe as possible. “There’s always a likelihood of something going
wrong,” he said. (Free Press Reporter & Special to The Free Press, Sarnia)
This particular Hawker Sea-Fury FB Mk.11 was a fighter-bomber version of an aircraft
designed for the Royal Navy in the early 1940s. The piston-powered aircraft entered the service in
1947 and flew with distinction during the Korean War and remains the fastest piston engine aircraft
ever produced. Moore Aviation Restoration in Breslau, east of Kitchener, owned the Sea Fury and
was one of only twenty-six in the world still flying. It started its military life in 1947 with 802
Squadron of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and served in Korea in 1952, recording 165
bombing missions, and four air-to-air kills, including two unconfirmed victories over Korean MiG-15
jet fighters. After the Korean War, the aircraft was rebuilt and sold to the Iraqi Air Force.
Purchased privately in 1972 in the USA, it was restored to museum quality in 1995 before arriving
at its permanent home in Canada.
As a wedding present, a newly married woman, Sara Hanson, was given a flight in a Fouga
Magister that unfortunately crashed, killing her along with the pilot Roger Simpson of Northville,
Mich. during a pre-airshow flight. Spectators at the Deke Slayton Airfest, at La Crosse, Wisconsin,
USA, watched as the aircraft lost a section of the wing and plunged to the ground, bursting into
flames. Hanson had been married the previous Saturday and her husband, had flown in the same
jet on the previous day as part of the plane ride gift, the La Crosse Tribune reported.
The Fouga took off on runway 21 and not too long after that, it approached the airport from
the north setting up for a low pass down runway 18, at approximately 500 ft. As the aircraft
passed the mid-field point, the jet pitched up slightly and almost at the same instant, a wing
separated, the rest of the aircraft rolled violently before hitting the ground. A witness recounts:
“The explosion was loud enough and the fireball large enough that I just instinctively knew no one
survived the impact. The whole thing happened in a flash - it couldn’t have been more than three
or four seconds”. The French-made two-seat military trainer, one of more than seventy in the
USA, was participating in the two-day air festival; no one else was hurt.
The FAA preliminary report stated that: “On a low pass the left tip tank broke off, followed
by progressive disintegration of the aircraft, crashing on the south side of the airport near the
perimeter road.” Dick Knapinski, spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association out of
Oshkosh, Wis., said: “the aircraft is subject to FAA inspections that are conducted yearly or every
100 hours of flight. Whoever owns those things are very meticulous with inspections, it’s just the
nature of those owners,” he said. According to FAA records, Simpson’s Fouga was manufactured
in 1959, was declared airworthy on 18 December 1995 and had been registered to Simpson since
4 March 1998. The Fouga was first produced in France and served the French Air Force until the
1980s. To quote a warbird owner: “There is always a risk when flying 40-year-old aircraft at high
speeds. When owners fly them at airshows, they have the risk that goes with low-level aerobatics
– most pilots know that”.
The Russian Air Force’s L-39 Albatross Team Rusj took off in two groups of three aircraft
to begin their display at an airshow at Levashovo Military Field in St. Petersburg, Russia. While
the six L-39s were about 5km away positioning to start the run-in, there was a bright flash from the
formation and then a cloud of black smoke. Two aircraft were seen breaking away from the
formation and fell to the ground with clouds of black smoke rising from a forest. The airshow was
immediately stopped and the authorities expelled all spectators from the airfield. The rest of the
team landed, the two aircraft that were missing were aircraft No.5 and No.7”.
Both pilots ejected from their aircraft and while one was found almost immediately and was
alive, the body of the other pilot, 42-year old Sergey Maksimov, was only found at 8:40 p.m. that
evening. Although he had ejected, his aircraft was inverted and at such a low altitude, was outside
the seat ejection envelope - the ejection seat was found embedded in the ground. The remaining
two days of the St. Petersburg airshow were cancelled”.
The Canadian 431 (AD) Squadron “ Snowbirds” were conducting a media flight two days
prior to performing at the London Airshow in Ontario. Each of the nine aircraft had a pilot and a
passenger on-board. Lead and aircraft No.5 had broken away from the remaining seven aircraft in
a ‘Concorde’ formation for some photographic opportunities of the Lead aircraft and had begun
their rejoin to the main formation.
As the rejoin proceeded, pilot No.5 broke away from aircraft the leader to take up his
normal position in the main formation. The lead aircraft simultaneously manoeuvred to position to
re-take the lead of the main formation. The two aircraft collided approximately 100 metres behind
the main formation. The leader of the formation, Major Bob “Cowboy” Painchaud lost control of
the aircraft and commanded an ejection, landing in Lake Erie approximately 2.5 km from the
shoreline. The No.5 aircraft remained controllable and the pilot was able to land the damaged
aircraft at London airport without further incident. Both the formation leader and the passenger
were recovered from the water by a Labrador helicopter stationed at 424 Sqn Trenton, Ontario
approximately one hour later.
The lead aircraft sustained Category ‘A’ damage due to the mid-air collision and a post
ejection fire and was subsequently destroyed on impact with the water. Aircraft No.5 sustained ‘C’
category damage, a portion of the right wing leading edge was missing, the right hand aileron was
bent at the outboard attachment point, the wiring, pitot/static lines and the wing spar, was
damaged. (Canadian Defence Flight Safety)
Eleven Spitfires and a Hurricane were taking part in the airshow at Rouen Vallée de Seine
airfield in northern France, the first occasion such an important collection of vintage aircraft had
been brought together in France since World War II. At the time of the crash, there was general
reporting in the UK to the effect that, following power failure of the engine, Martin Sargeant (56)
had initially attempted to land on the grass runway designated for emergency use, but had been
unable to do so due to spectators having spilled onto this area.
In an attempt to realign the aircraft on the active hard-surface runway, the aircraft stalled
and auto-rotated in from a very low altitude, exploding on impact. The Spitfire was destroyed and
Sargeant was killed. It was the third fatal airshow crash in as many days in UK/Europe, following
on from the deaths of three aircrew in the space of twenty-four hours at Biggin Hill airshow in Kent
(UK) on the previous two days.
All three crashes involved Second World War aircraft, which obviously raised questions
about the safety and logic of flying vintage aircraft. One witness said that the pilot had narrowly
avoided crashing into the 10,000-strong crowd at the airshow. Fireman Yannick Bobin said:
“Earlier we had seen smoke coming from his engine and the airport siren was rung. The pilot
wanted to land on the runway, but at the last moment when he saw he would crash into the
spectators, he turned away to avoid them”.
The June 2002 edition of the magazine Aeroplane Monthly published the outcome of the
French enquiry, including the contents of a letter from the Rouen Public Prosecutor to Sargeant’s
widow. This details the cause of the crash, inter alia, incremental engine failure and occupation of
the emergency runway by spectators, preventing an emergency landing. The decision then to try
to use the active runway despite of the engine failure, led to rapid energy loss leading to a stall.
The final attempt to correct an uncommanded roll with ailerons, exacerbated an already impossible
situation. The above points have been précised from the magazine article, which claims to have
reported the text of the letter written to Mrs Sargeant.
The magazine goes on to suggest that there are significant issues not covered by the
official report, in particular, why the emergency runway was accessed by spectators, and what the
role of the Flight Director was during the period between the first report of trouble and the crash
some 2.5 minutes later. Aeroplane Monthly’s editorial was also critical of the role of the display
Flight Director and also about the failure of the authorities to bring any charges or issue directions
for the safety of future events.
On 03 June 2001, one day after the fatal accident at the Vampire at Biggin Hill ‘Air Fair’,
billed as a celebration of US aviation heritage, a 60-year-old Bell P-63 Kingcobra crashed. The
pilot, Guy Bancroft-Wilson, 43, a British Airways captain was killed in the crash. The organisers
had advertised the Bell Kingcobra as a late addition after a long-booked Russian Su-27 aircraft
had cancelled at short notice.
About five minutes into the sequence, the third aircraft of the trio of vintage fighters, the
Kingcobra, pulled up into a vertical manoeuvre and then entered a spin from which it failed to
recover from and crashed in clear ground to the north west of the runway, just 100 yards away
from horrified onlookers. The Kingcobra, ‘appeared to stall’ during an earlier vertical manoeuvre in
the sequence and the pilot was instructed by the Display Committee to land. Unfortunately, the
communications relay from the Flying Control Committee to ATC failed at precisely that time and
some seconds later, the aircraft stalled again at the top of a loop and entered a spin from which
the pilot did not recover.
The P-63 Kingcobra, from a celebrated breed of World War II fighters, was built by Bell in
the US and had recently been restored in Britain. The rest of the International Air Fair was
suspended and the airfield closed following this second accident. Airshow spokesman Nick Smith
said the two crashes were “extremely unfortunate”, but defended the safety record of vintage
airshows, saying the last fatality at such a show was in 1980.
The general public and media in the UK were shocked and stunned that two pilots and a
safety pilot could have lost their lives in two days. A witness from Crayford, Kent, was filming the
event when the plane crashed. He said: “I was filming the plane with my video recorder when I
saw it lose control and turn over on its back. It then fell to the ground and there was a huge
explosion of flames and smoke, the pilot would not have stood a chance.” (The AAIB report is
addressed in some detail in Chapter 4)
On Saturday, 2 June 2001, the De Havilland Vampire, flying in close trail behind a De
Havilland Sea Vixen, was halfway through the day’s final display when it spiralled out of control
and crashed about a mile and a half from the packed airfield near Bromley, Kent. Nobody else
was injured although several witnesses suffered shock but declined medical treatment.
The aircraft, owned by the De Havilland group, was a 1950s fighter trainer aircraft that had
been restored and formed part of the De Havilland trio of Sea Vixen, Venom and Vampire. The
1950s former Swiss air force jet-trainer had flown past the crowd four times and was in a tight turn
trailing behind the much larger Sea Vixen when it hit the Vixen’s slipstream and “flicked-in”, autorotating before plummeting into a ridge. The large vortex shed from the much larger Sea-Vixen,
coupled to the high wing loading of the Vampire, was considered a contributory cause to the
uncommanded departure from controlled flight.
The pilot, former British Deputy Chief of Defence Staff, Sir Kenneth Hayr, 66, and Mr Kerr,
32, the safety pilot, were killed instantly. A holder of the Air Force Cross and Bar, Sir Kenneth
commanded the first RAF Harrier squadron in 1969 and was knighted twice, including in 1991 for
his role in the Gulf war. The safety pilot in the right seat of the Vampire, was qualified on type but
his presence was merely to assist with lookout as the view from the left seat was restricted. Civil
Aviation Authority permission had been granted for the use of a safety pilot under these
After members of the dead pilot’s team were consulted, it was decided that the second day
of the International Air Fair, which was in its 39
year and annually attracted around 35,000
people, would continue.
This was not the first kind of dissimilar formation accident. On 25 May 1986, the RAF
Vintage Pair were engaged in an air display at RAF Mildenhall, which was to include the Meteor
leading the Vampire in formation line-astern barrel roll to the left. The display went according to
plan until the aircraft reached the top of the formation barrel roll when the Vampire was unable to
match the Meteor’s rate of roll and became displaced down, left and slight back from the lineastern position. The Vampire then moved forward, passed underneath the Meteor, and climbed,
turning slightly to the right. The Vampire’s starboard rudder, fin and elevator struck the Meteor’s
port engine nacelle nosing which separated from the aircraft and fell clear. The Vampire’s
starboard rudder detached and fell clear. After the collision, the Vampire pitched-up and the two
crew ejected successfully. The Meteor, which was not fitted with ejection seats, struck the ground
shortly after the mid-air collision and the two-crew members were killed. Both aircraft were
destroyed. The investigation established that, although the Meteor pilot’s flying of the barrel roll
may have made maintaining formation difficult, the Vampire pilot could have avoided the
subsequent collision by turning away to the left. (David Oliver)
The aircraft was being flown from Bournemouth, Dorset to Biggin Hill, Kent as the number
three aircraft in a three-ship formation positioning for the annual Biggin Hill Air Fair. On arrival at
Biggin Hill the three aircraft carried out a ‘run-in and break’ manoeuvre from line astern formation
for a landing on Runway 21. On the downwind leg the pilot carried out the pre-landing checks,
which, included amongst other things, the lowering of the undercarriage, selecting one-third flap
and a check of the brake pressure. After lowering the flap, the pilot checked the flap position
indicator and noticed that the flap was at more than the one third setting. He then raised the flap
to the correct setting and continued the approach.
As he entered the turn to final approach, the pilot lowered full flap and concentrated on
achieving an even spacing between the three aircraft whilst avoiding the slipstream of the two
aircraft ahead. He became conscious that the spacing between the lead aircraft and the number
two was less than between his own aircraft and the number two and applied power to reduce his
spacing on the aircraft ahead. He checked the undercarriage indications and, although he had
some difficulty seeing the indications in the prevailing light conditions, he convinced himself that
the undercarriage was down and called “FINALS THREE GREENS” on the tower frequency.
The pilot then carried out a normal flare and touchdown with the aircraft landing on its belly.
Although there was some nose vibration in the latter stages of the landing run, the pilot reported
that he did not initially realise that he had landed with the wheels up until advised by ATC. When
the aircraft came to a halt, the pilot shut down the aircraft systems, safetied the ejection seat and
egressed, uninjured.
During his first flight on the previous day, the pilot had noted that the undercarriage position
indicator lights were quite dim and difficult to discern being positioned as they were to the lower
left of the instrument panel. The 69-year-old pilot was highly experienced with a total of 5,574
hours of which 242 were on type, but he had only flown 10 hours in the last 90 days and 6 hours in
the last 28-day period. Although the pilot had over 200 hours flying experience on type, this was
only his second flight on type in eight years and only his second flight in this specific aircraft, GGONE.
In his report the pilot considered that three factors contributed to his failure to lower the
undercarriage. Firstly, the undercarriage and flap levers are located in close proximity to each
other and are of similar design. Although he thought he was lowering the undercarriage during the
pre-landing checks, he believes that he actually
lowered the flap instead. When he subsequently
checked the flap position indicator after completing the
checks and discovered more than the desired flap
setting, he failed to associate the excessive flap with a
failure to lower the undercarriage lever. Secondly, the
location of the undercarriage position indicator in the
cockpit and the intensity of the lights sometimes made
the undercarriage position difficult to discern. Lastly,
the focussed concentration required to carry out a
streamer-landing may have distracted him. (AAIB
Bulletin No: 9/2001, Ref: EW/G2001/06/01)
The question of continuation training begs
asking since all the regulations, certificates and
experience are meaningless unless the pilot is current
on type in airshow flying. The oversight by the pilot
regarding flap and undercarriage selection are well
documented deficiencies in the Vampire’s ergonomic
design and was usually taught to pilots as ‘traps’ to
guard against during their basic conversion to type.
Was this an accident just looking for a place to
After exhausting all possible
alternatives to extend the mechanically
locked right main wheel, the only
available option was to land with one
main wheel retracted and one
extended. (SAAF Museum)
An annual air force Memorial Day flypast included a formation of one P-51D Mustang and
two T-6 Harvards. On downwind for landing, only the left main undercarriage of the Mustang
lowered. Upon trying to recycle, the pilot discovered that the undercarriage lever was stuck
(hydraulic lock) and could not be moved. In the physical effort to recycle the undercarriage, the
pilot actually broke the undercarriage lever. After all other efforts to lower the undercarriage had
failed, a landing on the grass with the left main gear extended and the right main gear retracted,
was executed. There were no injuries or collateral damage but extensive work was required to
repair the structural damage to the aircraft.
The right main undercarriage up-lock latch activation rod had disconnected and it was thus
physically impossible to disengage the up-lock in-flight. The aircraft had been re-assembled over
a period of six years and the remote placement of the up-lock mechanism was such (impossible to
reach it) that the cockpit was installed before the dual check was carried out. The I-bolt
connecting the rod and lock was not properly screwed into the rod and with time (repeated
cycling), disengaged due to wear. Once again, following the write-off of the SAAF Museum’s only
airworthy Spitfire, South African media and aviation magazines covered the emotive and
contentious issue of flying ‘one off’ vintage warbirds at displays and flypasts.
The ‘pilot’ fired up each of the four tiny little two-stroke engines, one at a time, using their
electric starters - no pull-cords for this thing. Without further ado, he climbed on, strapped in and
revved it up without the need to warm it up much - a thousand angry hornets? There were lots of
spectators around and it obviously drew a large crowd. The H-4 pilot seemed to have a pretty
good command of his little ship. Lifting-off to a high hover, estimated at 20 feet or so, he moved
up and down the flight line in a fairly stable and controllable manner.
After a short time, the pilot returned to ‘show-centre’ just south of the tower, but he came to
a lower hover this time. His camera crew that had been getting reaction shots of the crowd and
were now busy setting up their tripod to film him, but they were not pointing the camera in his
direction. The pilot was looking to the left, perhaps for his crew when suddenly, for no apparent
reason, he pushed forward rather sharply on the T-bar control stick which put the aircraft in a
rather extreme nose-up attitude. A spectator remarked: “He’s too low to be doing that!” Sure
enough, as expected, the craft started to settle.
In response, the pilot reacted by getting into a classic case of pilot induced pitching
oscillations (PIO). During the second or third excursion, the rear support stanchions hit the ground
and collapsed. Everyone thought it was all over at that point, but the pilot must have applied full
throttle because the craft recovered and staggered, wobbling back into the air, but not for long.
The pilot, over-saturated with high information rate cues, just couldn’t keep or get the craft under
control and it quickly rolled beyond the point-of-no-return and fell over on its side. By now, the
spectators were ducking for cover with parts and pieces flying around, thankfully in the opposite
direction from the crowd.
People rushed to the pilot’s aid and as he stood up, the crowd, quite ironically, erupted in
applause. The requirement for such a device, strap-on helicopter, rocket backpack, etc, is a
strange one. However much we would all like to fly like Superman, one simply cannot envision
CEO’s in their three-piece Armani suits zipping off to work in their Gen H-4’s, yet people persevere
in trying to perfect them. (Internet)
Canada’s Snowbirds demonstration team suspended all flights while investigators
evaluated why one of the team’s Canadair CT-114 Tutor trainers suffered a collapse of part of its
right main undercarriage during a practice formation landing. The pilot escaped injury as he
landed the aircraft. The team was nearing the end of its annual two-week practice session at
Comox on Vancouver Island in British Columbia before beginning the 2001 airshow season during
which the Snowbirds were slated to fly in sixty-seven shows at forty-three different sites across
North America.
The last time a Snowbird suffered a landing gear collapse was in 1999, when a hard
landing collapsed a Tutor’s nose gear. In that instance, a mechanical fault was ruled out and
focus was shifted to unit procedures, including the relationship between first-year pilots and
veteran ‘counterparts’ assigned to each new Snowbird .
The aircraft was No.5 of a nine-plane formation landing after an on-field airshow practice.
During touchdown on runway 29, the No.5 aircraft was in the “slot” position of the nine-ship for the
landing, right at the back of the formation. The aircraft bounced on landing, becoming airborne
again but then quickly stalled back onto the runway, heavily. The right-hand main undercarriage
was forced upwards through the top surface of the right wing and collapsed while the nose wheel
also partially collapsed. The aircraft slid along the runway on the right-hand smoke tank, left-hand
main undercarriage and partially collapsed nose wheel before coming to a stop. The pilot shut the
engine down, turned off electrical equipment and egressed from the aircraft. The on-scenecommand-emergency-response (OSCER) vehicle and fire fighting vehicles arrived within
approximately two minutes and sprayed foam on the underside of the aircraft. An ambulance
arrived at the accident site after approximately eight minutes and took the pilot to the 19 Wing
The 15 Wing Commander initially terminated nine-ship formation landings until a formal risk
assessment to evaluate the risk versus benefit of a ‘9’ or ‘7’ and ‘2’ aircraft formation landing was
completed. Particularly emphasis was placed on including escape lanes in the event of a goaround. (RCAF Directorate of Flight Safety)
Chronic pilot fatigue and system’s failures were blamed for the Skyhawk crash which
claimed the life of Squadron Leader Murray Neilson, aged 37, Commanding Officer No 2
Squadron, Royal New Zealand Air Force. He crashed while practicing an aerobatic manoeuvre
over Nowra in Australia in preparation for the upcoming Avalon Airshow. The Air Force Court of
Inquiry found that there were no technical or mechanical problems with the Skyhawk. It did
however conclude that Squadron Leader Neilson was suffering from chronic fatigue and was
distracted in flight, leading him to perform a barrel roll from too low a height. In mitigation, it also
found that he was trying to do too much with too few resources at squadron level.
Squadron Leader Neilson was, however, credited with saving the life of his wingman by
warning him of the impending catastrophe. The manoeuvre involved the two aircraft flying one in
front of the other, simulating an aerial refuelling profile. He was the lead in a ‘plugged-bell roll’
manoeuvre at the time and he failed to recover from the pullout of the barrel roll. The aircraft burst
into flames on impact in a wooded area adjacent to HMAS Albatross, Australia.
A T-34 Mentor crashed during an airshow in the Korfez township of north-western Kocaeli
province near Istanbul, Turkey, killing the pilot and a passenger/photographer aboard the aircraft.
The T-34 Mentor, an earlier generation two-seat trainer, crashed onto railway tracks, injuring two
spectators amongst the 6,000 people watching a car rally near Izmit city, 100 kilometres (62 miles)
east of Istanbul. The car rally was postponed.
Pilot A. Aselim Kayacýk and Pilot Faruk Utku from Istanbul Civil Aviation Club, took off with
T-34A (TC-IHL) at Samandýra Aerodrome at 14.30 loca l time. Another T-34 (TC-IHK) departed
from the same aerodrome, joined up in formation and both aircraft then flew to the Korfez region.
After the formation made two passes over the Korfez Car Rally Track at 500 feet and during the
third fly past, one of the aircraft (TC-IHL) pulled up nearly vertically and at the apex of the pitch-up
point, commenced what appeared to be a stall-turn to the right. The aircraft entered a spin from
which the pilots could not recover the aircraft and then impacted the ground at a high angle and
very close the spectators alongside the railway line. Both pilots were killed and two women
working in a garden outside the racetrack area were injured, unfortunately one died the following
Ten policemen tried to find the remains of the L-29 Delfin jet which was piloted by former
Red Arrows pilot Ted Girdler, 63, from Kent. Ted Girdler was a highly experienced display pilot
with a total of 18,222 hours (of which 235 were on type) and in the last 90 days had flown 146
hours and the last 28 days, 46 hours. He was flying the aircraft 800m off the coast at Eastbourne
during the annual Airbourne 2000 show when it crashed. One of Mr Girdler’s sons was among the
thousands of horrified onlookers who witnessed the accident.
The policeman who led the search, said there had not been any signs of wreckage. “It
seems that the impact was so catastrophic that there may be no large sections of the plane left,”
he said, “but we still hope to be able to salvage parts of the cockpit and wings.” The divers could
only search for two hours because the Airbourne 2000 airshow resumed flying displays over the
sea. “We were unable to work below the airshow because of public safety,” he said. Later, after
pinpointing the wreckage, a strong tide delayed recovery attempts before the wreckage was
eventually recovered. Event display co-ordinator Jim Maitland said Mr Girdler was very highly
thought of. “He was very experienced and was responsible for checking out the pilots on this
particular aircraft,” he said, “he will be sorely missed by everyone who knew him in the display
Air accident investigators were puzzled why Mr Girdler was unable to pull up during what
should have been a “low risk diving roll”. No attempt at ejection was made by Mr Girdler and no
Mayday call was made. The aircraft was fitted with a modified MiG-15 ejection seat system,
activated by pulling a lever attached to the right armrest, however, the force required to initiate
ejection was considered excessive at 30 to 40 kg. Pilots flying the aircraft considered the system
unsuitable for use below 1,000 feet agl and 90 kts. The lifeboatman who recovered the pilot’s
body from the water, said it was a miracle that no one else was killed. “It was 200 or 300 yards
from three of the safety boats which were patrolling the area and we are all lucky to be alive,” he
said. “He was coming in at probably an angle of 45º and tried to pull up but belly-flopped into the
sea. He just didn’t have enough space.”
Investigators found no evidence of failure in the pilot’s health, aircraft integrity or
observance of limitations imposed by the authorities. Analysis of one of the many videos taken of
the catastrophe revealed that the first half of a half Cuban-eight, with one and a half aileron rolls at
a 45º-dive angle, was normal. The second half appeared normal but during the entry to the full
descending aileron roll, the nose of the aircraft pitched up slightly causing the aircraft to turn off the
intended roll axis. Then, when the aircraft rolled through the inverted, the nosed dropped to a near
vertical position and a high rate of descent developed. From this very steep nose down position,
the pilot rolled the wings level and then attempted to pull out of the dive. Condensation trails could
be seen from the wing tips as the wings were generating maximum lift, but there was insufficient
height in which to effect recovery. The impact with the water was in a 15° nose down attitude with
40º of left bank. Nearby rescue boats were over the site of the impact within thirty seconds and
located the pilot but he had suffered fatal injuries.
The pilot was known to have been meticulous regarding achieving predetermined ‘gate’
heights before commencing any manoeuvre. Video recordings showed that the time to pull up into
the final half of the Cuban from level flight was the same as on the other occasions so unless the
speed was considerably less, a similar height at the top should have been attained. Both of these
factors suggest that the pilot had sufficient height to carry out the manoeuvre he was attempting.
The AAIB discussion stated that it was usual practice to perform the half roll from the top of
the loop, hold the wings level attitude briefly, pitch the nose up positively by 10º to 15º, check that
the ‘gate’ height was 1,500 ft and then to enter the full aileron roll. On this occasion, however,
there was no hesitation before the full roll and no pitch-up seen until the roll started. This deviation
from his normal practice may indicate that there was a problem. A temporary loss of reference,
disorientation, disability or loose article in the cockpit, remained a probability and the subsequent
steep nose-down attitude resulted in an excessive height loss, which proved fatal. Whatever had
occurred, the pilot was nevertheless able to carry out a recovery from the dive to a wings level
attitude but with insufficient height to affect the recovery pullout, the aircraft crashed into the sea.
The pilot and radar intercept officer aboard a Grumman F-14 ‘Tomcat’ died when their F-14
crashed as horrified airshow spectators looked on. The aircraft was the second-to-last
performance at the annual Willow Grove 2000 “Sounds of Freedom” airshow. The fighter was
based at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, Va. The Navy identified the pilot as Lt.
William Joseph Dey, 30, of Hightstown, N. J., and Radar Intercept Officer Lt. David Erick
Bergstrom, 31, of Annandale, Va. Both men had more than 1,000 hours on the F-14; Dey was an
instructor pilot in the VF-101 fighter squadron.
The ‘Tomcat’ was demonstrating a landing ‘wave-off’ manoeuvre which was essentially a
go-around from the landing approach; approaching at slow speed to simulate a landing and then
circling for another attempt as if ‘waved-off’ from the first. Having selected go-around power, the
aircraft rolled inverted and then appeared to regain stable flight transiently for a couple of seconds,
rolled right side up then rolled into a 90º bank nose-level turn and started pulling hard. The nose
pitched down sharply while still in a steep bank before the aircraft rolled to a nearly wings-level
attitude but with insufficient height to effect a safe pullout.
A witness in the crowd said that he was watching as the aircraft turned, faltered, and sank
toward the trees. “When he got below the trees, you could tell he was in trouble. It looked like it
fell out of the air,” he said. “It was only a second, and then there was smoke and a huge fireball.”
Although the aircraft sent flames and smoke billowing from a wooded area at the end of the
runway, no public or spectator injuries were reported and no structures were damaged. Three
emergency personnel, however, including a military fire-fighter, were treated for injuries at the
crash scene.
An aviation photographer at the airshow reported that it may be hard to believe, but he was
only about 200 feet from the crash site. From what he saw, the F-14 lost its left engine while
directly overhead, the pilot had selected full throttle on the right engine going into afterburner but
by this time, he was already hitting trees and then nosed in. “I have to tell you that this is one the
most upsetting things I have witnessed in my sixteen years of aviation photography,” he said. “I
know he was fighting the jet from hitting houses. Another idea of how close he was to me, my wife
and brother-in-law were waving at the back seater as they went directly overhead inverted. But
through my lens I saw the back seater with both hands on the canopy and looking down at us. I
feel so bad for the families of the crew”.
Another eyewitness reported that: “It appeared to me at first the he didn’t flame-out but
rather, lost control. “Before that, and after he lifted his gear, he banked to the right and went
inverted, right there I knew he was gone. Apparently going inverted was a part of the routine.”
And still another witness reported: “The pilot approached the runway for a simulated landing and it
looked fine,” he said, “the jet was then waved-off as planned and turned to the right. At that point,
the plane appeared to lose control and crashed into a wooded field near a residential area”. “The
jet dove into a grove of trees, you could see a huge fireball and smoke”, he said. “I took a picture
of it as it came over me and two seconds later, it crashed. It was unbelievable.”
The crash forced some residents from their homes and the Red Cross set up a temporary
shelter for those residents while authorities investigated the crash. Comment from one of the
shocked spectators: “Hard to believe that the high cost in lives and aircraft is worth the
‘entertainment’ value of such military taxpayer funded airshows”. It was the second fatal crash of a
military aircraft at an airshow in three months. On 19 March 2001, an Air Force F-16 fighter
crashed while performing manoeuvres as part of an airshow near Kingsville Naval Air Station in
Texas, killing the pilot.
In Russia on 17 July 2001, a similar accident occurred in which a Russian navy pilot died
after his Su-33 fighter jet crashed at an airshow marking Navy Aviation Day. Major General Timur
Apakidze, deputy commander of Navy Aviation, died on his way to hospital, fifteen minutes after
being dragged from the wreckage of the Su-33 near the north western city of Pskov. Apakidze,
held the Hero of Russia order, the country’s highest honour for his achievements in aviation. The
aircraft reportedly lost altitude after performing a series of aerobatics and was setting up a
simulated carrier landing when a high rate of descent ended in impact with the ground, the Interfax
news agency correspondent at the air show reported.
The Slovak Biele Albatrosy (White Albatross) team lost their number 3 pilot, Major Luboš
Novák, in an accident during a performance at Sliac Military airport in Slovakia.
The civilian “ French Connection” team of husband and wife Daniel Heligoin (69 years) and
Montaine Mallet (52 years) were both tragically killed as a result of a mid-air collision between their
two Mudry CAP 10 aircraft while filming a promotional tape for their airshow act. The two Avions
Mudry CAP-10B’s, registered to and operated by “French Connection Airshows, Inc.” as a Title 14
CFR Part 91 formation airshow practice flight, crashed at the Flagler County Airport, Bunnell,
Florida. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed. Both aircraft were destroyed and the CFIrated lead pilot and commercially-rated wingman, sustained fatal injuries.
The formation flight departed about fifteen minutes before the accident. According to
eyewitnesses and examination of a video-tape of the flight, the team had performed a formation
hammerhead stall that terminated with the wingman rolling 180º while the team was in their nosedown vertical recovery from the hammer-head stall. Going essentially belly-to-belly, an immediate
pull-out resulted in a formation split into flight paths 180º apart. The accident occurred on the
second attempt of the same manoeuvre after the wingman accidentally rolled into the formation.
Heligoin and Mallet had both completed the hammerhead portion of their routine and
started on the downline when Mallet’s right wing hit the trailing edge of Heligoin’s left wing at a
height of approximately 500 ft. In reviewing the video tape, it appeared that Heligoin drifted into
Mallet’s flight path and since Heligoin was lower than Mallet, Mallet may have been unable to see
Heligoin. There was no apparent attempt to bail out and both aircraft impacted the ground nose
first, a couple of hundred feet apart. There was no fire and no one on the ground was injured.
Another witness reported that she saw the wing of one aircraft hit the other. “At first I just thought
it was some trick where one aircraft goes around the other,” she said. “There was no explosion,
just pieces.” (NTSB ID: MIA00FA172A).
Heligoin started performing in the United States in the CAP 10 in 1974 to market the
aircraft for Avions Mudry of France, and teamed up with Mallet shortly thereafter. The French
Connection gained great repute for their ‘mirror image’ manoeuvre in which one aircraft would fly
straight and level with the other aircraft inverted directly above it, canopy to canopy. Their dual
routine was considered a headline act. Heligoin and Mallet received the “Bill Barber Award For
Showmanship” in 1987, sponsored by World Airshow News and served on the award’s selection
committee ever since. They were also past recipients of the “Art Scholl Memorial Showmanship
“Wild Bill” Marcellus suffered a ‘too-close encounter’ with the ground at the Barksdale AFB
Base, Louisiana Airshow on 26 April 2001. Marcellus was nearing the end of a high-energy
routine when he hit the ground with enough force to bend the aircraft’s undercarriage. Flying at
nearly 200 mph about 30 feet off the ground, a bird apparently flew into the Edge 360’s propeller.
The aircraft hit the grass field and bounced back into the air before Marcellus was able to set it
down. Marcellus was hospitalised with two cracked vertebrae but was expected to be back in the
cockpit - the Edge 360, though, would in all probability never fly again. (Avweb)
Engine failure due a combination of a slipped supercharger clutch plate and a hardened
carburettor diaphragm, was enough to force the only airworthy Spitfire of the South African Air
Force Museum to crash short of the runway at AFB Swartkops, South Africa. Flying in a loose
formation with another civilian owned Spitfire for the first high-speed fly past, station was
maintained until the lead aircraft commenced with a wingover to the right for a steep turn away
from the crowd; the aircraft only got back into position at ‘show centre’ as the leader called a turn
to the left. An eyewitnesses on the ground, an ex Spitfire pilot, noticed black smoke intermittently
appearing from the right exhaust but he was not near a radio and started to run towards the control
tower 120 metres away.
Half way through the turn, the wingman was again struggling to keep up and required more
than usual throttle to maintain 8-psi boost. The exhausts spat out increasing lengths of black
smoke (indicative of an over rich mixture) and as the formation passed crowd centre for the
second time, they pulled up for the wingover to the right. The wingman once again fell behind and
as the formation passed through 600 - 700 feet agl, the first indication of an impending engine
failure was the sudden loss of power manifested by a rapid nose drop below the horizon and the
pull-away by the lead aircraft. The pilot, Lt Col Neill Thomas managed to get the aircraft turned
around to land on the active runway, but not before expending valuable time in having to manually
pump the undercarriage down. The aircraft had only been fitted with a manual emergency
undercarriage extension capability.
Landing short of the runway, the aircraft impacted the ground tail first with a nose-up
attitude of approximately 18º. The tail hit a large rock before it broke off, slewing the aircraft
slightly to the right. At this point the nose impacted the eight-foot high concrete security wall,
collapsing the wall as the aircraft burst through the wall coming to a rest 45 feet from the point of
initial impact, the pilot suffered minor injuries only. Needless to say, the criticism of the SAAF
Museum by the veterans and general public for flying rare, airworthy museum aircraft, was
vociferous. (This accident is addressed in more detail in Chapter 4)
Six minutes into the display, the pilot of an F-16 had insufficient altitude and excessive
airspeed which prevented him from completing a ‘Split-S’ during an aerial demonstration at the
Kingsville Naval Air Station, Texas, Airshow 2000. The pilot, Maj. Brison Phillips, 35, a member of
the 78th Fighter Squadron and the commander of the 9th Air Force F-16 Demonstration Team of
Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., was killed in the accident. According to the accident report, Maj
Phillips was a highly experienced pilot with more than 1,898 hours on the F-16 and 130 combat
missions. He was highly qualified and an excellent pilot and instructor who had demonstrated
exceptional maturity and professionalism. He was current and qualified in all areas of the display
The aircraft exploded, scattering debris for a half-mile in a field about six miles north of the
naval base with no collateral damage to infrastructure. A Corpus Christi resident saw the aircraft
hit the ground. “There was a bright, red and orange fireball,” he said. “You could hear it and feel
the shock of the concussion, it felt like someone hitting you in the chest.” The rest of the airshow,
which was to include a performance by the Navy’s Blue Angels , was cancelled.
Accident investigators concluded that the pilot focused too much attention on ground
references, leading him to begin the ‘Split-S’ from an altitude at which it could not be safely
completed. Strong winds and a complex and unfamiliar ground environment were likely
contributory factors, according to the Accident Investigation Board report. Strong winds required
the pilot to adjust parameters to prevent being shifted away from the show line and investigators
believed it may have been difficult for him to remain oriented to the show line at the Kingsville
airfield with its multiple crossing runways. These factors contributed to the pilot’s intense focus on
ground references and his failure to adequately monitor his altitude before beginning the Split-S,
investigating officials concluded.
A crash at a California airshow killed the pilot of a Pitts S-1 aerobatic biplane, Mark
Madden of La Mesa, California. The aircraft crashed and exploded during the Pomona Valley Air
Fair in Upland, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles as more than three thousand spectators had
arrived to watch skydivers, aerobatic performers, helicopters and World War II-era aircraft
celebrate the show’s 25 th anniversary. This was the first accident to occur during the twenty-five
years of the airshow, an event sponsored by the Pomona Valley Pilots Association and the
Experimental Aircraft Association.
The Pitts was doing a series of snap rolls on a 45º downline, recovered wings level, but hit
the ground and exploded about one-half mile north of the airport. No one on the ground was
injured when the aircraft went down. This was one of many accidents involving downline multiple
snaps; there are several in NTSB reports and this accident was similar to an accident a few years
ago involving double snaps into a landing. Unfortunately, the NTSB reports on most of these
categories of accidents are ineffectual to learn from i.e. “Pilot failed to recover”, etc. No analysis
is presented and as a teaching tool, is not as insightful as they should be.
So, what is it about a downline snap that gets away from some highly experienced pilots?
Well, the amount of energy lost is highly dependent on small changes in technique and
unfortunately pilots let their energy budget get to close to the edge during an airshow.
In what was the precision flying team’s first fatality in more than fourteen years, the Blue
Angels suffered a tragic accident which claimed the lives of two of their pilots during a training
flight on 28 October 1999. An F/A-18 from the Navy’s Blue Angels precision flying team crashed
while making a routine pre-show survey flight and planning manoeuvres in preparation for the
airshow over the coming weekend. The Blue Angels were scheduled to perform two shows that
weekend during the Moody Air Force Base Community Appreciation Day, but the airshow was
cancelled because of the crash.
The $32 million F/A-18 hit a stand of pines on a farm just north of Moody Air Force Base.
Cmdr. Patrick Driscoll, flight leader of the Blue Angels
, identified the dead pilots as Lt. Cmdr.
Kieron O’Connor, 35, of Burtonsville, Md., and Lt. Kevin Colling, 32, of Castle Rock, Colo. “I had
the privilege of flying with both these pilots in the fleet,” Driscoll said. “They were two of the best
naval aviators I know. This is a tragic loss to the families, to the Blue Angels and the U.S. Navy.”
Driscoll said the aircraft were not flying in close formation but were circling, practicing
positioning and run-in procedures as the pilots familiarized themselves with the terrain; they were
in the vicinity of each other, but not as close as they usually fly when flying displays. The crash
came during a low turn over a field of pine trees while O’Connor and Colling were scouting the
physical landmarks that would guide their performance. After the mishap, the team cancelled its
appearances at Moody AFB and at the ‘Jacksonville Air and Sea Spectacular’, which took place
the following weekend. The team did, however, perform at its final scheduled show of the 1999
season, a late November homecoming show in Pensacola.
A witness of Douglas said she saw the team fly over a grocery store where she was
shopping. “They came over in a beautiful formation. I think there were six of them,” she said. “It
was probably a half an hour later that we saw the smoke. I didn’t hear a crash or anything.
Someone said they must be burning garbage, then a little while later the fire trucks came by.”
Witnesses saw a fireball when the aircraft struck the ground in woodland near Valdosta but there
were no reports of parachutes being seen.
A 55-year-old farmer was eating lunch at his home about a half-mile from the crash site
when he heard a noise he thought might have been a sonic boom. “I thought maybe one got a little
fast and went through the sound barrier,” he said. “About five or ten minutes later, I went out back
and smelled smoke, it had set the woods on fire.” Authorities closed off the crash site, keeping
reporters and the public about two-thirds of a mile away.
Brig. Gen. Gene Renuart, commander of the 347 th Wing at Moody said: “This is the Navy’s
premier flying team, a team that performs to the amazement and pleasure of crowds all over the
United States, and you can be sure the Navy will do whatever it can to make sure that this team is
at the very top of its ability to fly.” Renuart said that even the most routine flights have an element
of risk. “Anytime you put an aircraft in the air, it’s hazardous,” he said. The Navy had recently
announced that fiscal 1999, which had ended the previous month, was one of its safest flight years
ever with only nine ‘Class A’ accidents and six fatalities. Class A accidents involve either a fatality,
the loss of an aircraft or more than $1 million in damages.
In 1992, more than one million people watched the Blue Angel’s
performances during a 30day European deployment to Sweden, Finland, Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Italy, Britain and
Spain. For the year 1999, the team had sixty-eight airshows scheduled at thirty-six locations in the
United States and Canada; an estimated 10 to 15 million people watch the team each year.
The Blue Angels fly to numerous locations world-wide to perform each year and flew their
first flight demonstration in June 1946, less than a year after Adm. Chester
W. Nimitz, then the
chief of naval operations, ordered the group’s formation to keep the public interested in naval
aviation. Since the Blue Angels were formed in 1946, the group had performed for more than 322
million people. Including the current deaths, 23 Blue Angels pilots had been killed in airshows or
during airshow training.
O’Connor, who was riding in the back of the jet, joined the Blue Angels in September 1998
and as an active team flyer a year later. O’Conner, had extensive flying experience with more
than 2,000 flight hours and 295 carrier landings and was completing his first year as a Blue Angel .
Lt. Colling was finishing his first month with the squadron and was scheduled to be one of the new
pilots the following year. Navy officials confirmed that O’Connor was piloting the aircraft which
was not flying in tight formation or executing any of the squadron’s manoeuvres at the time, a
Navy spokesmen said, “he was in ‘loose cruise’ formation at the time of the crash. The aircraft
was reportedly the No.7 aircraft, which was the Blue Angels ’ only two-seat version of the F/A-18
Wayne Handley crashed in his Turbo Raven at the California International Airshow in
Salinas; he had just begun his performance, a loop on take-off back to a landing when his Turbo
Raven hit hard, belly first, on the tarmac, breaking-off the aircraft’s landing gear and causing
significant damage to the aircraft.
The pilot was performing a one-minute aerial sequence, which began and literally ended at
the same spot on the runway. The propeller had a Beta range operating capability and was
reversible to produce zero or negative thrust. Near the completion of the manoeuvre, the pilot
established a descent angle of approximately 50º to 60º. After going into Beta reverse range, the
pilot brought the propeller into flight idle as he descended through about 800 feet agl. The pilot
said he moved the thrust lever forward to achieve 85 to 90 knots but the engine did not spool up;
he believed it might have flamed out. He maintained a nose down attitude with airspeed on the
verge of a stall and was able to briefly maintain a minimum sink rate, which increased just prior to
Examination of the engine revealed signatures consistent with operation in the mid to high
power range at impact and there were no indications of any anomalies or discrepancies that would
have precluded normal engine operation. Examination of the propeller revealed internal witness
marks consistent with the blades being in the normal operating range at the time of impact. The
National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause(s) of this accident as the
pilot’s failure to maintain an adequate airspeed while manoeuvring, which led to a stall/mush
A spectator at the show remarked: “I just saw him fly at Stockton - I believe he used all of
Newton’s laws of physics during this demonstration. It was awesome to see a full size plane do a
torque roll, then gradually descend perfectly on its tail, doing at least three or four aileron turns on
the way down”. Wayne Handley was a former Naval Aviator, aerobatic champion, ‘ag’ pilot and
aerobatic instructor and in his 43-year aviation career had amassed a phenomenal 25,000 hours
of manoeuvring time. His aerobatic ability had earned him the title of California Unlimited
Aerobatic Champion, not once, but three times. In 1989 he became the world record holder for
inverted flat spins, having completed 67 consecutive turns and in April 1999 flying a G-202, he
increased the world record for inverted flat spins to a phenomenal 78 turns. In 1996 he was
presented the Bill Barber Award for Showmanship and in 1997 the Art Scholl Memorial
Showmanship Award, two of the most prestigious awards in the airshow industry.
Rescue personnel from the show responded to the accident quickly and within a few
minutes reported that Handley was conscious and moving in the cockpit. He was taken to the
Salinas Memorial Hospital where he underwent exploratory surgery to determine the exact nature
of his injuries. According to reliable reports, Handley suffered two cracked back vertebrae and
severe pain in his lower back, but fortunately no permanent spinal cord injuries.
The Oracle Turbo Raven, powered by a 750 HP Pratt & Whitney PT6A-25C, was the first
airshow aircraft to have a positive thrust to weight ratio and at a performance weight of 1,900
pounds, and with 2,800 pounds of thrust, the Turbo Raven could climb straight up, stop in the
vertical, and then accelerate straight up again. The Oracle Turbo Raven, due to its extremely high
Shaft Horsepower/Weight ratio, is reportedly able to power itself out of a flat spin without lowering
the nose below the horizon.
Two aircraft of the Lima-Lima flight team collided above rural Oswego, Illinois, USA during
a formation practice session killing the pilot, Keith Evans in the accident. The Beech D-45 was
destroyed on impact with the ground after a midair collision with a Beech T-34 during a practice
manoeuvre. Lima Lima is the only six-ship civilian aerobatic team in the world.
Both aircraft departed in sequence from a 6-ship delta formation to perform a manoeuvre
called a ‘pop-top’ break. The ‘pop-top’ break involved each aircraft splitting from the formation in
sequence by entering a climbing 180º turn to follow the lead aircraft in trail. A videotape of the
accident flight showed a delayed entry into the turn by the D-45 relative to the T-34’s entry into the
manoeuvre. The pilot of the T-34 stated that he did not see the D-45 prior to the midair collision.
The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause(s) of this
accident as the visual lookout not obtained by the pilot of the Beech T-34 due to the narrow visual
field of the human eye which is approximately 10º-15º. In addition, inadequate procedures by the
Lima-Lima Flying Squadron to deal with ‘lost visual contact’ between formation members and the
delayed entry into the manoeuvre by the pilot of the Beech D-45, were listed as contributing
factors. (NTSB Identification: CHI00FA003A)
The Reno Air Races experienced every man’s dread in the Unlimited Race 3A when Race
38, Miss Ashley II, flown by former furniture tycoon Gary Levitz, lost a wing in the first turn past the
start-finish line and disappeared over the hill into Lemon Valley. The race continued and Tiger
Destefani lead all six laps to win over Bruce Lockwood in Dago Red. The pilot did not survive the
accident and no other injuries occurred to the crowd of nearly 30,000 that stood around in shocked
disbelief at what they had seen.
Two eye witnesses who ran a perpetual yard sale and flea market on the south side of the
Lemon Valley reported that the left wing and parts of the tail were separated from the home built
P-51 before it hit the ground in a huge fireball, less than a mile from the crash site of the last two
race aircraft crashes, The Red Baron RB-51 in 1979 and Precious Metal , a P-51 flown by one of
the Whittington brothers in the early 1990’s.
Levitz’s aircraft hit the ground, slid across a roadway, went through a barn and knocked the
back end from a truck camper being worked on by a local resident who miraculously, was not
injured. The right wing fluttered upward and landed among houses while the remains of the
fuselage and engine went about two blocks further on and came to rest a few feet from a
manufactured home, the residents of which proceeded out and sprayed water on the wreckage
with a garden hose. Reno race officials cancelled the performance of the USAF Thunderbirds
Aerobatic Team.
A Cessna L-19 Birddog and a Cessna O-2 Skymaster collided in mid-air during an airshow
in North Hampton, Massachusetts, USA, killing both pilots.
A SAAB JAS 39 ‘Gripen’ crashed on Sunday, 8 August 1999 during an air display over
central Stockholm. The aircraft was flying straight and level at low altitude and moderate airspeed
when it suddenly began a gentle rocking motion in roll, then the nose pitched up rapidly, passing
the vertical in a manoeuvre resembling ‘Pugachev’s Cobra’. When the aircraft had pitched up well
past the vertical to approximately 120º, the pilot ejected and landed unhurt while the now pilotless
aircraft, after some further transient manoeuvres, settled into a vertical descent in about a level
The aircraft did not break up in the air and struck a small hill on an island (Laangholmen),
exploding on impact, only tens of metres from a major bridge packed with spectators.
Miraculously no one on the ground was killed and there was no significant collateral damage on
the ground.. The pilot was unhurt but three people suffered minor burns, while one sprained an
ankle running away from the crash scene.
The JAS39 is a statically unstable aircraft controlled through a “fly-by-wire” (FBW) control
system with triple redundant computers. The FBW system was immediately suspected as the
reason for the crash since the behaviour of the aircraft was typically that which would be expected
after a major failure of the FBW system. A spectator listening on the radio frequency used by the
aircraft during the display, claimed that immediately before control was lost, the pilot reported that
a circuit breaker had tripped. The aircraft that crashed was the first one to be delivered to the
Swedish Air Force and was flown by the same SAAB display pilot that flew the first accident
aircraft. (Lars-Henrik Eriksson, Swedish Institute of Computer Science)
The holding point was crowded with vintage WWII fighters and a group of Mustangs had
just taken off. The two F-4U Corsairs were holding at the beginning of the runway while the two F8F Bearcats further down the runway were rolling for take-off; the F-8F’s suddenly rejected the
take-off and came to a stop together, one either side of the runway centreline. The spectators
were unaware as to why they had aborted the take-off except that it was stiflingly hot and maybe
something was wrong with their engines since they had held for an extended period with the
engines idling.
With the two Bearcats holding on each side of the runway centreline 1,400 feet farther
down runway 18, when for an unknown reason the two waiting Corsairs suddenly both advanced
to take-off power and began their takeoff roll. A spectator remarked to his girlfriend who was
standing beside him that this didn’t look good as he could not see how the Corsairs could pass by
the Bearcats. The thought did pass his mind that perhaps his sight angle was creating a parallax
error and maybe there was more room than there seemed. Well, there wasn’t.
Both Corsairs were just about to get airborne when they reached the stationary Bearcats.
It looked like the tail on the lead Corsair came up just an instant prior to impact, the left main
undercarriage took off about three-quarters of the right wing of the Bearcat spinning the Bearcat
around on the runway while the Corsair continued on. It appeared that the wheels of the Corsair
five feet off the runway, the left wing came down, scraped, came back up a bit and then the aircraft
began a roll to the left while still pointed straight down the runway. This time the wing began to
crumple, broke off and the aircraft cartwheeled with the engine being torn off as it hit, starting a fire
at this time. It then appeared as if the right wing broke off and the cockpit section was thrown
clear from the crash.
The second Corsair pilot took evasive action and ended up with damage to the end of one
wing but managed to get the aircraft under control in the face of a pretty stiff crosswind from the
right that prevailed at the time of the crash. There was obviously some form of communication
failure or confusion for the Corsairs to attempt to take-off when the runway wasn’t yet clear. The
F4U/FG1’s Corsairs lack of visibility over the nose is notoriously well known to its pilots, there is
almost no forward view from a Corsair until the tail is raised.
The NTSB said it would look closely at aircraft communication procedures in use at the time of the
formation take-off that ended with the spectacular crash. NTSB investigator Dave Bowling of the
NTSB’s Chicago office, confirmed that Laird Doctor’s, Corsair had just become airborne when it
struck the right wing of the Bearcat being flown by flight leader Howard Pardue, of Breckinridge,
Texas, severing the outboard eleven feet of the Corsair’s right wing. The Corsair then cartwheeled
off the left side of the runway before bursting into flames and breaking apart. Doctor was thrown
from the burning portion of the wreckage, which
probably helped him survive. After being rushed to
a Milwaukee hospital in critical condition, Doctor’s
condition was upgraded to critical but stable.
The aircraft involved in the collision were part of a
four-plane flight that was to begin with tandem
takeoffs of the two Bearcats and then the two
Corsairs. Bowling explained that the warbird flights
at AirVenture were under the control of an airboss
from the Warbird Association. In effect, the
Oshkosh tower turned control of Wittman airfield
over to the airboss, who coordinated
communications and sequenced the warbirds
participating in the airshow. Although the airboss
was not a certified air traffic controller, this system
of handling warbird flights had been used
successfully for years at Oshkosh and other
airshows, according to Bowling. Bowling said the
poor forward visibility of the Corsairs would have
made it difficult for them to see the stationary
Bearcats on the runway and added that preliminary
data indicated that none of the four aircraft in the
flight had suffered any mechanical failures prior to
the accident.
The other Corsair, flown by Jim Reed, managed to
just avoid the two Bearcats, one piloted by Pardue
and the other by Tom Wood, but still suffered some
left wingtip damage while banking away at the last
The twin-seat Sukhoi Su-30MK attempted to
second. The FAA was monitoring the airboss
communication’s channel at the time of the mishap pull out of a descent that had included three
and had an audiotape that the NTSB would review. ‘high alpha’ downline rolls using vectored
A crucial part of the investigation was Bowling’s
interviews with the pilots and airboss about their
taxi, takeoff and formation flight procedures, which
were thoroughly discussed before each airshow.
Entrepreneur and inventor, Steve Snyder, 64, the owner of South Jersey Regional Airport,
Lumberton Township, New Jersey, USA, was killed in the crash of his F-86E Sabre Mk.6. He was
flying a display for the Bonanza Society and impacted the ground during a low speed fly past.
Steve Snyder, owned both the accident aircraft and also the airport and was also president of the
Air Victory Museum, based at Vay, which owned the F-86. Visual meteorological conditions
prevailed for the personal flight conducted under Title 14 CFR Part 91.
Reports indicated that the Korean war-era swept-wing jet went out of control after a lowspeed, low-altitude pass down the airport’s single runway. A witness, standing approximately
2,000 feet from the accident site, watched the aircraft take-off and perform several manoeuvres
before flying a ‘slow’ high alpha pass to the west at approximately 200 feet agl. As the aircraft
passed in front of the witness, it slowed, and started to sink. The aircraft’s pitch attitude increased,
and the witness heard an increase in power, followed by a bang, described as consistent with a
‘compressor stall.’
Examination of photographs taken of the accident sequence, showed the aircraft’s landing
gear extended, speed-brakes deployed and flaps down, the landing configuration that would
typically be used for the high angle of attack pass. In the first photograph, the aircraft was
approximately 15º nose-up and wings level. In the second photograph, the aircraft was
approximately 30 feet agl, at approximately 90º right bank and about 10º nose-down. In the third
photograph, the right wing and nose of the aircraft had impacted the ground in an approximately
120º right-banked attitude.
Surely one of the most spectacular airshow crashes, the prototype Sukhoi SU-30 MK, Blue
01 crashed at the 1999 Paris Airshow, the third Russian aircraft to crash at the show since 1973.
Previously, the TU-144 crashed in 1973 and in 1989, a MiG-29. The twin-seat Sukhoi Su-30MK
attempted to pull out of a descent that had included three ‘high alpha’ downline rolls using
vectored thrust. The pilot, short of the proverbial ‘50 ft extra’ tried to recover by using full power
and thrust vectoring, but the aircraft jet pipe clipped the ground at a pitch angle of approximately
15º with virtually zero roll and almost zero forward speed. As it struggled away from the ground,
the left engine caught fire and test pilot Viacheslav Averyanov and navigator Vladimir Shendrikh
initiated the ejection sequence, employing the now well-demonstrated Zvezda K-36D seats at
approximately 200 feet.
At a press briefing the following day, Sukhoi general director, Mikhail Simonov, said
preliminary analysis showed no technical failure. He made no mention of “pilot error,” although he
had previously used that term to describe the probable cause of the accident. Simonov attributed
the mishap to a late decision by show organizers to shorten the display from eight to six minutes,
forcing the pilots to cut several manoeuvres and redesign the sequence. Sukhoi officials claimed
that the changes had made it necessary to modify the initial flight parameters in a number of
manoeuvres, causing the duration of recoveries to be lengthened, with a loss of altitude and
change in exit direction that were “difficult to predict.”
Sukhoi said the original programme had been extensively rehearsed on a simulator, in a
Su-31 aerobatic aircraft and on the Su-30MK. The programme was signed off by Simonov himself
seven days before the aircraft arrived in Paris. On arrival in Paris, the crew made three training
flights with the shortened programme, for show clearance. They added that chief pilot Viacheslav
Averyanov was one of Sukhoi’s leading test pilots, having participated in flight test programmes for
the Su-27K Su-35 and the Su-30MK, which he had flown 140 times since its first test flight.
At the press conference, Averyanov explained that during the manoeuvre, he suddenly
realized, apparently bothered by the sun, that he was flying too close to the safety perimeter and
nearby houses. He said their sense of altitude was affected by “how the area was lit by the Sun.”
He yanked the aircraft sharply and attempted to recover from the descent with full power and
thrust-vectoring control but the aircraft’s port engine struck the ground and caught fire.
Averyanov said he tried until the very last moment to save the aircraft, “the aircraft was
controllable to the last,” he said, “it showed wonderful performance, which allowed us to reduce
our descent to a minimum. I was not disappointed in any way with its response.” Airshow
Commissioner, General Edmond Marchegay lauded the pilots for recovering the aircraft and
avoiding a catastrophe. However, he noted that flight routines are commonly changed at the last
minute, and that the Russian crew had agreed to the changes requested. “If they agreed to the
changes, that meant they thought they posed no particular problem.” The modified routine had
already been flown three times before the mishap and had been approved by the Flying Control
Marchegay added that the French armaments agency, DGA, would investigate the incident
to determine whether the pilots were flying outside the allowed safety envelope. Western pilots
interviewed by Aviation Week & Space Technology indicated that the pilots were flying too low and
had “clearly misjudged the descent.”
The accident was an embarrassment for Sukhoi, which had been stealing the show at
exhibits around the world with the super-manoeuvrable Su-30 that utilised thrust-vector control to
complete aerobatic manoeuvres that no other fighter could match. However, officials brushed off
suggestions that it might hamper foreign arms sales, in particular the sale of 50 Su-30MKIs, based
on the Su-30MK, to India.
In a Reuters report on 13 June 99, the pilot of the Sukhoi-30 apologised saying he
accepted the blame after attempting an ambitious aerial manoeuvre. “Sorry, I did one too many
revolutions in a flat corkscrew and I couldn’t pull her out. I didn’t have the altitude to get the plane
out of the manoeuvre,” Averyanov was quoted as saying. Mikhail Simonov, who designed the
aircraft, told Tass that he had no hard feelings towards Averyanov “who owned up to his mistake in
piloting the aircraft”. From an analysis of the data taken from the flight recorder, the aircraft
systems performed as advertised to the last. Even after the aircraft first clipped the ground and
maintained contact with the surface for about 100 yards, the aircraft responded to the controls and
the engines functioned properly. This allowed the pilot to execute a steep climb after touching the
ground in order to guarantee safe ejection. If it were an ordinary aircraft without a thrust vectoring
system, it would have dropped its nose during contact with the surface and flown into the ground.
Amazingly the aircraft did not explode, neither during the moment when it first clipped the ground
or when it impacted the ground after the pilots had ejected. Thus, Simonov concluded, putting
aside the sad feelings about the loss of the valuable aircraft, the accident should be considered
not just as a loss, but also as a source of unique information for analysis on aircraft behaviour in
critical situations. Such information could not have been acquired by any other means, Simonov
A civil registered British Aerospace Hawk 200 demonstration aircraft crashed while
participating in the SIAD ‘99 air display at the Milan Rastislav Stefanik airport, Bratislava, Slovakia.
The Hawk 200 had been sent there to demonstrate alongside the Yakolev-130D and the
Aerovodochody L-159, all possible contenders for the future Slovak acquisition of a light multi-role
type aircraft. The highly experienced BAE Systems demonstration pilot, Mr Gordon Wardell, who
had been the first RAF exchange pilot to qualify on the F-117A, was killed instantly.
The crash occurred at around 1.00 p.m. towards the end of a superb display, the pilot did
not, or was not able to recover from a steep angled end of a barrel-roll and crashed into the
runway. The aircraft exploded and slid along the runway end and over the perimeter-fence, where
it killed a woman and injured four members of the public standing outside the airfield. The
reported cause of the crash was “controlled flight into the ground” with G-LOC suggested as a
possible contributory cause.
An Australian vintage aircraft Wirraway trainer (Australian manufactured Harvard T-6) was
taking part in the Australia Naval Aviation Museum airshow in the New South Wales coastal town
of Nowra when it crashed near the Naval Base HMAS Albatross, killing both occupants.
The pilot and his passenger died when the single-engine 1950s vintage Wirraway crashed
just metres from the runway. They were doing handling displays when the aircraft departed and
auto-rotated into a spin. A Naval spokesman said fifteen vintage aircraft were taking part in the
airshow, watched by two to three thousand people. Witnesses described the accident as a control
problem: “the aircraft was heading for the ground in a steep dive while yawing all over the place, at
about 50 ft above ground level, it flipped over and hit the ground upside down”.
The USAF Thunderbirds were temporarily grounded following an incident in which two of
their F-16C’s touched in mid-air. The incident occurred at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida during
the Air and Space Expo ‘99. As the team began their aerial demonstration, the left horizontal
stabilizer of the No.3 jet reportedly touched the right wing of the No.4 aircraft. The result to each
airframe was minor damage, said to be “paint chipping and bent metal”.
The display was immediately cancelled and all the aircraft landed safely with no injuries to
anyone. In fact, it was reported that the public didn’t even realise anything was wrong until
ambulances rushed to the runway as the team landed. The team’s spokesman, 1
Lt. Guy
Hunneyman, said it’s the only time he could remember the team having to cancel a show after
such a mishap. The two pilots involved were Maj. Russell Mack and Maj. Scott Bowen, who had a
combined total of 4,200 flying hours between them.
The Thunderbirds returned to their home at Nellis A.F.B. Nevada, to begin an investigation
into the mishap. The following statement was then released on 29 April 1999: “The Commander of
the Air Force’s Air Warfare Center has suspended, until further notice, the 1999 U.S. Air Force
Thunderbirds aerial demonstration show schedule. The suspension was made April 28. Maj.
Gen. Glen Moorhead made the decision after reviewing circumstances surrounding an incident
during an airshow April 25 at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla. “Safety is our No. 1 concern,” Moorhead
said. “We have a responsibility to both the public and the team after an incident like this to step
back and take a hard look at our practices and procedures.”
“No one understands the importance of the Thunderbirds mission more than the men and
women of Nellis Air Force Base and the people of the Las Vegas Valley,” he added. “The Nellis
airshow is our way of thanking these same people for their support. It would be inappropriate for
Nellis to have the 1999 airshow without the Thunderbirds, so we will wait for their return; after we
have reviewed this incident thoroughly.”
On the 18 May 1999 the following report was released: “
The Air Force Thunderbirds
resumed flight training this week in preparation for resuming their 1999 aerial demonstration
schedule. It is still unclear how long the Thunderbirds will train before they return to their show
schedule; however, the team has cancelled demonstrations through May 29”.
“Following a thorough review of the incident, Brig. Gen. Bill Lay, commander of the 57th
Wing and the parent organization for the Thunderbirds, made the decision to recall a former,
experienced Thunderbird pilot to the team to replace Capt. Russell Mack, one of the pilots involved
in the mishap. Maj. Mark Arlinghaus, solo for the 1997 and 1998 Thunderbird teams, has begun
training to fill the right-wing position for the remainder of the 1999 aerial demonstration season.”
“After analysing all material available to me, I concluded it was in the best interest of the
Thunderbirds to bring back Major Arlinghaus,” said Lay. “As General Moorhead said last week,
safety is our primary concern. We have a responsibility to the public and the team to take a hard
look at how we do business after an incident like this. We stepped back and examined the make
up of the team, the members’ level of experience, our training practices and manoeuvres...I’m
confident the team is on the right track to resuming the demonstration season.”
(Earl Watkins,
USA, and SIG members John Cooper & Tom Kolk, USA.)
Snowbird No. 2, Capt. Mike Vandenbos, was tragically killed following a mid-air collision
during a training flight. Although Capt. Vandenbos ejected successfully before the aircraft
crashed, there was insufficient height for his parachute to fully deploy and he was killed on impact
with the ground. However, it was discovered that the airlock fasteners on the pilot’s rigid seat
survival kit (RSSK) were not connected when seat/man separation was initiated. The pilot’s
maritime lanyard was also not connected. Post ejection contact occurred between the pilot, the
ejection seat and the unattached RSSK.
A formation of six aircraft from 431 (AD) Sqn was conducting training manoeuvres to the
south of CFB Moose Jaw and were in arrow-formation with the outer left echelon position vacant.
The manoeuvre comprised a left wingover followed by a descent to a reversing right level turn.
The appointed team leader was not present and the formation was being led by Snowbird No.7.
As the formation rolled through approximately 50º of right bank in a level turn at 1,200’ agl
and 260 KIAS, the underside of the left wing of aircraft No.6 contacted the upper surface of the
right horizontal stabiliser of aircraft No.2. The entire horizontal stabiliser and part of the vertical
stabiliser separated from aircraft No.2 and the aircraft dropped through the bottom of the
formation. The No.2 aircraft then rolled inverted under extreme negative G, stalled and fell to the
ground, still in an inverted attitude. The pilot ejected from the aircraft but suffered fatal injuries
upon impacting the ground.
The preliminary investigation also found no evidence of pre-impact material failure or
system malfunctions that might have contributed to the accident. At the moment of impact, the
calculated position error between aircraft No.2 and aircraft No.6 was approximately 14 ft laterally
and 5 ft vertically. (RCAF Air Force Directorate Flying Safety)
It happened on Sunday, around 9:20 a.m., at the start of the six aircraft AT-6 Silver Race;
the aircraft were all lined-up and coming down the chute. The pace aircraft had just given the
pilots a race and ‘Mis Behavin’ piloted by Ralph Twombly was a little higher then the others; it
dove a bit to start the race and collided with ‘ Big Red’ flown by Jerry McDonald. Twombly lost his
empennage in the collision and pitched up so violently that the wing failed off of ‘
Mis Behavin’
which spun into the ground close to a house at the extreme left of the show centre. ‘ Big Red’ was
able to land and parked at the right side (adjacent to the military displays) of show centre. Later,
when ‘Big Red’ taxied by the grandstand on it’s way back to the pits, it appeared that the left
wingtip and left aileron was missing and there were chunks missing from the leading edge. The
very sad thing was that both pilots were experienced race pilots, Ralph Twombly had won the AT6 races twice before; 1977 in ‘Spooled Up’ and 1982 in ‘Mis Behavin’ .
Comment from a spectator: “The clipped T-6 seemed to just hurl through a trajectory
without violent tumbling and hit with a big thud” he said, “Man, that is a ‘dangerous’ way to get
one’s thrills; got to admire their courage to do this though, but I can’t imagine how they justify the
risks”. TV news reports said that it was the second fatal accident at the Reno in 1997, in fact, in
the previous year, the Pond racer crashed, killing its pilot.
These incidents and the ongoing intense competition have made the racing fraternity
extremely safety conscious. Pilot briefings before each day of racing stress the necessity of flying
safely while trying hard to win. A pilot making a pass, for example, must never lose sight of the
aircraft he is overtaking. Infractions of this rule, or any other flying that is obviously dangerous,
results in the immediate suspension of the offender for the remainder of the meet.
The first public appearance of China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)
national formation aerobatic team, August 1st Aerobatic Team , was on 20 th December 1997 at
Tianjin, China. They were thereafter scheduled to give more than twenty displays throughout
China during 1998, including the China Airshow at Zhuhai in November. Equipped with six
Chengdu F-7EB jet fighters, the latest PLAAF variant of the MiG-21F, and painted in a smart red
and white colour scheme, the aircraft were also equipped with smoke generators. It was originally
planned to mount the team on the Shenyang F-8II, but the more manoeuvrable F-7EB was chosen
Six months later, the August 1st Aerobatic Team suffered the loss of three of their aircraft
in a mid-air collision near Tianjin in June 1998. They tried to reform in line abreast during a loop
but three of the aircraft collided with each other resulting in the death of the three pilots. The pilots
did not eject. This tragic loss cast doubt over the future of this ‘young’ team, which had only given
their first performance in December 1997.
A Hungarian fighter pilot died when his Russian-made MiG-29 jet crashed during a media
preview a few days before the Kecskemet Airshow some 75 kilometres (40 miles) south of
Budapest. “He was in the fifth minute of a low-altitude aerobatic sequence when he hit the
ground,” Lt. Col. Istvan Teglas, commander of the Kecskemet Air Brigade told Reuters at the crash
site. “The pilot was flying at tree-top level, preparing for a weekend air-show in Kecskemet”,
Teglas said. The exact cause of the crash remained unclear, since there was no radio
communications with the air traffic control tower indicating any abnormality”. The MiG-29 was
scattered over a 200-metre wide space in the middle of a wheat field two kilometres from the
airport. Hungary, on becoming a member of the NATO military alliance, had received the MiG-29s
from Russia in exchange for earlier debt and this accident was the first involving one of the MiG29s in Hungary.
The prevailing atmospheric conditions were rather extreme, a very hot and dry day with the
outside air temperature at between 32ºC and 35ºC. The pilot had performed low-level
manoeuvres directly after takeoff, then turned into a left-hand turn for a low-level, high-speed pass.
In the turn however, he realized that he lost airspeed and height and then selected full throttle and
then afterburner. The familiar smoke trail of the RD-33 engine appeared transiently but then faded
after approximately 5 seconds.
A Hungarian MiG-29 instructor said on TV that “the engine didn’t produce enough power
because of the density altitude”. “It happened at approximately 120-150 feet agl and as he tried to
pull up, he certainly lost more airspeed and height. The aircraft was now terribly slow and it fell
down like a leaf. All we could see from the perspective of the TV camera was the aircraft
disappearing below tree-level. About a half a second later, a small black object was seen to fly out
from the trees and then fell back. Another moment later...explosion!”
“The pilot obviously thought until the last moment that he could retrieve the situation but
ejected very late at about approximately 45º bank angle but there was insufficient altitude for the
parachute to deploy”. The pictures taken of the crash-site showed that the fighter fell onto its belly.
“I’m not a pilot but I know that 30-35 flying hours per year, on average, isn’t enough to ready the
soldiers to solve any of these lethal situations. This is in contrast with the NATO minimum of
approximately 160 hours”, he said. (Reuters)
The 42-year old pilot of a privately owned Hawker Hunter vintage jet died as he ‘stayed’
with the aircraft while an on-board fire raged furiously during a display practice for the upcoming
Biggin Hill Air Fair. Although the pilot was highly experienced with 10,100 hours total, he had only
eight-hours on type.
The Hunter formation, led by the pilot of the two-seat Hunter T7, planned to carry out a
‘pairs display’ practice at Biggin Hill for the airshow on the following day. Following a series of
engine starting problems with the jet, and after experiencing bad weather at Biggin Hill, the
synchro-pair of Hunters decided to practice at Dunsfold instead. After lunch and a briefing for the
afternoon’s flights, the pair prepared for departure from Dunsfold, but this was delayed again for
about five minutes by some minor problem with the Hunter F4 after engine start-up.
Clearance for the display was duly granted up to a height of 2,500 feet and the pair then
flew their complete display sequence. They then decided to repeat the practice display. The final
stages of the display sequence involved opposition rolls, to be followed by the Hunter F4 turning
right through 45° away from the ‘crowd-line’ to set up for a ‘gear and flaps’ low speed pass. The
other Hunter would meanwhile position on a right-hand circuit so that both aircraft could then
perform another pass together in front of the crowd-line, with the Hunter F4 at low speed and the
Hunter T7 at high speed.
This was to be the last manoeuvre before both aircraft joined up for a ‘run-and-break’, prior
to landing. As the T7 reached the end of downwind on his right-hand circuit, the pilot looked to his
right to acquire the F4. However, since he could not see the other Hunter he transmitted “PUT
YOUR SMOKE ON I’VE LOST YOU”. Almost immediately the pilot of the F4 transmitted
did not reply to this transmission, and the Mayday was re-transmitted. The pilot of T7 then
transmitted “...THE FIELD’S ALL YOURS YOU GO FOR IT”. ATC then replied “.... YOU’RE
CLEARED TO LAND”. The pilot of the T7 then transmitted “KEEP PRESSING THE RE-LIGHT
BUTTON GO FOR THE MA---” (intending to complete the transmission with the words “MANUAL
At this stage the F4 was at some 500 to 700 feet agl and a flame, estimated at some ten
feet in length, was seen emanating from the aircraft’s jet pipe by several witnesses on the ground.
A second flame was observed emanating from the side of the fuselage forward of the tailplane, at
the base of the fin’s leading edge. The aircraft turned left towards Runway 25 and barely cleared
trees on the south-eastern boundary of the airfield before it passed over the perimeter track at a
height of some 20 feet agl and approximately 10º of left bank. The aircraft then struck the disused
runway short of Runway 25 with its left drop tank whilst at an angle of 40º to the runway heading,
before landing heavily on its main landing gear. It then bounced back into the air and rolled left to
a bank angle of approximately 65° before striking t he ground a second time with its left wing tip. It
then pitched downwards and yawed left onto its nose, impacting the runway surface before sliding
laterally on its belly, at one stage backwards, across the runway and grass beyond. It finally came
to rest in an upright attitude on the northern side of Runway 25.
This impact sequence was described by some witnesses as ‘something like a horizontal
cartwheel’. The pilot, who had been flung from his safety harness during the impact sequence,
suffered fatal injuries. The emergency services, which had been on standby because of the
practice display, arrived on the scene almost immediately.
Two Cessna A-37B’s of the Black Eagles suffered a mid-air collision in which one aircraft
crashed killing the team leader, Major Won-Hoon Cho while the other aircraft involved, landed
A Starlight Warp ultra-light aircraft crashed shortly after takeoff from the ultra-light runway
at Lakeland, Florida, during the Sun ‘n Fun EAA Fly-In. The pilot, 51-year-old Larry L. Collins, of
Dayton, Ohio, was killed in the crash. The aircraft apparently lost lift while turning into the pattern
after take-off. (AOPA News)
On Sunday afternoon, 19 April 1998, at the Kissimmee Airshow of the Stars, Fla., two
members of the Red Baron Stearman Squadron , the U.S.-based four-aircraft civilian aerobatic
team, were killed when their Stearman biplanes collided in mid-air during an airshow. A
spokesman of Schwan’s Sales Enterprises, the squadron’s corporate sponsor, identified the pilots
as James Edward Lovelace of Seward, Neb., and Randall L. Drake of Waukesha, Wis.
The four-aircraft team while manoeuvring during a 14 CFR Part 91 acrobatic flight, was
flying in a diamond formation at approximately 1,500 ft above ground level when the slot aircraft
slid into one of the wingmen and the two aircraft became entangled, tumbling from the sky until
they struck the ground and crashed in front of more than five thousand spectators. Both pilots
were killed and although no one on the ground was hurt directly as a result of the crash, two police
officers suffered minor injuries when they tried to pull the pilots from the burning wreckage. The
weather may have contributed to the collision as the two aircraft were winding down their
performance. The Kissimmee Airport reported the prevailing weather conditions at the municipal
airport as 25-mph winds with gusts up to 30 mph under low clouds.
The flight lead for the Red Baron Stearman Squadron stated that they had completed a half
Cuban Eight manoeuvre and rolled upright from the inverted position at 2,100 feet agl, then
descended down to 1,600 feet agl and started to position themselves in a climbing turn to conduct
a loop in a diamond formation when the accident occurred.
Witnesses and video obtained from
numerous TV stations revealed that the lead aircraft, number three right wingman, and number
four left wingman started pulling up out of the dive to initiate the diamond loop formation when the
number two trail aircraft continued to descend, and collided with the left wingman. “ (NTSB)
A witness said: “It appeared as though Richard Drake’s plane suddenly pitched down and
stabbed into Jim Lovelace’s plane. This was not a minor wing tip touch of getting too close, but
rather a very sudden pitch down after they had just completed a coordinated routine. The aircraft
stuck and tumbled together all the way down and then caught fire upon impact with the ground”.
Spectators reported that when they collided, “you could hear the loud clap of the wings hitting each
other”. “They got intertwined and they couldn’t break off, then they started falling very rapidly.
Reports said that one pilot died on impact and the other survived the crash and post-crash fire
long enough to get to the hospital, but he died there. The police got there first with hand-held
extinguishers”. (Reuters)
A highly experienced test pilot from Denel Aviation crashed at AFB Swartkops, South
Africa while practicing for an upcoming Museum Airshow day. The restored Piston Provost failed
to recover from a low-level stall-turn, and impacted on the airfield almost in the three-point attitude.
The pilot initially survived the crash but the ensuing post-crash fire engulfed the cockpit and
induced severe burns; he was evacuated to hospital but died later. There was no collateral
damage and no spectators on the ground were injured. The cause of the accident was attributed
to human error in that there was insufficient height to recover from an aerobatic manoeuvre.
The pilot, due to fly in a display two days later, was not current on display flying on the
Provost although he was a highly experienced pilot. He had received a dual check but because
the weather was unsuitable for upper air work, only circuit work was practiced. The weather
improved and he proceeded to the general flying area but found the cloud base at 6,500’ AMSL
(ground level being 5300’ to 5500’AMSL) to be too low for aerobatics.
On rejoining, the pilot told ATC that he would commence his ‘bad-weather’ sequence
practice. His show appeared to progress as set out, albeit slightly low. At the point where the pilot
was to commence a half loop followed by an aileron roll, he pulled almost vertically and converted
the manoeuvre to a stall turn to the left. On recovery from the stall turn, with insufficient height to
complete the pullout, the aircraft impacted the ground in an almost three-point attitude. There was
speculation that the pilot, realising the possibility of entering the overcast during the pull-up for the
half-loop, decided to convert the manoeuvre into a stall turn.
A pilot was fatally injured when his Air Tractor 802A impacted the ground at an airshow
following a water drop in a fire-fighting demonstration. The aircraft approached the drop site ten
knots faster than recommended and during the water release, the aircraft pitched up and entered a
steep climb. The nose continued to pitch up with an increasing climb angle but there was no
evidence that the pilot had made any elevator input to reduce the steepness of the climb.
The aircraft climbed straight ahead for a short distance before departing controlled flight to
the left, the bank angle increased to about 90º and the nose pitched down to an almost horizontal
attitude. At about 450 ft agl and at low speed, the aircraft rolled inverted and entered the incipient
stages of an inverted spin. The aircraft impacted the ground still inverted, in a wings level attitude
at a nose down angle of approximately 45º.
The AT-802A flight manual stipulates that during load release, a sudden nose-up pitching
moment can be expected. Experienced pilots reported that the intensity of the pitching moment
depended on the aircraft’s speed and the rate at which the hopper was emptied. Obviously, the
higher the airspeed, the larger the pitch rate.
The pilot was experienced enough to deal with the nose-up pitching moment associated
with the water release but it is possible that the pilot intended to climb the aircraft steeply after
releasing the load in an attempt to increase the visual impact of the display. It is doubtful though
that such a manoeuvre could have been safely completed since the flaps were extended at
maximum deflection and the rate of energy bleed and empennage blanking could have
significantly reduced the elevator power available to recover from the steep climb.
‘Black 6’, the Duxford Museum’s and the world’s only flying Bf-109G-6, on her penultimate
flight at the Duxford airshow, overshot the runway during a forced landing following a loss of
engine power during the display. Irrespective of the arguments and pleas on both sides to extend
her flying career, this accident sealed the fate of this glorious aircraft. The ‘Black 6’ team had
found out the Ministry of Defence’s decision on their aircraft the previous day – the aircraft, due to
its value as the only “one-off” in air-worthy condition, would definitely be returned to the RAF
Museum Hendon at the end of the 1997 airshow season in the UK.
All the team’s previous petitioning and lobbying of the RAF and MOD to keep her flying had
been unsuccessful; even going so far as to get the public to approach their MPs to raise the issue
at parliamentary level. The aircraft was due to be grounded at the end of the month when the fouryear display agreement struck between the Imperial War Museum and the MOD in 1992, was to
be terminated. The IWM had requested the
MOD for an extension since the 1993 season
had been lost due to technical problems and a
one-year extension had already been granted.
Throughout the display sequence, white
vapour was seen trailing the aircraft and the
sound of a rough running engine, was reported
to the pilot. Then, in a diving manoeuvre it was
seen to emit a trail of white smoke, perhaps
indicating failure in the top end of the engine, or
the cooling system.
According to one
newspaper report, the engine failed at a critical
position relative to the airfield where the aircraft
was too high to land straight ahead, but too low
Fire and rescue services were on site almost to put in a 360º turn. Without declaring an
immediately following the near three-point
emergency, the pilot announced he was landing
attitude impact. (SAAF Directorate Flying
and circled to line up for an into-wind landing
from the western end of Duxford.
The pilot, Air Chief Marshal Sir John
Allison, Commander-In-Chief RAF Strike
Command, performed a ‘dead stick’ landing. It would appear that having suffered a considerable
loss of power, the pilot had no option but to get the ‘109’ down as quickly as possible. Another
circuit to lose height and speed gradually would have put him too low on the approach, so he had
to lose height quickly from a high approach which resulted in a very fast landing with no option of
going around. The fast, steep approach lead to the pilot having to make several attempts to get
the aircraft to settle on the runway, but excessive airspeed and insufficient runway length were
against him.
The aircraft landed on Runway 06 and the fresh NW wind at the time, would not have
helped. Part of the eastern end of the airfield had effectively been lost when the M11 Motorway
was constructed several years earlier and the airfield is screened from the road by an earthmound. The aircraft kept rolling and as it overran the runway, the pilot pulled the aircraft off the
ground and must have raised sufficient engine power to ‘jump’ over the embankment at the end of
06, over the M11, and into a grassed field on the other side. Following recent heavy rain, the
ground was soft and the aircraft dug in and ‘nosed-over’ at a relatively low speed. The emergency
services, were on site quickly and the uninjured trapped pilot, strangely enough, requested the
rescue services not to cut him out but to wait until a crane was brought in to lift it up so he could
make his exit. All credit to the pilot for not wanting to damage the aircraft any further but the
decision to risk his personal safety, was questionable.
It is here that pilots make critical mistakes – in their misguided judgement that the aircraft is
more important than the pilot, they take actions which may be honourable in the cause of saving a
valuable heritage aircraft, but stupid in the case of saving the valuable life of the pilot.
To emphasise the point, Charlie Hillard, was killed in a similar accident following a solo
aerobatic performance at the Sun ‘n Fun EAA Fly-In at Lakeland, Fla., in 1996. When the aircraft
flipped onto its back during the landing rollout. According to the preliminary NTSB report, the pilot,
suffered fatal injuries and the aircraft suffered substantial damage. Polk County (Fla.) Medical
Examiner Alexander Melamud concluded Hillard died of ‘positional asphyxia’ after his chest and
back were compressed by parts of the cockpit.
Once rescued from ‘Black 6’, Allison was taken to hospital for a medical check-up.
Damage to the aircraft was assessed as a twisted and bent rear fuselage, damage to the tail and a
broken propeller, but otherwise, the aircraft was in one piece. John Allison, was not only a very
experienced display pilot and had been flying historic aircraft at Duxford for many years, but he
was also the test pilot for the Bf-109 and had flown the aircraft on many displays. Allison was also
a very experienced glider pilot and owned several vintage gliders as well as some of the powered
aircraft he flew. Nonetheless, a sad day for warbird aviation . (‘ Fly Past Magazine’ Oct 97).
Then there are also the success stories. Ironically, it was also at Duxford’s Flying Legends
airshow in 1995 that Mark Hanna successfully dead-sticked Hans Dittes’ DB605-powered ‘109’
back onto the airfield following a total loss of power. A spectator ‘on the fence’ at the M11 side in
front of the parking line and listening to the radio, heard Hanna call nearly immediately after the
take-off of the two 109’s, that he was landing. Although no emergency was heard to be declared,
it was obvious that there was a problem and that one of the 109’s was returning. Rolling out on
final, the engine was dead. Since the 109 does not have a feathering system the prop was windmilling and it would have appeared to the casual observer that the engine was still running. The
landing appeared normal, the problem must have been serious because when Hanna exited the
aircraft, he went to his knees and kissed the ground – ‘a professional airshow pilot’.
The crash was the first in the show’s six-year history, Jim Kincaid, owner of Kaimana
Aviation, was killed when his aircraft crashed during the Confederate Air Force Airshow in San
Marcos, Texas. Kincaid was flying his Pitts Special S-24 and had been putting it through its paces
when the aircraft lost altitude and crashed into the airport infield near thousands of spectators.
The aircraft did not catch fire but there appeared to be a lot of smoke, a spokesman said. “The
aircraft levelled off from a steep vertical manoeuvre and crashed on the bottom of the plane. He
kind of hit hard and fast.” No spectators were injured and no collateral damage was caused and
the show continued as scheduled.
An experienced and popular performer at Airshows across Oklahoma and around the USA,
Kincaid had recently preformed in his Pitts Special S-24 “Oklahoma Crude,” at Ponca City
Airshow, Wichita’s Aerodrome Days at McConnell Air Force Base and Strother Field and had also
previously flown at San Marcos, where the Confederate Air Force gathered annually.
14 SEPTEMBER 1997: F-117A
On 12 December 1997, Air Combat Command released the accident investigation report of
the F-117A stealth fighter from Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. that crashed on 14 September
1997 near Baltimore, Md. The aircraft had just completed its third pass during an airshow flyover
at Martin State Airport and the pilot was initiating a climb-out for departure when he felt the aircraft
shudder and the left wing broke off. The aircraft crashed into the residential area of Bowley’s
Quarters, Md., and caused extensive fire damage to several homes and vehicles, miraculously
without fatalities but four people on the ground were slightly injured and ten families were
displaced by the crash.
The F-117A and Knight were assigned to the 7th Fighter Squadron at Holloman AFB, N.M
where Knight was an experienced instructor pilot and had more than 2,770 flying hours, 500 in the
F-117A. The aircraft had left Syracuse, N.Y., and was performing at the airshow while en route to
Langley AFB, Va. and was one of two F-117As temporarily located at Langley to support
community and military airshows in the eastern United States.
The F-117 almost stopped dead in midair after the wing separated, then fell straight down,
rocking back and forth around the pitching axis, descending vertically and impacting in a nearly
level attitude. It was approximately twenty seconds from the wing failure to impact and the pilot
stayed with it until about five seconds before impact, landing about 150 feet from the wreckage.
The pilot, Maj. Bryan K. Knight, ejected and was fortunate to receive only minor injuries landing
only metres from the post impact fireball.
The accident investigation report concluded that the cause of the accident was structural
failure of a support assembly in the left wing known as the ‘Brooklyn Bridge’. The failure was
attributable to four of the thirty-nine fasteners missing from the assembly which was apparently
improperly reinstalled during a scheduled periodic inspection in January 1996, a maintenance
error. The entire fleet of 53 F-117 Nighthawks was inspected during a command-directed
precautionary stand down and none were found to have the same defect. (ACC News Service)
A witness to the accident recorded that the F-117 “went down more like a falling leaf than
an airplane”. Video footage showed the port wing flapping severely for a second before the whole
structure broke off the fuselage. Flutter had been discovered in the initial envelope expansion
testing of the F-117 and a mechanical fix was introduced to stiffen the elevon attachment point and
the hinge; the aircraft had never had a problem operationally until this incident.
Another witness reported: “I saw a large, black object drop away from the aircraft and
wasn’t sure exactly what had failed”. From the video of the accident, it appeared that the left wing
failed up and back, and the F-117 immediately rolled left and pitched-up violently. There was a
white puff of vapour visible as the wing separated, which could have been hydraulic fluid or fuel.
The main undercarriage was extended partially just before the aircraft disappeared behind a stand
of trees on shore.
Poor maintenance and configuration management remain a threat to the well-being of any
pilot, but in particular, the display pilot who is required to operate an aircraft on the edge of the
envelope at very low altitudes. Dubious structural integrity of the aircraft is the last thing that a
display pilot needs to be concerned with. In 1993, The South African Air Force Aermacchi MB-326
of the national formation aerobatic team, the Silver Falcons , suffered a major accident when the
wing of the singleton broke-off while pulling out from a loop. The cause, poor maintenance and
even poorer configuration management had allowed the aircraft back into service without
rectification of a known wing main spar crack. The rapid departure of the aircraft coupled to the
low altitude at which the failure occurred, resulted in the death of the pilot who ejected outside
ejection seat parameters.
The Royal Jordanian Falcons solo-display aircraft crashed adjacent to a Red Cross tent
and burst into flames flinging wreckage around the spectator’s area at the Flanders “Fly-In and
Airshow”, Ostende, Belgium, at about 5 p.m. local time, on Saturday, 26th July 1997. Initially,
eight people died including the pilot, and 40 others were injured. A ninth person died in hospital
the next day.
The pilot, Captain Omar Hani Bilal, was a highly experienced aerobatic pilot that had been
with the team for several years. Eyewitness reports vary but initially included claims that the Xtra
300 appeared to suffer a loss of power or was caught by a gust of wind. The pilot was performing
the “lomcevak”, or “tumbling” manoeuvre which the team, and indeed the Xtra 300 aircraft, is
famous for, and for whatever reason, failed to recover from it. Other reports stated that the pilot
simply appeared to lose control, although this would be a natural conclusion to reach by those who
are not fully aware of the nature of some of the violent “flick” or tail-sliding manoeuvres
incorporated into the Royal Jordanian Falcons solo routine. What was not understood was just
why the aircraft appeared to be performing overhead the spectator enclosure off the official display
line, which was strictly against European airshow safety regulations.
As soon as the Turkish Stars had finished their display routine, rain started and most of the
public left to seek cover, many found it in the Red Cross tent that ended up in the way of a burning
Xtra 300. Several spectators were burned, the Xtra had a surprisingly large amount of fuel on-
board and following impact, it worked very much like napalm splashed in the direction of the
public. A fleet of ambulances and military helicopters ferried the wounded to hospitals as far away
as Brussels while others were treated at special ‘burn units’ at hospitals in the Flanders region.
The media hysteria and hype had only one question: “After the Frecce Tricolori ’s accident
in Germany, didn’t all European nations change display rules so that a display aircraft never
carries out manoeuvres over the crowd?” Indeed, after the 1988 crash at Ramstein, it was
forbidden to fly over the crowd, but this accident was partly caused by very strong on-crowd wind
resulting in poor showline control.
The pilot’s body was flown back to Jordan on a Jordanian Air Force Hercules on Sunday,
27 July, following a short ceremony on the tarmac. The airshow was to have been a two-day
event, but the Sunday show was cancelled and an immediate inquiry was launched. One
experienced airshow spectator commented that: “Having attended numerous Belgian Airshows
over the years also Dutch and Swedish, I am of the opinion that Belgian ones are (until something
bad happens) somewhat medieval in appearance. Kids running about on the grass runway at the
same time as an aircraft makes a touch and go landing, horse-mounted policemen almost getting
their heads chopped of by a swinging Alouette chopper blade, a Britten Norman Islander pulling up
25 metres in front of the public at ‘grass-top’ level. It makes thrilling fun, until….??? In this
particularly unfortunate case, the pilot was highly experienced but the weather was extremely
poor, with rain and strong gusts of wind.
It is important to note that this particular display was a solo routine, part of a competition,
and the RJAF pilot was the last to display, not part of the Falcon’s overall display. The question
that could be asked is: “How appropriate it is to put up an aerobatic competition at large
airshows?” About four performers were flying to the ‘Mission Impossible’ theme, among them
were world aerobatic champion Nikolai Timofeev, Francois Brocart, Frank Versteegh and the solo
Royal Jordanian Falcon . He was the last to perform and he might have wanted to do his best
stretching the limits after seeing the other three contenders, but there is little you can do to match
Timofeev. It barely made any difference, however, because it was raining and there were not too
many spectators left.
For what it is worth, a Dutch display pilot who was interviewed by Belgian TV, declared that
it was wrong to perform this manoeuvre at such low altitude. He also criticised the Jordanian pilot
for repeatedly breaking the rules repeatedly by overflying the crowd line. The Belgian minister of
defence, Mr Poncelet, thereafter prohibited airshows on military airfields until the safety regulations
and their application had been reviewed.
What is of concern in this accident is that the Flying Control Committee did not reinforce
the show regulations! Just before the Jordanian crash, the Turkish Stars with half a dozen or so F5s, were reportedly buzzing the crowd. One spectator declared: “I was standing at the edge of the
public area about a metre away from the barrier separating the public from the flight line, I did not
feel happy about the F-5 flying. I certainly have never been so close to the screaming jets at any
of the US Airshows I have attended – they did some manoeuvres toward the public. If the public
chokes on the smoke coming from the smoke generators, it is too close!”
The Republic of China Thunder Tigers team suffered a tragedy while on a five-ship practice
flight from their base at Tapel/Kang-Shan airbase. During a four-point roll, one of the team’s AT-3
jet trainers crashed at the Chinese Air Force Academy, killing pilot Sqn Ldr. Hsu Hai-Hua. The
cause of the crash was mooted as possible mechanical failure.
A Kentucky pilot was killed and a Wisconsin pilot injured when their two aircraft collided in
mid-air while performing at a Long Island, New York airshow. 51-year-old Richard Goodlett, of
Louisville, Ky., President of the Formula V Air Racing Association, Inc., was airlifted to University
Hospital in Stony Brook, N. Y., where he died from his injuries. 37-year old Christopher Kalishek,
of Madison, Wisc., was admitted to University Hospital in critical condition with a punctured left
lung and multiple compound fractures.
The midair collision occurred between the two ‘Formula V’ competition aircraft at the end of
the two-mile, eight-lap air race during the ‘Wings Over Long Island’ airshow at Gabreski Airport.
Four aircraft were competing in the race over the closed course marked by six pylons affixed to the
Dick Goodlett and Chris Kalishek were in a close race for second place during the last heat
of the day. Goodlett’s aircraft was set up to accelerate quickly off the line, but was slower around
the course, and as such, his tactics were to fly very low, especially on the upwind leg. The
start/finish line was on the upwind leg and at the finish, they were neck and neck with Goodlett still
down on the deck at 50 ft and inside of Kalishek (at approximately 150 ft) rounding the first pylon
after the finish. Goodlett apparently pulled up and his right wing struck Kalishek’s left wing root
from below and Goodlett’s aircraft spun out of control and crashed, erupting into a fireball.
Kalishek’s aircraft apparently had a more oblique impact but no fire. This was the first airshow on
Long Island in twenty years, the last airshow also ended with a pilot fatality.
One of the Russian Knights Su-27 Flankers ‘belly-landed’ in Bratislava, Slovakia, as the
team arrived to take part in the SIAD ‘97 airshow. The four-ship formation had performed a
display at Zeltweg, Austria, that morning and then flew on to Bratislava, arriving there at about 3
p.m. After a few arrival manoeuvres, the team broke for individual landings.
Landing in turn, the pilot of the third aircraft (Flanker 15) allegedly forgot to lower the
undercarriage. The aircraft touched down on the runway and skidded along on it’s nose and
ventral fins, creating a shower of sparks as it careered down the runway. The pilot deployed the
‘dragchute’ and the Flanker ground to a stop half way down the runway. The remaining Flanker,
landed safely on the same runway after checking and verifying that sufficient runway length was
It then took about three hours to jack the stricken aircraft up and lower it’s undercarriage
before it could be towed away for repairs, which meant that the remainder of the Saturday airshow
was limited to helicopter displays, due to the runway blockage. The Sunday show went on as
normal, with the Russian Knights performing a three-ship routine. There was very little damage to
the Flanker after this incident, and it was flown back to Russia two days later.
A Danish Navy Westland Lynx S-170 crashed during an airshow at Goraszka Air Picnic,
Warsaw, Poland. The helicopter took off and made two fast passes in front of the public gallery
but then crashed into the ground recovering from a wingover. The cause was attributed to human
error – the pilot pulled out of the wingover recovery dive too late. There were no fatalities and the
crew sustained only minor injuries; one broken leg. The injured crew were flown to the Warsaw’
military hospital in the ‘medevac’ helicopter. Amazingly, the damage to the S-170 was repairable
and the aircraft was overhauled and returned to service. (Images Pawel Bondaryk, Aviation.pol.pl)
The 63-year-old pilot of a Korean War vintage F-86 Sabre, Jack Morris Rosamond, a highly
experienced, retired United Airlines pilot, crashed while performing a modified half-Cuban 8 at the
Jefferson County airport northwest of Denver, CO. No one else at the Airshow Colorado 1997 was
injured but the organizers cancelled the remainder of the show, which would have included a
demonstration by the Thunderbirds .
Watching with 60,000 others, a witness reported that “to the end, the loop seemed smooth
and under control. He just ran out of height”. Speculation on density altitude was rife, the airport
elevation is approximately 5,600 ft, and the temperature was approaching 90ºF (32º C) at the time
of the accident. The aircraft hit the ground at the bottom of a loop, belly-first. “It was a highenergy impact. There was more energy in it than anything I’ve seen,” said Norm Weimeyer, chief
of the Denver office of the NTSB who headed a team of investigators examining the scene.
Another witness reported that from his perspective: “The angle that I saw it at showed that
he was pulling out of the loop but just didn’t have enough height”. A picture in the Denver post the
next day showed the aircraft at impact with a 15º nose-down pitch attitude. A Ball Aerospace
security guard, who saw the whole thing from about 400 yards away, estimated that if the pilot had
50 feet more altitude, he would have made it. Some witnesses speculated that the aircraft
seemed to stall before the crash. A comment by one of the spectators was: “I have to also say
that the airshow was very chaotic. I had no clue what was going on. The official programme just
happened to be missing any sort of schedule”. Not unexpectedly, this accident also raised the
question by many aviation people: “What was the ‘g’-effect on a 63 year-old” in a Cuban-8
manoeuvre? Should pilots of this age still be flying low-level aerobatics?”
A highly experienced veteran stunt pilot, Clarence Speal, died after his bi-plane PittsSpecial plunged into the Ohio River during an airshow for the Three Rivers Regatta, Pittsburgh.
Pulling up from a loop and entering into downline snap-rolls, the aircraft entered an uncontrollable
spinning dive after both wings on the left hand side of the aircraft folded as the wings failed at the
attachment points. The aircraft continued in an inverted attitude descent until impact with the
The pilot had received clearance into the approved airshow aerobatic airspace and initiated
his first manoeuvre, a double snap roll. A video tape of the manoeuvre showed a deformation of
the lower left wing within seconds of initiation of the manoeuvre which was followed by a failure of
the left outboard portion of the upper wing. Both the failed lower left wing and the failed upper left
outboard portion of the top wing, displaced aft against the empennage. The pilot had previously
voiced his concern about the airplane’s wings because of flutter he had experienced during recent
flights. The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause(s) of this
accident as “the pilot’s utilization of airspeeds greater than the manufacturer recommended
manoeuvring airspeeds which exceed the design limits of the airplane and resulted in the
subsequent failure of the wing spar”. (NTSB: IAD96FA126).
One spectator commented: “I am no aerobatics expert but it looked as if there was a short
pull-up, partial climb, and a couple of very messy snap-rolls. It was as if the airplane fell out of the
loop and was out of control. After the second snap roll, the left wings failed structurally”. Also
mentioned in the TV coverage was that Speal’s wife was narrating his demonstration over the
event PA system at the time of the incident.
It bears remembering that most of the flying stresses on a biplane are upon the truss
structure consisting of the set of flying wires, the wing attachment fittings, flying wire attachments,
‘I’ struts, cabanes/tripod, and less so on the internal complexities of the wing structure itself.
Biplanes are immensely strong, despite very thin wings.
The fifty-one year old DH.98 Mosquito T.3 aircraft, based and maintained at British
Aerospace’s North Wales factory near Chester, crashed and its two crew were killed while
displaying at a nearby airshow at Barton, Manchester, North West England. No spectators were
hurt but it was reported that a number had to be treated for shock. The aircraft had performed a
low-level pass and a pulled-up to about 1,000 feet agl for a wingover and appeared to stall at the
apex, auto-rotating at least twice before entering a spin to the right. The pilot managed to recover
but unfortunately, had insufficient height for the recovery pull-out. The aircraft struck the ground in
a wings-level, nose-down attitude.
The aircraft (military serial RR299) was built in 1945, having just missed war service and
was acquired by the Chester site in airworthy condition in 1963 for just £100. It had been
maintained in flying condition and flown at air displays in Britain and Europe ever since. The
aircraft was totally stripped down and refurbished in 1992 for that year’s flying displays and it reappeared in its usual grey/green camouflage but with the distinctive D-day black and white stripes
added. Flying hours at the time of refurbishment were only 1,746. The aircraft was one of only
two known airworthy Mosquitoes in the world, the other being Kermit Week’s Mosquito B.35
bomber in the USA.
The best evidence of the event was derived from analysis of several video recordings
obtained from members of the public. The display proceeded normally with steep turns and
wingovers to the left and right being completed without evidence of any difficulty. The bank angle
used during the steep turns was estimated to be 60° and the wingovers reached approximately
90°. On several of the fly-pasts, the speed of the
aircraft was assessed by measuring the
movement of the aircraft against background objects, frame by frame. These were not exact
measurements but the results showed that the aircraft’s groundspeeds were within the range of
220 to 240 kts. The speed during the final flypast was similarly assessed and, by repeating the
process with several of the recordings, it was possible to say with a high degree of confidence that
the groundspeed on this occasion was close to 240 kts. With the light crosswind at the time there
would have been little difference between true airspeed and groundspeed. Without adequate
background reference it was not possible to estimate the height and speed of the aircraft at the
apex of the wingovers. The other pilot who shared the display flying on the Mosquito suggested
that the airspeed would be 140 kts or more at the apex and eye-witnesses to the accident,
estimated the height to be about 1,500 feet at the apex of the final wingover.
The video soundtrack of one of the recordings of the final flypast was subjected to a
spectral analysis, which gave an RPM of 2,660, averaged for the two engines. This accords with
typical engine RPM used for display flying of 2,600. The boost setting is assumed to have been
selected to the usual value of around +7 psi. On one recording, the rotation of the propellers had
been slowed by the strobe effect which resulted from the propeller blade passing frequency being
a harmonic of the camera shutter speed. Calculations made on a frame-by-frame basis suggested
that the left propeller was operating generally 20 to 40 RPM lower than the right which was not
considered to be of any particular significance as there was no automatic propeller synchronisation
system fitted to the aircraft.
The final part of the display was examined in greater detail. The aircraft flew from right to
left along the display line at about 240 kts and entered a straight climb. During the initial climb the
RPM of both propellers reduced slightly, probably as a function of reducing airspeed. The aircraft
rolled to the right and the bank angle increased to about 90°. Shortly before the aircraft reached
the apex of the ‘wingover’, the speed of the left propeller appeared to slow relative to the right and
continued to slow until, at the apex, it appeared to stop completely. The roll continued until
reaching an estimated 100° to 110°. The aircraft t hen yawed to the left and rapidly lost airspeed;
the nose then pitched down, relative to the lateral axis and the aircraft began to fall. The bank
angle reduced and the aircraft began to yaw to the left. There was little or no forward speed as the
wings levelled and the aircraft nose pitched down violently. The aircraft then entered what
appeared to be a spin to the left from which it recovered briefly before entering a spin to the right.
Shortly before impact, the aircraft appeared to recover from the spin in a steep nose down attitude
but this was followed by a violent yaw to the right from which it had insufficient height to recover.
The apparent slowing of the left propeller indicated only a change in RPM. However, the
subsequent behaviour of the aircraft, namely the left yaw and the autorotative manoeuvre at low
airspeed, was strongly indicative of an asymmetric condition caused by a large reduction of power
from the left engine. It is thus probable that the observed RPM change was indeed a reduction.
The fact that the right-hand propeller continued to rotate at the same speed was considered
significant in that it suggested that the pilot was not making any adjustments to the engine controls
at the time. Similarly, boost lever movement would initially result in an RPM excursion; this would
be detected by the propeller control unit which would cause the blade pitch to alter such that the
RPM returned to the selected value. It was therefore concluded that unless the pilot inexplicably
reduced the power on the left engine, the observed propeller RPM change was symptomatic of a
power loss.
On another video recording, a puff of smoke, with an accompanying ‘bang’ was apparent
when the nose of the aircraft was pointing at the ground following the initial loss of control. It is
believed that this puff of smoke came from the left engine although the evidence was not
conclusive. This event may have been due to rapid throttle (boost lever) closure by the pilot as
part of the recovery procedure, ‘bangs’ or ‘crackles’ being a characteristic engine response to such
action. It is noteworthy that no smoke was visible from the left engine at the time of the observed
propeller RPM reduction prior to the loss of control. This suggested that t he cause of the propeller
RPM reduction was not due to an excessively rich mixture. Most of the recordings showed the
yaw to the right during the descent, as noted earlier. This could have been caused by a
restoration of power on the left engine, and could explain the indications of symmetrical power at
The pilot started flying in 1968 and qualified for a Private Pilot’s Licence; in 1978 he gained
an Airline Transport Pilots Licence. His main experience was on transport aircraft although he had
flown about 529 hours on light aircraft. His first recorded flight in the Mosquito was in 1991. He
flew it for sixteen hours in 1993, twenty hours in 1994 and twenty-seven hours in 1995. His first
flight in 1996 was a display practice on 7 June. On 8 June he flew to Cranfield where he did two
displays; his next flight, the last before the accident flight, was on 17 July. His total logged flying in
the Mosquito in 1996, was 4:25 hours. (AAIB Bulletin No: 5/97 Ref: EW/C96/7/4 Category: 1.1)
The Fighter Collection’s P-38J Lightning crashed at the Flying Legends airshow at Duxford
killing the pilot, “Hoof” Proudfoot. The massed displays of warbirds were memorable, all against a
perfectly clear blue sky and 13,000 spectators. The P-38 Lightning was one of the stars of the
show, executing high speed passes, loops and rolls-off-the-top but crashed during a sequence of
consecutive aileron rolls, the final roll seemed to ‘dish-out’ for some reason with a slowing of the
roll rate. The accident reduced the number of flyable P-38 Lightnings worldwide to six, however,
with the restoration of “Glacier Girl”, found in Greenland, this would restore the number to seven.
One spectator at the airshow expressed his concern and was a little disturbed by two
manoeuvres, one was a high speed run towards the crowd and flight line following recovery from a
wing-over; the second was a pair of aileron rolls along the line of the runway at very low altitude.
“While expressing great sorrow for the loss of a unique historic aircraft and its pilot, it was fortunate
that the Lightning did not veer left on impact, into the line of parked and irreplaceable WW II
aircraft, and then into the crowd; as it was, wreckage destroyed light aircraft parked on the far side
of the airfield”, he said. A Chipmunk took a few knocks from debris, a PA-28 looked a write-off;
most of the aircraft at that end were of the PA-28/C-172 variety - maybe six or so with varying
amounts of damage.
Another concerned spectator commented: “I was there at Duxford on the Sunday and
before the accident happened I was getting increasingly concerned at some of the flying going on.
The guy in the Bf-109 was flying far too low. I would have given him a severe ‘bollocking’
afterwards if it was ‘my’ aircraft. I want to see these beautiful aircraft where they belong, in the air,
not ploughing into the ground and if something good can come out of Sunday’s sadness, then
perhaps it will make some pilots treat these machines with a bit more respect and cut out the
unnecessary risks”.
In the ensuing discussion, further comment was made: “Bear in mind that Hoof was not
only immensely experienced and the Fighter Collection’s chief pilot - he was also the display
director for both days. His safety briefings were an object lesson in crisp, to the point delivery. If
the manoeuvres looked hairy, fine, but they would have been well rehearsed and complying with
the strict CAA guidelines. Rod Dean was CAA observer on site on the day, Hoof knew that”. His
display line was south of the centreline due to departing P-51s. Even so, CAA rules on display
lines are designed to greatly reduce the possibility of crowd line incursions of any sort, they are
rigidly policed. This incident supported recent policy that nobody at Duxford was allowed to stay
with their aircraft on the south side of the airfield. “I remember early ‘Fighter Meets’ where we
picnicked under the wing with heavy metal pulling round right above our heads – exhilarating, but
not so safe”.
A P-38 expert who witnessed the accident was of the opinion that the elevator and rudder
did not have inputs suggesting a slow-roll and went on to suggest that one of the MANY
possibilities was that the aileron hydraulic booster pump failed, locking the ailerons into a roll. If
that happened, the pilot would have to switch off the aileron boost (the switch is situated near the
right rudder pedal inside the cockpit) and the whole situation at that point might not have been
recoverable. That’s not a theory on what happened, just a reality check to remind us that not
everything that happens, is really human error.
There is no evidence to explain why the aircraft entered the second part of the final
manoeuvre in a less than optimum pitch attitude which subsequently developed into a significant
downward trajectory. The possibility of a temporary restriction to the flying controls, or some other
form of distraction of the pilot, could not be dismissed. It was recounted that the pilot had been
advised a day earlier that he had violated minimum height requirements in his aerobatic routine executing an aileron roll in front of the crowd, although not by much. The 54-year old pilot was a
highly experienced pilot with 14,500 flying hours of which 60 were on type; he had flown 11 hours
on type in the last 90 days and 5 hours in the preceding 28 days.
One last comment from an aviation enthusiast: “The aircraft seemed to be pretty close to
the ground to be performing continuous rolls, whatever, a fine pilot and a beautiful aircraft was lost.
Each time his nose seemed a bit lower as he came out of it. At the end of the second roll it just
flew into the ground, wing tip first. Low-level demonstration flying remains a dangerous business,
no matter how much experience you have under your belt”. (This accident is addressed in more
detail in Chapter 4)
The event was an Open Day and flying display at an aircraft manufacturing facility,
organised by the airfield operator and approved by the CAA in accordance with the requirements
laid down in CAA publication CAP 403. The 51-year old pilot held the required Display
Authorisation from the CAA and had a total of 13, 233 hours of which nine were on type. Taking
off from Runway 23 as the number four of a four-ship formation comprising two Vampires followed
by two Venoms, the pairs departures in echelon starboard at 15 seconds intervals; the lead aircraft
was positioned on the downwind side of the runway as is standard practice. The surface wind of
310° at 14 kts gusting 20 kts provided an eighty de gree crosswind from the right hand side.
The pilot stated that his lead aircraft’s nose wheel had left the ground at the time of the 80
kts airspeed indicator check and he stated that both aircraft maintained a nose-up attitude until liftoff occurred. He said that after lift-off, his aircraft, G-VIDI, suffered a rapid right wing-drop which
required a large opposite aileron input to correct. The aircraft then rolled rapidly left to a bank
angle which the pilot estimated was 60°. Full righ t aileron and some right rudder application was
necessary in order to stop the roll and reverse the direction.
The pilot assessed that the roll oscillation was becoming divergent and elected to land the
aircraft back on the runway. However, the aircraft touched down on the left hand side of the
runway centreline, initially on the right wing tip fuel tank, which ruptured; the aircraft yawed to the
right and departed the runway to the left continuing along the grass and striking a displaced
threshold marker light. The pilot applied the brakes and attempted to recover the aircraft towards
the runway centreline, but the aircraft entered the runway and departed off the end, damaging the
ILS Localiser antenna. When the pilot assessed that an overrun was likely, he attempted to raise
the undercarriage, but could not operate the emergency retract system because of the violent ride.
The aircraft came to rest against the wire mesh perimeter fence just short of a public road
running along the outside of the airfield boundary, some 100 metres to the right of the runway
centreline. The pilot shut the engine down and switched off the electrics. He opened the canopy,
released his harness and made safe the seat pan ejection seat handle. The airfield fire service
arrived at the scene quickly and made safe the ejection seat top handle before removing the pilot
to a waiting ambulance. Despite the rupture of the right wing tip fuel tank with consequent fuel
spillage and impact with the airfield fuel storage installation, there was no fire.
Video tapes indicated that the nose landing gear of G-VIDI lifted off early and that the
aircraft became airborne about three seconds before the lead aircraft’s nose wheel had left the
runway and the aircraft became airborne at a speed between 99 kts and 106 kts. The stalling
speed of the aircraft in this takeoff configuration was estimated by the operator to be about 90 kts.
The Aircraft Flight Manual Handling Notes, Take-off Section, notes that “Care must be taken not to
raise the nose too high during the take-off run as the aircraft may fail to accelerate” and “
aircraft should be flown off at about 110 kts at normal load and at about 120 kts at maximum load.
Because of the possibility of a wing drop, the aircraft should not be pulled off the ground below the
recommended speeds.”
The pilot stated that at no time during the sequence of events did the stall warning system
operate (warning horn and light). The operator commented that, when the aircraft was inspected
after the accident, the switch controlling the operation of the system was in the off position. It
could not be determined if the switch had been on for the take-off. It was noted during the analysis
of the video recordings that several other aircraft were experiencing the effects of turbulence and
The airfield fuel storage installation dated from around the time of the Second World War
and comprised two 10,000-gallon tanks used to store Jet A-1 turbine fuel. The airfield boundary
fence comprised wire mesh netting supported by concrete posts which were not intended to be
frangible in the event of an impact by an aircraft. Adjacent to, and outside the boundary fence,
was a public road, the B5125. It was fortunate that the aircraft came to rest within the airfield
boundary and did not cross the boundary onto the road from where some members of the public
were observing the flying activities. (AAIB Bulletin No: 4/97 Ref: EW/C96/7/3)
McDonnell-Douglas test pilot, Jeff Crutchfield, was practicing aerobatics in a F/A-18 in
Bethalto, Il, near St. Louis for the upcoming airshow at Fair St. Louis when his aircraft crashed into
a residential area and exploded. The aircraft partially destroyed a home at the point of impact but
the owners were fortunately not at home at the time. Jeff Crutchfield, the pilot, with over 6,000
flight hours, was killed. Witnesses said that the aircraft was on fire before the collision with the
ground and it seemed that the pilot was attempting to avoid the homes in the last few seconds.
According to McDonnell, the aircraft was relatively new off the assembly line, having been built
four months earlier in February 1996.
Questions about whether the changes in McAir’s assembly/maintenance could have
contributed to the accident were subsequently raised in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch .
newspaper reported that seven machinists were interviewed who had said they had been doing
complex repairs on an aircraft with the McAir manufacturing number C414 and that they had
suspected that this was the aircraft that had crashed. A McDonnell-Douglas spokesman, Daryl
Stephenson, later confirmed that the aircraft that crashed, was indeed C414.
Quoting directly from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the machinists spoke on condition of
anonymity because they feared retaliation from McDonnell Douglas. The machinists said they
began repairing the aircraft in mid-May. “This aircraft had a history of fuel leaks out of one of its
tanks,” a machinist said. He and others were told to replace the No. 4 fuel cell, the largest of the
multiple fuel tanks aboard an F-18. The work was complex and involved removing hundreds of
tubes, clamps, electrical fittings and other parts to reach the rubber bladder that holds the aircraft’s
fuel. “It’s like a crossword puzzle,” said a machinist who had worked on the aircraft.
The maze of components regulate and deliver fuel to the aircraft’s engines. So significant
was the task of removing and replacing them, that the Federal Aviation Administration, in a
document obtained by the Post-Dispatch, described the 4-month-old aircraft as ‘rebuilt.’
Mechanics must work in the fuel cell compartment, which is about four feet
deep and so narrow
that only a slender person can do the job. In all, enough components to fill three boxes, each
three feet high, wide and long, were removed from the fuel cell before the machinists could reach
and replace the fuel bladder. The machinists said they began putting the components back
together as the June 5 strike action deadline drew near.
They said it is difficult to avoid damaging the components because of the cramped quarters
of the fuel cell compartment. Some electrical components, for example, had dozens of wires and it
was easy to dislodge them. “You can knock fuel lines loose, or you can knock a clamp off,” said
one machinist who had worked on C414. He said that could cause a fuel line to sever, cutting off
fuel to one or both of the aircraft’s engines. Some components supply the engines with fuel when
the aircraft is inverted, as it was just before the crash. If these components malfunction, the
machinists said, the engines would get no fuel. The machinists said much work, at least two full
shifts by two experienced mechanics, remained to be done on aircraft C414 when the strike began
on June 5. The machinists left their jobs for the picket line. McDonnell then began using
supervisors and other white-collar employees to do work previously done by the machinists.
Company spokesman Stephenson said white-collar employees completed unfinished repairs
needed by aircraft C414. The machinists said white-collar employees did not have the skill
needed to fix the fuel cell.
“Supervisors do not maintain the aircraft,” one machinist said. “They do not know what we
do.” A machinist who worked on C414 said a supervisor who took his job had experience working
on the aircraft, fifteen years ago. The supervisor could not be reached for comment. “It is difficult
even for an experienced mechanic to finish fuel cell work begun by another person,” the
machinists said, “because the second mechanic cannot know for sure what the first had done”.
The machinists noted that witnesses heard the aircraft’s engines make a popping noise just before
the crash, the noise is typical of a jet engine starved for fuel.
One witness to the crash was Jim Crutchfield, the 18-year old son of Jeffrey Crutchfield,
the late pilot. Jim Crutchfield had been a pilot for two years and was taught to fly by his father. As
the aircraft plunged toward the ground, Jim Crutchfield said its engines made a clicking sound. He
said it sounded line an engine deprived of fuel. “The engine lost power”, he said. (1996, St. Louis
Post-Dispatch )
Comment by a McDonnell Douglas colleague was that Crutchfield was one of the best
engineering test pilots at McDonnell, and it was a real tragedy. This was soon followed by a
counter opinion on an internet chat line on airshow safety: “No offence, but the history of airshow
aviation is replete with ‘The Best Pilots’ overestimating their ability to ‘push the envelope,’ and
dying for it. You simply DON’T DO IT! But they’ve gotten away with it a few times before and
survived, and they develop the image of themselves, as something they’re not, infallible - and they
often pay for it with their lives. There was a B-58 ‘Hustler’ slow roll at 150 feet one day at an Eglin
AFB Fire Power Demo, and “I nearly crapped! Awesome!” Six months later at the Paris Airshow in
1961, another pilot tried a repeat and augured in right in front of everyone”. “Airshows are great,
Two fighter jets participating in the ‘96 Tiger Meet event at Beja Air Base, Portugal, collided
in midair. A Portuguese Air Force F-16 and a Royal Air Force Hawk Trainer collided during a
display flight. The British pilot ejected successfully and the Portuguese pilot managed to land his
aircraft. Both pilots were uninjured and no collateral damage to spectators or the public occurred.
Informed sources attributed this collision indirectly to inadequate briefing prior to an unauthorised
“It looked like the pilot stopped flying the aircraft halfway through the roll,” commented a
display pilot watching from the ground. It was Joe Hartung of Baton Rouge, a member of the
Classic Jet Aircraft Association, owner of a Polish Iskra jet trainer, a B-25 and a T-6 Harvard who
was killed while flying a low-level roll at the Sertoma Airshow. The aircraft crumpled when it struck
the ground less than 150 yards from the stands where an estimated 13,000 people watched.
Emergency crews arrived within one minute of the crash and the crowd was cleared from the
stands about forty-five minutes later.
Careful study of the amateur video revealed that the first ‘half-roll’ to inverted was
satisfactory, but then the nose dropped excessively. The roll continued to the right and the aircraft
impacted the ground left wing low, but almost level, and upright. The first indication of an
impending catastrophe was the excessive nose-drop while inverted with no down elevator applied
to counter the nose-drop. There was no post-crash fire but the airframe was in pieces, albeit
mainly large ones.
Anybody who has ever flown a T-6 will tell you about it’s rolling performance and handling
characteristics; it also doesn’t have an inverted fuel/oil system – it is not fun at 1,000 feet, never
mind at lower altitude. A T-6 is not an agile aerobatic aircraft and probably doesn’t belong there
doing low-level slow rolls. This is not the first T-6 that has dug a hole doing low-level aerobatics.
A comment by an experienced display pilot: “I’ve done aerobatics in the T-6 at Kissimmee and I’ve
always been puzzled as to why people would choose it as an aerobatic aircraft. It’s a strong
airframe, but heavy and ponderous, and yes, underpowered, even with that supercharged radial
The pilot had many hours on type, and had his own T-6 which was in the shop. He had
11,000 hours total in almost everything imaginable. Wise old pilot say: “He who stalleth the T-6
close to ground shall surely perish”. Another wise old pilot says: “T-6 with low torque aileron bell
cranks rolls like a PBY, even the B-25 has a better roll-rate”. More comment from an old T-6
‘hand’: “I have over 3,000 hours in the beast, as an instructor and also did many low-level
airshows. Airplanes don’t know which way is up, only the forces on them. By the way, you can fly
inverted for a long time in a Harvard T-6 until the oil pressure gives out. I also have lots of
negative-g time in the yellow peril”.
“I don’t personally know the pilot and I don’t mean to put him down in anyway,” said an
experienced display pilot. “I have made the mistake he made doing his roll many times but I
wasn’t at 50 feet. Anytime you are doing low-level aerobatics, you have to know what’s going on
around you and you have to know how to make your airplane do what you want it to”. “I am not
going to touch on any of the possible reasons that might have lead up to the accident, I’m just
going to talk about the roll”.
“In any aircraft, it doesn’t matter how fast or slow it rolls, if you don’t control the pitch
attitude, you’re going to lose altitude. That’s all there is to it. Obviously speed is going to help you
and so will a faster roll rate, but if you can’t control the aircraft nose-position on the horizon, you
will lose altitude. That’s why you really have to know the airplane that you are flying and what it is
going to do. If you are low and inverted and you realize that you are going to dish out, stop the roll
and push the nose up 10º to 20º and finish the roll. It doesn’t matter if the engine quits cause you
should already have a lot of energy. It may look really stupid but hey, it beats hitting the ground”.
Some aircraft are harder to push above the horizon than others, the AT-6 happens to be
one of them, but it’s something you have to know how to do. If you can’t do fifty good rolls without
‘dishing-out’ or ‘losing altitude’, then you really should think twice about doing it close to the
Charlie Hillard, 58, who together with Tom Poberezny and Gene Soucy thrilled airshow
audiences for twenty-five years as the Eagles Aerobatic Team , was killed in an accident following
a solo aerobatic performance at the Sun ‘n Fun EAA Fly-In at Lakeland, Fla. According to the
NTSB report, the Hawker Sea Fury was landing after a display at the Sun ‘n Fun airshow. Hillard
had made a wheel-landing and decelerated to a three-point attitude when suddenly, the tail lifted
and the aircraft veered off the right side of Runway 27 at Lakeland Linder Airport.
The pilot suffered fatal injuries and the aircraft suffered substantial damage. Polk County
(Fla.) Medical Examiner Alexander Melamud concluded Hillard died of “positional asphyxia” after
“his chest and back were compressed by parts of the cockpit. He was asphyxiated when the big
WWII-era British fighter came to rest inverted alongside the runway, crushing its canopy. Hillard
had previously removed the roll cage from the cockpit to make room for a jump seat while
restoring the aircraft for airshows. Hillard, had logged forty-two years and more than 15,000 hours
of flight time. Some of his accomplishments included, member U.S. Skydiving Team 1958,
National Aerobatic Champion 1967, World Aerobatic Champion 1972, Leader of the Eagles
Aerobatic Team 1971-1995 and EAA Oshkosh airshow boss 1991-1995. While Hillard had
relatively little Sea Fury experience, he had 250 hours in various warbirds and had logged 14,400
total hours during a long flying career that included 25 accident-free years with the famed Eagles
Aerobatic Team . Hillard had purchased the Sea Fury and re-entered the airshow circuit in 1996 as
a solo act after the Eagles had disbanded the previous year.
To spectators it looked like Charlie Hillard was about to set the tail down on the Sea Fury,
when the tail suddenly rose very quickly and the aircraft yawed sharply to the right. It looked like a
frozen brake because the tail whipped-up so fast that in about an eighth of a second, the aircraft
flipped over on its back just off the runway. There was a lot of grey-white smoke emanating from
the exhaust stacks as the aircraft veered right and departed the paved surface. The prop kicked
up sand and dirt and dug into the ground as she went up and over, rather slowly, in fact. The
aircraft was clearly supported by the vertical stabilizer and the cowling; the tail did not crumple and
at the relatively low speed at which it flipped over, one would have expected the pilot to survive.
The NTSB ruled that ‘pilot error’, more particularly, “the pilot’s improper use of brakes and
ailerons during the landing rollout with a right crosswind, killed Hillard; the combination resulted in
a loss of directional control and subsequent nose-over”. The board listed the six-knot right
crosswind, along with Hillard’s lack of experience in the Sea Fury (41 hours) as factors contributing
to the accident. Videotape of the accident indicated that the left aileron and both elevator surfaces
were up during the landing rollout and accident sequence. The NTSB also reported that the Sea
Fury’s hydraulic system pressurized normally during a post-accident test of its brakes.
Additionally, board investigators said they found no visible brake callipers leakage, and no
abnormal wear on brake disks or linings. According to the NTSB’s factual report on the crash,
mechanics had installed new brake pucks on both the left and right wheels just days before the
accident. Hillard also had recently replaced the aircraft’s right wheel and brake calliper after a
brake key came out of the wheel and became lodged between the wheel and calliper while the
aircraft was being pushed into a hangar at Hillard’s home field in Texas.
NTSB investigators found skid marks indicating intermittent left main gear braking that
started at the 5,000-foot runway marker and continued for 439 feet. At that point the left brake
became continuous until the aircraft departed the runway. A continuous right main gear brake
application began 400 feet further down the runway than where the left brake was first applied.
Both left and right tire marks veered to the right.
Tom Poberezny, a fellow Eagles Team member and close personal friend of Hillard’s, said
that he found it difficult to accept the NTSB’s conclusions. “I know, and others know, that putting
an aircraft up on jacks and testing the brakes after an accident doesn’t mean they were working
fine before,” he said. “I didn’t see it happen, and I know the NTSB did the best job they could with
the time they had available,” Poberezny said. “I’m not criticizing the NTSB,” he emphasized, “but
most causes of accidents aren’t black and white”. “I flew with Charlie for twenty-five years,”
Poberezny said, “and I have a hard time accepting pilot error”. On the other hand, he added, “I
can’t totally dismiss it, either”. “I’m not sure we’ll ever know what caused this accident, but I know
one thing for sure,” Poberezny said, “my opinion of Charlie as a pilot hasn’t changed. “He was a
superb airman.” (Orlando Sentinel, 4/17).
Two flight instructors of the South African Air Force, Capts.
Weston and Dormehl at the
CFS Langebaanweg and members of the newly formed ‘ Astra Aerobatics Team ’ were authorised
for formation aerobatics practice for an upcoming show. After finishing the first sequence
successfully, during the second manoeuvre of the second sequence, the formation had completed
the barrel roll to the left in the ‘Star Formation’ when No. 6, Capt Dormehl moved out to the right
and upward and in the process, bumped the No. 2 aircraft on the left side of the vertical stabiliser
with sufficient force to cause significant structural damage. Capt Weston, having difficulty in
maintaining control, ejected successfully shortly thereafter, while Capt Dormehl completed a low
speed handling check prior to landing uneventfully.
The world’s only airworthy B-26 crashed outside of Odessa, Texas; the aircraft was
completely destroyed and all five on-board, two pilots, one crewmember and two passengers,
were killed. The WW II vintage bomber which was based at the Confederate Air Force in Midland,
Texas, was purchased by the CAF in 1968 and started flying in 1984. The victims were identified
as Walter Wootoon, Vernor Thorp (a charter member of the CAF), John Cloyd and two British
citizens. The two passengers from the UK were reported as Chris Gardner and Colin Dunwell,
aviation enthusiasts.
Just a routine practice flight for the airshow, five miles south of the airport, both engines
were heard to be “spluttering” and were apparently both shutdown. Although they made a safe
forced landing, the aircraft ran into an ‘above ground’ gas pipeline which resulted in a large
explosion. Despite the accident, the CAF airshow continued as scheduled.
Silent disbelief paralysed the more than 100,000 spectators crowded along the shoreline
during the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) as the four-engined RAF Nimrod disappeared into
the water of Lake Ontario, Toronto, while performing at the airshow. The Nimrod was
demonstrating its ability to avoid heat-seeking missiles when it crashed while pulling-out from a
low-level wing-over, hitting the water at approximately 230 mph., killing all seven crew members.
The final move of the sequence was a steep pull-up, fire the flares, and then a steep left turn away
from the show line simulating missile evasion tactics. Rescue boats and helicopters were on the
scene within minutes and life jackets were seen amongst the flotsam.
The video showed the aircraft diving down in what looked like a 25º nose-down, wings
level, attitude at approximately 700 feet and descending rapidly. The pitch attitude increased very
briefly followed by an almost immediate stall break at about 500 ft or less, and a continued descent
into the water with little change in descent angle. It would seem that the pilot realized that the way
things were going, they were going to hit the water, and pulled hard to try to prevent it.
Comment from a learned ex-RAF pilot who watched through binoculars as the four-engined
jet sent up a shower of spray and debris: “It was an almighty splash and then, a few seconds later,
a big bang. It was almost as though it just disintegrated,” he said. He went on to say that; “The
Nimrod stalled, simple human error, all four engines were operating when it crashed. High angles
of bank plus g equals higher stalling speed, all pilots know that and the speed went too low.
Right before it crashed, there was complete silence. Then it happened, then the complete silence
again. It was almost like it was preordained.” Whatever the cause, the end result was very
disturbing; they had flown the same routine in Shearwater, Nova Scotia. The crowd reacted in
horror, mothers hid the faces of their children, and others wept openly”.
Air Vice Marshall Peter Squire of the Royal Air Force said the crewmembers, based in
Kinloss, Scotland, were veteran airshow performers. “This was an experienced crew that had
performed similar demonstrations at a number of airshows this year. We are deeply saddened by
what has happened to this crew,” Squire said. The aircraft, usually used for maritime
reconnaissance and anti-submarine patrols, was performing a manoeuvre known as a wingover
when it crashed. The Nimrod was demonstrating its ability to avoid heat-seeking missiles by
pulling up into a climb, followed by a steep turn and dive. “It did not recover from the dive,” said
Airshow president Don Chapman said the show was suspended until the crash
investigation was completed. He said the Nimrod appeared to be within Federal safety rules at the
time of the crash, which required the plane to be at least 1,500 metres from all spectators. A
Metropolitan Toronto councillor, said the exhibition should reconsider hosting the airshow in the
Yet, another question raised: “However well practiced, something went wrong, what was
the pilot using for his altitude reference during that final manoeuvre, was it his RADAR altimeter?
His barometric altimeter? Was it set to QFE, or QNH? QNH is used in Canada, if the pilot had
QNH set and was used to using QFE and ‘forgot’ that small fact, then he would have been roughly
350 feet, the elevation of Lake Ontario, lower at the top of his climb than he would have been
completing the same move over the ocean, or if he had set QFE (assuming a barometric altitude
reference). It is doubtful if the RADALT would be a useful as an accurate reference at the
bank/pitch angles that were flown. Likewise, the view out the front windows would be equally
dubious to measure the aircraft ground clearance, much more difficult over water surfaces.”
Another big RAF jet that suffered a similar trajectory and fate was the airshow crash of a
Vulcan B2 of 617 Sqdn on 11 August 1978. The aircraft stalled during a wing-over at an air
display rehearsal at NAS Glenview,Chicago, Illinois USA and crashed into a nearby rubbish tip
adjacent to the airfield, fortunately, also without inflicting collateral damage.
Airshow crashes over water surfaces have traditionally raised the question; “Are airshows
more dangerous over water surfaces?” Although there is no scientific statistical information to
substantiate or dispel such theories, the total number of accidents at the CNE airshow are 8
crashes in 53 years with 16 deaths. The accidents occurred as follows:
1949 - RCN aircraft, 2 fatal.
1953 - RCAF CF-86, 1 fatal.
1957 - RCAF CF-100, 2 fatal.
1966 - USN Blue Angel, 1 fatal.
1976 - Vintage DH Tigermoth, 1 fatal.
1977 - Vintage Fairey Firefly, 1 fatal.
1989 - 2 CAF Snowbirds, 1 fatal, 1 safe ejection.
1995 - RAF Nimrod, 7 fatal.
The German science astronaut Reinhard Furrer, 54, guest-of-honour at the final
Johannistal Airshow, died together with 39-year-old pilot Gerd Kahdemann in the debris of a 50
year-old, Messerschmitt 108 ‘Taifun’. The physicist had been launched into space on board the
U.S. space shuttle ‘Challenger’ almost exactly ten years previously where he had conducted
scientific experiments during the ‘Spacelab’ mission. The airshow was being presented for the last
time at the historic site southeast of Berlin where the pioneer of German aeronautics, Otto
Lilienthal, had conducted his first flying attempts. The site was due to be redeveloped into a
business area.
During the afternoon, the single-engined propeller aircraft had taken part in the show
programme with other historic flying machines at the former airport Johannisthal. The show
already had closed when Furrer and the pilot decided to fly a few more passes over the fairground.
An eye-witness described the disaster on Saturday shortly after 6 p.m.: “They were flying two rolls
in succession, then attempting a third roll - at that point, one of the wings touched the ground and
the aircraft burst into flames”. Others reported that the aircraft quickly lost height after a roll, the
nose dropping excessively and scooping before finally crashing in a steep descent. Fortunately
there were no spectator casualties even though the aircraft crashed only 500 metres away from
the nearest group, impacting the ground in the fields near the landing strip. The fire brigade and
an ADAC emergency helicopter arrived at the scene almost immediately, however, Furrer and
Kahdemann had no survival chance. Despite the accident, the airshow continued on Sunday as a
tribute to the pilots and crewmembers.
The Messerschmitt 108 ‘Taifun’, was the basic aerodynamic model of the modern touring
class aircraft. In 1933, Messerschmitt received the order to build an aircraft for a trip around
Europe in 1934. The Bf-108, also called Me-108, was far ahead of its time, winning many
international competitions and in July 1939, the aircraft flew to a record altitude of 9,075 metres.
This particular aircraft was one of only two aircraft of its kind in the world, the other one being
owned by Lufthansa. The Bf-108 was not certified for aerobatics “There are old pilots! There are
bold pilots! “But there are no old, bold pilots”. Flying had been his life, now the astronaut found his
death in a historic plane that he was not even flying himself.
The ‘ Biele Albatrosy’ team had already received international acclaim and requests for
performances consequently increased significantly, 1995 being a particularly busy show
programme. During a display practice, a collision between Albatrosses No. 2 and No. 6. resulted
in the pilots Lt Col Ing. Marian Sakac and Captain Ing. Robert Rozenberg (pilot-in-training)
ejecting. Major Ing. Peter Fianta landed safely with a damaged aircraft.
24 JUNE 1994: BOEING B-52
At about 2 p.m. on 24 June 1994, a B-52 bomber took off from Fairchild Air Force Base in
Washington State to practice a display routine for the upcoming airshow. Barely fifteen minutes
later, it crashed at 170 mph, killing all four crew members on board and narrowly missing nuclear
weapons bunkers and a crowded airmen’s school. The aircraft was making a left-hand steep turn
around the airfield trying to stay within the confines of the base, which for a B-52, required a pretty
tight turn. The pilot had violated well-known restrictions just by flying over the area - all the flight
publications stipulated: “circling south of runway 05-23 is NOT authorized” and was prohibited for a
variety of reasons. A left turn would take an aircraft directly over the town of Medical Lake while
low and slow with two fair-sized hills located two miles south of the end of the runway. The
weapons storage area was also south of the runway with interference by nearby (4 miles)
Spokane International’s arrivals/departures being the main reason.
The bomber had just completed its downwind leg and was turning base-leg. Unfortunately,
the surface wind was gusting 20 kts which added a significant crosswind component to the turn.
The base turn actually took the aircraft downwind into the prohibited area forcing the pilot to have
to turn even tighter. In a frame-by-frame replay of the accident video, the ailerons were kept in a
‘left bank’ position despite the fact that the B-52 was already at about 60º-bank angle. It was clear
that NO recovery was initiated before the aircraft reached an EXTREME left wing down attitude,
the descent to impact was so rapid that the bank angle seemed not to change at all from the
beginning of the sequence to the end. The wingtip touched the ground at which point the entire
aircraft just smashed into the ground, exploding in a massive fireball.
It appeared as if the engines were idled prior to the crash since no smoke could be seen
being emitted from the engines. The crew did not ‘punch out’ because of the combination of low
height and the large angle of bank of the aircraft; in fact, the crew most probably did not realise
that they were in trouble until it was too late. It all just happened very fast, as most accidents do.
A spectator commented that: “It looked like a classic loss of control accident but I just can’t believe
that trained military pilots would get themselves into that situation”.
Video footage revealed that the co-pilot had tried to eject during the final spiral descent
prior to impacting with the ground but he was unfortunately outside the ejection seat envelope and
died impacting the ground before his chute could open; the ejection minima’s for the upper deck of
a B-52 are 90 knots and 0 feet agl. They had the speed, but the downward vector of the aircraft
when he ejected, was what killed him. If he had a little more height, or level flight, he could have
made it.
What was particularly alarming was that apparently, no one had wanted to fly with the pilot,
Lieut. Colonel Arthur Holland, a veteran pilot with twenty-four years service about to retire from
active Service. Indeed, two of the three other officers killed with Holland, were there because their
subordinates feared flying with him. Holland had a reputation as a ‘hot stick’, he apparently once
climbed the aircraft so steeply that fuel flowed from the vent holes on top of the B-52’s wing tanks.
His hard flying in one airshow reportedly popped 500 rivets during a prohibited climb and he
apparently once put the B-52 into a ‘tight spiral’ over one of his daughter’s high school softball
games. One co-pilot complained that he had to wrestle control from Holland, who cleared a
ridgeline by only a few feet during a run three months previously. Most ominously, junior
crewmembers said Holland had often talked about ‘rolling’ a B-52 in flight, something that had
never been done before.
Yet Holland’s superiors put him in charge of evaluating all B-52 pilots at the base and while
thirteen previous commanders allowed him to keep flying, only one, on assignment for barely a
year and never warned by his predecessors of
Holland’s reputation, was court-martialled over the crash. He pleaded guilty. The
commentary by a CBS local affiliate was that the crew were practicing for an upcoming airshow
and that the aircraft commander may have been ‘hot dogging’. They went on to say that after a
previous airshow, the same pilot came back with rivets popped on his B-52. If this was true, this
pilot had a history of stretching the limits of the aircraft, and using questionable judgement. The
report included two shots, one, a B-52 approaching a ridge at about 30 ft and pulling up at the last
second. In another shot, he did the same manoeuvre, except approaching the camera directly. At
one point, the camera was almost looking down on the B-52 before it pulled up. This was a
tragedy because the air force had other officers complaining about this pilot’s ‘hotrodding’. CBS
said that there was something like ten superior officers who, over the course of years, could have
grounded this pilot and didn’t.
CBS said that the co-pilot Lt. Col. Mark McGeehan,
who died, had become so frustrated that he would let no one
else fly with Holland.
McGeehan was the squadron
commander and had requested that the pilot be grounded,
but the wing commander refused his request. After that point,
he volunteered to be the only one to have to fly with Holland,
so that other’s lives wouldn’t be endangered. The tragedy
could easily have been far worse. The crash occurred not far
from the Survival School and about 500 people were outside
for a picnic, many said they could feel the heat from the
fireball. Had it occurred inside, the cleanup would be more
difficult by a few orders of magnitude. Another, possibly
worse scenario, would have been if the aircraft had crashed
in the weapons storage area, perhaps causing a radiological
In a similar “heavy” crash at Fairchild in the 19861987 time frame, a KC-135 crashed in an open area on the
base itself, coming to within 50 yards of the base operations
building. The tanker and another B-52 were practicing
displays for an airshow when the KC-135 encountered the B52’s wake turbulence and crashed, illustrating the problem of
doing extreme manoeuvres in large aircraft while near the
ground. Maybe now someone will realize you don’t yank
large aircraft around near the ground just for fun?
The pilot of an F-16C, Capt. Lewis of the USAF
Thunderbirds, was performing a spiral descent and did “one
too many” downline spirals. It was a low recovery from
which he thought he could pull out and basically ‘slid’ across
the desert floor at the bottom of the pullout. He did not eject
but was fortunate to survive the crash; the jet remained
intact but the pilot suffered back and leg injuries. He
recovered fully to fly the F-16 again...but, never as a
Thunderbird .
One of the highlights of the Africa Aerospace 1993
was the display by the South African Air Force’s Silver
Falcons aerobatic team. Flying the Italian jet trainer, the
Aermacchi MB-326 ‘Impala’, the singleton crashed killing the
pilot, Capt Charles Rudnick.
The four-ship diamond was performing a barrel roll
synchronised with the singleton’s loop. On pulling out from the loop and with the nose at
approximately 45° below the horizon, the right-hand
wing of the Impala failed catastrophically
sending the Impala out of control at approximately 300 ft agl. The fuselage continued downwards
Catastrophic wing failure due to
poor maintenance configuration
manage-ment. (SAAF Directorate
Flying Safety)
and completed two and a half rolls before impacting the ground. The pilot ejected after
approximately two rolls and the left wing separated from the aircraft, just prior to impact. The
combination of the centrifugal forces of the auto-rotating Impala, the extreme attitude of ejection
and the low height, gave the pilot no chance of survival. The pilot’s semi-inflated cute impacted on
the fringe of the post crash fireball.
The aircraft landed in a built-up area on the boundary of the airfield but miraculously, no
spectators or members of the public were injured although debris from the wreckage caused
collateral damage to surrounding infrastructure. The cause of the catastrophic separation of the
wing was a fatigue crack in the wing centre section lower beam, which caused the failure of the
centre section. The failure to repair an earlier crack in the wing main spar during scheduled
overhaul was determined as the primary cause. This failure was not detected in the configuration
control management at the maintenance and overhaul facility.
A fleet modification required a centre section modification to increase resistance to fatigue
crack formation and a fatigue life-monitoring programme was put in place for the Impala fleet. As
an unmodified airframe, this aircraft disappeared from the monitoring graphs but reappeared 2½
years later as a modified aircraft. Physical inspection revealed that the actual modification had
never been carried out and investigation revealed that the airframe had flown 1,593 hours beyond
its calculated fatigue life.
The final report of the Swedish Aircraft Accident Investigation Board’s investigation on the
Gripen crash in Stockholm on 8 August 1993 recorded that the crash sequence had started with a
low speed 360º left turn at 280 metres agl. The afterburner was lit, speed 285 km/h, load 2g, bank
angle 65º and angle of attack 21º. Rolling out of the turn, the control stick was moved to the right
almost to the endpoint and slightly forward. The left aileron control surface rapidly travelled to the
bottom position. The aircraft banked 20º to the right and the angle of attack decreased to less
than 10º. In order to quickly regain a wings level attitude, the pilot rapidly pushed the stick almost
all the way to the left and continued to keep it slightly forward. This caused the control surfaces to
move at their maximum deflection speed, and since the flight control system then had little or no
control surface displacement available on its own to work with, the stability margin was reduced.
The pilot entered into a Pilot Induced Oscillation (PIO), the same phenomenon that brought down
the YF-22 during its early development.
In technical terms, during the low speed left turn, the automatic roll trim disconnected,
exactly as automatically intended to at angles of attack exceeding 20º AOA but because of this,
the control stick had to be kept 2º over to the right in order to maintain constant bank angle. The
stick movement to the right to roll out of the turn was the same as during training, but as it was
initiated from 2º to the right already, it easily reached the geometrical stop, leading to a larger roll
rate than the pilot anticipated.
It was known to the flight test authorities that this could happen but they had estimated that
the probability of this happening in flight was negligible. The oscillation diverged and the aircraft
pitched-up on its tail, nearly instantaneously lost all forward speed and departed out of control.
The pilot could not do anything to recover or even steer it away from the thousands of spectators
and took the only available option, he ejected. By a remarkable and extremely fortunate
coincidence, the aircraft crashed in an area in which there were no spectators, saving a re-run of
the Ramstein accident.
The accident investigation board ruled that the aircraft had been in good working order and
that a combination of the pilot’s harsh stick movements, along with the flight control system
automatic levelling, caused the accident. In the crash, the flight control computer was severely
damaged, but all pieces were recovered and all memory circuits identified, which allowed the
information to be read, so full data from the whole crash sequence was available to the
More significantly, however, the way the display was planned was not in accordance the
goals stated for the flight test programme nor were any reasons advanced for the exceptions made
from the Pilot’s Handling Notes. Although the flight limits set for the display were exceeded by the
pilot, this did not contribute directly to the accident. The control laws are complex, which meant
that there were problems to fully analyse their function. Surprisingly, the effects of control surface
deflection speed limitations had not yet been fully investigated throughout the full flight envelope
and therefore, the validation process by the Manufacturer hadn’t successfully identified the pilot
induced oscillation properties of the aircraft. When flying the simulator, less work with the control
stick was needed than when actually flying. Simulator studies showed that it was possible to stall
Gripen at less than 20º angle of attack during similar conditions.
In all fairness though, there is no flight test programme that can guarantee that the entire
spectrum of aircraft behaviour has been characterised, especially something as sophisticated and
complex as a computerised flight control system, particularly the PIO. The question that must be
asked is: “to what extent an aircraft under development can be demonstrated to spectators”; put
another way, what recourse would spectators have to make claims against the manufacturer in the
event that spectators were killed or seriously injured? What risk analysis was done by the
manufacturer prior to releasing the aircraft for demonstration purposes? Was the ‘reasonable
man’ argument adequately applied?
The reasons for the crash can be best summed up within the realms of pilot’s commands,
control stick properties, control law limitations and control surface limitations. Contributory
reasons included the fact that this series aircraft differed from the prototypes in ways the pilot was
not apparently, fully briefed on. The aircraft was lighter, which as well as providing a higher
thrust/weight ratio made the aircraft slightly more sensitive in pitch. The control stick required
lower input forces and could generate a larger roll output, resulting in higher available roll rates.
The mass distribution was also slightly different, which required the control stick to be kept 2º to
the right to maintain constant bank angle when the automatic roll trim system disconnected.
The flight control system, the engine and all other systems worked as advertised until the
aircraft impacted and no external cause was suspected. The pilot was properly trained and
equipped and although the limits for minimum altitude and maximum angle of attack were
exceeded marginally, it had little bearing on the cause of the crash. The manufacturer and
customer knew that large and rapid stick movements could cause divergent Pilot Induced
Oscillations, but considered the probability of it actually happening as insignificant, so all pilots
were not fully informed. Lastly, the warning light informing the pilot that the control system was
saturated, activated too late for the pilot to do anything about it. Nearly simultaneously, the pilot
no longer recognized the aircraft’s behaviour and the low altitude of 270 metres, made it literally
impossible for the pilot to attempt to regain control.
24 JULY 1993: MIG-29 (RIAT ‘93, RAF FAIRFORD, UK)
Two Russian test pilots amazingly escaped with only minor injuries following ejections at
low-level from their Mikoyan MiG-29s after colliding during synchronised aerobatics at the Royal
International Air Tattoo 93. The two MiGs from the Russian Flight Research Institute at Zhukovsky
near Moscow, were flown by civilian test pilots, Sergey Tresvyatsky and Alexander Beschastnov
who suffered only minor injuries during the low-level ejections. No one amongst the thousands of
spectators was hurt although some were treated for shock.
The fighters collided as Tresvyatsky was pulling out of the loop and Beschastnov’s aircraft
pulled up across his path. As a result of the impact, Tresvyatsky’s aircraft was sliced through just
aft of the cockpit and exploded into a fireball just seconds before he ejected. The blazing aircraft
crashed behind the flying display aircraft parking area across the runway, a short distance from the
crowds. Beschastnov also ejected immediately following impact as his aircraft lost control when a
section of its left wing was severed. What remained of his wing was ablaze as his aircraft plunged
to the ground, crashing into a field about a mile northeast of the base.
To the spectators, the display was characterised by a high number of head-on passes, the
aim of which was to impress and in most cases, excite the spectators using speed and timing.
They were doing a synchronous loop and both pulled up into the light cloud cover, but on exiting
the cloud, the No. 2 aircraft was ahead of the lead aircraft. Since the lead was looking backwards
to see where No. 2 was, and No. 2 was looking ahead trying to visually pick-up the leader,
situational awareness was lost when they did not have one another visual.
The lead aircraft broke into a left hand turn away from the crowd, colliding with No. 2 who
was now directly in front of the lead aircraft. They apparently called ‘lost visual’ on the radio but
they didn’t get any reply from the safety pilot because the safety pilot was in a parked Tu-134 and
apparently had no power and so he wasn’t able to reply. Lead’s aircraft started to roll and he
ejected two seconds after the impact while No. 2 ejected three seconds after impact. One of the
lesser-known facts of this accident was that the two MiGs were actually carrying out the “lostcontact” procedure when they collided with one another.
Rescue helicopters took off within seconds of the crash. The one MiG crashed some way
outside the airfield while the other ‘impacted’ just outside the boundary fence within yards of a
Belgian Air Force C-130. One ejection seat came down on the centreline of a taxiway between the
parked Red Arrows display team and an Italian Air Force G-222. Somewhat surprisingly, only
minor damage was caused on the ground, the Belgian C-130 suffered damage to its rear tail
section and the Italian G222, to its main fuselage ( Air Forces Monthly January 1995)
Commentary stopped for a while, but when it returned, it was evident from the
commentator’s voice that he was shaken. He told the crowd that what they had seen wasn’t
supposed to have happened and that rescue services were on the way. Generally, the crowd was
concerned about the safety of the pilots and collateral injuries but strangely enough though, there
were also some spectators, realising the full impact of what had just happened, who were more
concerned about whether they had captured the accident on film!
To the amazement of the spectators, the airshow just continued, the next display almost
directly after the accident with hardly any delay whatsoever. This may be standard practise at
some air displays but it seemed a bit odd to the spectators, the show just continued as if nothing
had happened. Spectators reported surprisingly low levels of explosive noise which one would
have expected from the energy release at impact. Most people around had no idea what had
happened to the other MiG as everybody followed the fireball, and then they saw the other
In the words of one of the spectators: “Then they started to do opposing moves, and all of a
sudden, one of the MiG’s just burst into a huge fireball, you could hear the whole crowd gasping in
amazement. I couldn’t tell that they had actually crashed into each other and just thought that
something went wrong with the jet. I don’t think most people knew that they had crashed at the
time. It all happened very quickly, I was following the flaming MiG as it crashed to the ground, and
when I looked up at the sky, I could only see one parachute floating in the air, not having seen the
pilot ejecting”.
It was truly miraculous that both pilots survived with no major injuries to aircrew or
spectators, the only injury rumoured was that to the pilots resulting from a punch thrown between
the two of them in the ensuing argument to apportion blame.
A fatal crash occurred at the Concord (NH) International Air Festival. The performances
had included ‘fly-bys’ of F-117A, KC-135, A-10’s, a parachute show by the Golden Knights in the
morning, followed by a schedule of aerobatic and stunt flying in the afternoon. The third afternoon
performance was to be a wing walking stunt flight by Ron Shelly and his daughter Karen from
Midland, Virginia. Flying a PT-17 Stearman bi-plane with pilot Ron in the back seat, the flight was
being conducted under Title 14 CFR 91.
The initial portion of the performance was according to script, consisting of a take-off, snap
roll, vertical hammerhead and low pass at about 100 ft agl. Both Ron and Karen were seated at
this point and Karen was scheduled to climb up on top of the upper wing for a ‘wing-walk’ later in
the show. After completing the roll left, the aircraft continued rolling from which it did not recover
prior to impacting the terrain.
Mr. Wayne T. Smith, Aviation Safety Inspector (Operations) for the Federal Aviation
Administration, was the Inspector-In-Charge for this airshow and he witnessed the accident. In his
report, Mr. Smith stated: “I observed the acrobatic performance and accident from the airshow
command platform located at the show centre. After the aircraft completed a left slow roll, it
entered a left snap roll. I saw the aircraft lose approximately 50 to 75 feet after completing three
quarters of the roll. I could see from the acrobatic smoke that the aircraft was skidding to the right.
The aircraft continued its left roll as its wings came level at about 25 feet above the ground. The
nose then pitched-up sharply while the aircraft continued its roll to the left. I could still hear the
aircraft engine and it sounded normal to me. The nose of the aircraft continued smoothly in its arc
while the wings continued to roll to the left. The nose came down through the horizon striking the
ground at about a 60º attitude, the left wing struck the ground almost at the same time and almost
immediately thereafter, the aircraft erupted in flames”.
The fire engine reached the aircraft within a minute but it took several minutes to extinguish
enough of the fire to get close to the occupants. Initially spectators thought the airshow would
continue after securing the accident, but one by one the acts were cancelled and the airshow was
eventually terminated for the day. The airshow on Sunday was repeated and dedicated to the
memories of Ron and Karen. The pilot had reportedly told the airshow manager that he wasn’t
feeling well and was planning to cut short part of the airshow. This was reported in the
Washington Post, which ran it for local interest since the performers were Washington area
residents. The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause(s) of this
accident as follows. “Loss of Airplane Control as the Result of Incapacitation”.
NBC Radio News reported the first major airshow crash of the ‘93 season, an F-86 Korean
era jet fighter, crashed at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station “Open House” in southern
California. The aircraft was pulling out of a loop but there was insufficient height to complete the
loop; the aircraft crashed on the runway, exploded and the flaming wreck simply slid along the
runway. The aircraft impacted almost dead centre on runway 34 Left, the debris spread out 5,000
feet along the runway with the spectator line a couple of hundred yards from the runway. There
was a hour and a half delay as the show organisers cleaned up the runway, then the show
resumed with an AV-8B Harrier, a civilian act, and the Thunderbirds ; the other pilots apparently
voted that the dead pilot would have wanted it that way. They didn’t announce that the pilot was
dead until the end of the show. For witnesses to the F/A-18 crash five years previously at the El
Toro Airshow, it seemed to be the same manoeuvre; it was a nasty ‘deja vu’. CNN reported that
over 1,000,000 people attended the airshow during the three-day event.
Witnesses said that the pilot began that final loop from too low of an altitude which was
also probably the cause of the crash, not mechanical failure or any other Medium-induced factors.
Several knowledgeable observers said he didn’t have enough speed going into the loop and from
the video footage analysis, it was obvious that the aircraft was stalled just before it hit, but that’s
because the pilot knew he had run out of height and just ‘yanked’ back on the stick. It appeared
that the Sabre was going to make it successfully through the bottom of the loop then the nose
dipped just as it crashed. Perhaps an accelerated stall?
In the LA Times the next day, it was reported that the F-86 was originally supposed to do a
mock dogfight against a restored MiG-17. The MiG, however, developed mechanical problems on
the day of the show and was unable to fly. The F-86 pilot then elected to support the programme
by means of a solo display that the pilot had apparently practiced on the previous day for the dress
rehearsal as part of a ‘stock’ routine for this kind of occurrence. One of the local TV news reported
on the Sunday that the ‘other’ pilot had an ear infection, thus couldn’t fly.
James Gregory had flown the Sabre nineteen times in the last sixteen days. T.J. Brown,
listed on the programme as being the F-86 pilot, was also a pilot of the Coke/Holiday Inn 4-Pitts
team, was shown on a TV interview saying that he knew the F-86 was in trouble at the top of the
loop as it appeared to “not have the right parameters” of speed and altitude to make it.
The ‘anoraks’ monitored the air traffic control tower and crash crew frequencies after the
crash, for about an hour. They heard the post crash management control proceedings, from the
crash rescuer crews finding the pilot and requesting paramedics, to the ‘General’ wanting to
continue the show if at all possible. From the “FAA en-route and don’t move anything” to a request
to send the doctor to treat family members of the pilot The mood was very sombre until the show
was restarted, being dedicated to the pilot of the F-86.
There had been two other crashes in the previous eight years at El Toro. According to
KFWB the local news radio, in ‘85 a WW II vintage aircraft crashed into a vacant church on the
base and the two occupants were killed. In ‘88, an F-18 crashed at the bottom of a loop, seriously
injuring the pilot as the aircraft ‘mushed’ into the ground. (This accident is discussed in more
details in Chapter 4)
A Blue Angels pilot, Marine Capt. Chase Moseley, in only his second month flying with the
team, escaped with minor injuries after his F/A-18 Hornet collided in mid-air with the Blue Angels
flight leader and commanding officer, Cmdr. Pat Moneymaker, 43, during a training flight. The $18
million aircraft was destroyed. The jets collided over the desert in a desolate uninhabited area of
the Naval Aerial Gunnery Range near the Superstition Mountains; the gunnery range is one of two
locations near the El Centro Naval Air Facility in the Imperial Valley where the Blue Angels
from January through their first show in March. Weather was not a factor and the Blue Angels
season was not affected by the accident.
Moseley was flying No. 2 on the right, slightly low and to the rear of Moneymaker in the
team’s diamond formation on a training flight. Shortly after Moseley positioned the aircraft, he
noticed his aircraft was oscillating up and down and his attempts to smooth the motion only
seemed to aggravate this pilot induced motion. He radioed: “Chase (his call sign) is clear,” but as
he attempted to clear the formation, he realized that his aircraft was too close to Moneymaker’s.
The two aircraft locked together for a moment as they collided and then his aircraft suddenly rolled
further left to about 150º left bank, headed down at about 20º to 30º, Moseley said. Sitting
inverted seeing the desert through his canopy and not getting a response from his aircraft,
Moseley ejected and was picked up by a search and rescue helicopter from El Centro Regional
Medical Centre. After the ejection, Moseley’s aircraft flew inverted for a while before the left wing
fell off and crashed on federal land near the base.
The accident happened during the first of three ‘fan breaks’ designed to have four aircraft
in a diamond formation in a constant 50º left bank descent down to no less than 150 feet off the
ground and then pull-up again with all four jets
trailing smoke. Moseley was apparently working
on a ‘smoothness problem’ that was aesthetic
and not a safety concern. Moneymaker’s aircraft
sustained heavy damage to the right wing, but he
managed to make a safe emergency landing at
El Centro. The entire right wing replacement
cost $188,255.00 according to an estimate
prepared by Blue Angel’s maintenance crew.
The Navy ruled that pilot error was the
cause of the midair collision but since the pilot
was not negligent, he would therefore, not be
At the time of the accident,
Moneymaker had been commanding officer of Spectators watched in horror as the main
the Blue Angels for more than a year while section of the Mirage 2000 wreckage
Moseley had joined the Blue Angels about four
slammed into a small building on the airfield
months before the crash and had only sixty-one
perimeter, 300 meters away from the
flying hours with the team. The accident report
horrified spectators. (Arun Sharma)
also recommended more flexibility in the training
procedures to allow more room for the pilots to ‘clear’ the manoeuvres.
On 24 October 1989 as the team returned from their regular practice session held over the
Raumai Ranges, disaster struck. Practicing their normal airshow finale, the ‘roll-under-break’, Red
4 struck Red 5. With severe damage to the aircraft now trailing the refuelling hose and a plume of
smoke from the damaged centre-line air-to-air refuelling pod, Red 5 executed a successful
emergency landing. Aware of the population below, he declined to dump fuel and elected to stay
with the aircraft.
Recovery for Red 4 was however, not possible, resulting in the tragic death of Flying
Officer Graham Carter. In true military professionalism, within two days of the accident, the
remaining five members were back in the air as an RNZAF Court of Inquiry was convened. An
immediate ban was placed on the continued practise or use of the ‘roll-under-break’ manoeuvre
and not withstanding the findings of this military court, an announcement was made that the 1990
Kiwi Red display schedule would be continued.
As in previous years, the Indian Air Force celebrated the annual Air Force Day on 8
October 1989. To mark the occasion, a parade was held in the capital of New Delhi where VIPs
and important dignitaries gathered at the Palam Air Force Base. This particular Air Force Day
Parade was no different from the earlier parades except it ended on a tragic note. During the final
event of the day, the solo aerobatics display, a Dassault Mirage 2000 of No.7 Squadron, flown by
Wing Commander Ramesh Bakshi, the CO of the squadron, was killed in an ensuing crash.
Air Chief Marshal S. K. Mehra, Chief of Air Staff, inspected the parade. Important
dignitaries such as the Chief of Army Staff, General V. N. Sharma and the Chief of Navy Staff,
Admiral J. G. Nadkarni, were present on the occasion. Also gracing the venue were 2,000 invited
guests who had come to watch the parade.
Wg Cdr Bakshi was one of the group of Indian Air Force pilots that were originally trained in
France during the initial conversion conducted by Dassault Aviation. He had been with No. 7 as a
senior Flight Commander for some years before taking over as the Commanding Officer and had
more than 500 hours on the Mirage 2000. Towards the end of the display Wg Cdr Bakshi entered
what was supposed to be the final manoeuvre of the day, an ‘Upward Charlie’ in which the Mirage
would pull up into a vertical climb, rolling about the vertical axis of the climb before pulling into a
high-speed fly-past in level flight.
After a short inverted flight, the Mirage 2000 suddenly pulled down into a vertical dive now
repeating the same downline rolls. Wg Cdr Bakshi completed three rolls but somewhere along the
rolling dive there was a slight hesitation in the Mirage’s attitude before it entered a fourth roll.
Some officers in the audience, obviously realising that the high rate of descent would not permit an
additional roll plus recovery, rose up from their seats in surprise as the aircraft went into the fourth
roll. One Senior Air Marshal was heard to shout: “What is he doing?” The pilot recovered the
aircraft back to near level flight but was too low (<30 feet) to evade a streetlight pole, clipping its
wing resulting in a fiery dark mushroom cloud towards the west end of the airfield about 1.5 km
from the venue.
Spectators watched in horror as the Mirage 2000 slammed into a small building on the
airfield perimeter approximately 500 metres away from the horrified spectators 500 metres away
from the saluting dais and just 300 meters from nearest spectators gallery. The aircraft exploded
into a huge fireball and debris fell on a number of air force coaches parked nearby, completely
gutting them. Some debris also hit the static aircraft display and at least one Mi-8 was leaking fuel
after debris pierced its tanks. There was obviously no time to eject from the aircraft and the pilot
was killed instantaneously in the crash impact. The explosion along a row of huts outside the
airfield and the debris, killed one member of the public immediately and another died later in the
hospital due to burns. Besides the two hut dwellers who died in the crash, another twenty
members of the public were injured, but no casualties occurred inside the airfield. (Arun Sharma)
Fifteen minutes into the team’s twenty-four minute performance, two aircraft of the
Canadian Forces Snowbirds aerobatic team crashed into Lake Ontario while displaying at the
Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) airshow, killing one pilot and injuring the formation leader.
Capt. Shane Antaya, 24, who was in his second year with the team, was killed. Antaya had more
than 1,800 flying hours in the military and was a former flying instructor. His mother, his wife and
brother and sister were in the CNE audience and witnessed the crash.
The Snowbirds leader, Maj. Dan Dampsey, 36, ejected from his burning Tutor and
parachuted into the water being retrieved by the rescue services and treated in hospital for minor
injuries. Both of the Canadian-made CT-114 Tutor aircraft crashed into the lake and were
destroyed; all of the Snowbird’s fifteen remaining shows for the season were cancelled. Over the
years, there had previously been seven other crashes at the CNE airshow, six of them fatal.
Things began to go wrong when seven of the red, white and blue aircraft were performing a
spectacular manoeuvre called the ‘Upward-Downward Bomb Burst’. Four of the aircraft streaming
white smoke, began an upward climb in formation toward three aircraft also in tight formation,
diving down directly at them. The two formations were supposed to pass relatively close to each
other. But, according to videotape evidence, two of the aircraft flying the downward section,
collided with each other. The canopy of the aircraft flown by Antaya impacted against the trailing
edge of the leader’s aircraft, Antaya’s aircraft continued in the dive and plummeted into the lake;
there was no indication of pilot ejection. Dempsey’s aircraft, however, recovered from the dive but
then burst into flames. Dempsey did not eject until flames had almost completely engulfed the
Tutor as it spun wildly out of control just above the lake’s surface. The two aircraft hit the water a
few thousand metres apart, both just missing several of the pleasure boats whose occupants
traditionally got the best view of the show. The other wingman in the three-man section landed
safely after the accident.
After the crash, organizers placed the show on ‘standby’ while all participants were
requested to be prepared to perform once the decision had been taken to continue. The show
continued after the crash “because it’s an airshow tradition but would not have continued if any
spectators had been injured”, said the show’s public relations director.
Defence Minister Bill McKnight said the decision on whether to discontinue the Snowbirds
team “is not a decision that will be made immediately. It will be made in calmer times.” McKnight
said that the Snowbirds are “the cream of our youth and are important to keep as a show team
because they demonstrate the high degree of training and capability of personnel in the Canadian
Armed Forces”.
S. David Griggs, 49, an astronaut who had ridden on one Space Shuttle mission and was
scheduled to pilot another in November 1989, died when the World War II vintage AT-6 aircraft he
was flying, crashed in Arkansas. “Griggs was killed instantly in the crash near Earle; he was flying
solo and performing rolls in the AT-6 when its wing clipped the ground and crashed in a wheat field
near the company’s hangars”, said an Arkansas State Trooper. Griggs was flying for the McNeely
Charter Service, a private air service based in Earle.
A Federal Aviation Administration investigator told the Associated Press that Griggs was
practicing to perform at an airshow in Clarksville, Arkansas. “It occurred while he was off-duty, in a
private aircraft and in his private capacity. Since it was not a NASA aircraft, NASA would probably
have minimal involvement in the accident investigation.
A MiG-29 crashed at the 1989 Paris Airshow when an engine failed during a vulnerable
point in the display sequence. Although there was speculation that the pilot had skilfully pointed
the aircraft at the infield after the failure, this claim was questionable. The MiG-29 was performing
a ‘high alpha pass’, an extremely slow airspeed pass, when it reportedly ingested a bird which
caused an engine to fail. However, Soviet officials later blamed a previously unencountered type
of engine stall for the crash.
At that slow speed with one blower lit at that altitude, the inevitable occurred, an
uncontrolled yaw/roll moment caused by asymmetric thrust effects rolled the aircraft into the dead
engine and away from the spectators. The display pilot, Anatoly Kvochur, ejected extremely late
but survived with hardly a scratch even though his parachute had barely opened. Fortunately, it
had been raining heavily and the pilot survived the hard impact in soft ground.
In late 1990 there was a short interview with Anatoly Kvochur in the Hungarian bi-monthly
magazine Repules . He said this about the accident: “I am a long-time MiG-29 pilot and I have
experienced and solved this situation on several occasions previously. So I acted as usual, did
nothing and waited for the engine to regain RPM spontaneously. This time it did not happen, this
is why I’m convinced there must a foreign object suck-in involved in the stalling of engine. By the
time I realized turbine will not give thrust, the plane’s nose already draw a large arc towards the
earth. I think I was a bit late in pulling the seat’s handle.” An understatement or what?
Three aircraft of the Italian Air Force precision
aerobatic team Frecci Tricolori collided during an
airshow at the USAF base in Ramstein, Germany.
After colliding with two other aircraft, the solo aircraft
crashed into the spectators’ enclosure, killing
approximately forty of the spectators during the first
minutes and injuring several hundreds.
A fighter pilot at the airshow commented:
“When I first went to the ‘show line’ with my wife and
son, I naturally went to airshow centre, in front of the
tower. But it was way too crowded, so we moved off
west approximately 2,000 ft; best move I ever made in
my life; we had initially been very close to the impact
point. I distinctly remember watching the solo MB339 come across the valley towards us and thinking
his a bit late, he was unloading to accelerate, HE’S
GOING TO HIT – I turned away to grab my wife and
“The solo appeared to be late based on what
seemed to be an acceleration manoeuvre as he
approached the crowd, he unloaded to accelerate,
instead of flying a smooth arc. This was REALLY
obvious to all the aviators there. At the last moment,
HE PULLED UP, right into the crossing planes!
That’s what
I saw that
made me
know he
was going
to hit,
before he
did he pull
up? Why not go under the formation? Well, besides the
fact that the standard procedure was to crossover the
top of the approaching formations, it was also the
standard procedure that had always been practiced and
was ingrained in his mind. To make an in-flight decision
to take an alternative option and squeeze in below the
formation – well, there simply wasn’t enough time to
analyse the dynamics and make a decision to go against
The singleton collided with two other
aircraft that crashed on the runway. The
singleton’s aircraft, flying directly at the
spectator’s enclosure, ploughed into
crowds. (Reproduced by kind permission
of Robert Stetter)
practiced routine. It could be argued that such decisions should have been considered during the
development of the routine, but even then, unrushed decision making would have most probably
have ruled this option out as an improbable case.
Another possible reason was that since Ramstein is on the side of a valley, and the terrain
slopes up from the autobahn towards the runway, the tower/hangars and trees appear higher. A
pilot coming across low towards the runway would not see any blue sky, but trees and buildings.
So the visual illusion would be that there is no clearance unless you drop real low and fly up the
contour of the terrain.
“I am convinced that as he came across the valley in a shallow unloaded accelerating dive
(possibly higher than he was used to) and since being late, he cut off the bottom of his arc and
hadn’t ‘bottomed out’. He was looking for clearance below the crossing formations and instead of
seeing some blue sky, he saw nothing but buildings, trees, and the crowd. At that instant he
decided he didn’t have enough room to go under the rest of the team without hitting the ground
and crowd and just pulled as hard as he could - right into the formation”.
“The sad thing is that he had room underneath, at least 100 ft. He could have just eased
down and flown up the contour, and the result from all present would have been a, WOW! Damn, I
wish he had done that. I remember seeing the impact, thinking this is going to be ugly and turning
to my wife and son and pushing them to the ground before the MB-339 even impacted”.
The heat from the impact of the second MB-339 was felt by all the spectators within 500
metres of the aircraft. The impact point was near the Army ‘medevac’ Huey that was on standby
adjacent to the runway and killed an Army aviator. A British ‘medevac’ Puma crew who had all
their gear spread out around their helicopter in the static display park, threw all their gear back in
and immediately took off, surrounded by stunned spectators and started doing their job within
minutes of the crash. Watching all of Ramstein responding to the calls for blood donors, again
within minutes, while at the same time there were Germans protesting against airshows outside
the main gate – pure irony. Made their day, I guess”.
“I had to hold my son and wife, as they were sobbing and pointed up to the remnants of the
Frecce’s formation as they rejoined overhead, with at least one of the MB-339s trailing smoke or
fuel. They circled twice, then headed off to land at Sembach AB. I told my seven-year old son
that despite what had happened, they had to rejoin and see who was OK, and if they could do that,
we could also do it, and that seemed to calm him down a little”.
A spectator caught up within the impact area commented: “It was truly scary as hell - hot
ash and blast flew right over my head; I even had some lady knock me flat on my arse as the
crowd freaked and 100,000+ people all stampeded out. If the aircraft that crashed into the crowd
had not first hit a small shack on the side of the runway, things could have been much worse.”
The (USAFE) accident investigation report stated that there was human error, a ‘misjudgement’,
but refused to elaborate.
The weather conditions on over Mulhouse-Habsheim were ideal for the demonstration flight
of the newly delivered, Air France Airbus A320-100, registration F-GFKC.
With 136 persons onboard, Air France had agreed to a request from the Mulhouse Flying Club for two fly-bys by a
charter flight at the annual Mulhouse Flying Club airshow. As part of the airshow, the crew was
tasked for two fly-by’s, the first at low speed in the landing configuration at 100 ft and the next at
high speed in the clean configuration. The automatic go-around protection (‘Alpha Floor’ function)
was inhibited for the manoeuvre.
With Michel Asseline as the pilot-in-command, the aircraft had taken-off from BasleMulhouse at 2:41 p.m. local time and climbed to 1,000 feet agl. The crew commenced the descent
three minutes later to 450 ft agl with Habsheim in sight. Pierre Mazière the first officer, informed
the Captain that the aircraft was approaching 100 ft agl at 14:45:14. Eight seconds later, the
descent had continued to 50 ft and thereafter, further to 30 ft agl without levelling-off. Go-around
power was added at 14.45:35, twenty-one seconds after reaching the planned 100 ft agl. The
A320, however, continued the descending trajectory and ploughed into the trees at the end of the
runway at 14:45:40 in a 14° pitch attitude and an engine speed of 83% N1. The aircraft had slowly
sunk into the forest while continuously descending.
A fire broke out on-board resulting in three fatalities and approximately fifty injured out of
the 136 occupants on-board marking the first accident of a “Fly-by-Wire” aircraft at an airshow; the
first of a few aircraft of this type that would be lost in the next few years during operational service.
The aircraft was totally destroyed by the successive impacts and violent fire which followed. The
official investigation concluded that the pilot had allowed the aircraft to descend through 100 ft at
too slow an airspeed and at maximum angle of attack and was late in applying go-around power.
A contributory factor listed unfamiliarity of the crew with the landing field and lack of planning for
the flyby.
But there was a lot more to this airshow accident. The aircraft was fitted with the latest
flight control system technology and a lack of confidence in the highly computerized aircraft would
have meant a commercial disaster for Airbus, not only for the Manufacturer, but also for the
French administration, which had a share in the European Airbus consortium and many conspiracy
theories consequently originated.
Mr. Asseline, a former Air France pilot, was sentenced to ten months in jail by an Appeal’s
Court for manslaughter, but he always maintained that the flight data used by investigators and
displayed at the trial, was a fabrication. The crew, and Air France maintenance officials, were also
all sentenced to probation for manslaughter. There were reports of evidence, including
photographs, subsequently showing an Airbus official at the scene allegedly switching the Digital
Flight Data Recorder before the court hearing. It was also reported that the black box was
replaced with another after the accident. Ten years later in May 1998, the Lausanne Institute of
Police Forensic Evidence and Criminology (IPSC) concluded that the recorder presented to the
Court was NOT the one taken from the aircraft after the accident.
The Captain’s version of the accident was that he had flown the aircraft manually. He had
been instructed by Air France to over-fly the airfield at 100 ft agl but when he increased throttle to
level off at 100 ft, the engines did not respond. After a few seconds he became concerned and
thought there was possibly a short-circuit in the completely computerized throttle control and
therefore retarded the throttles all the way. He then opened them up again, but by that time, the
aircraft had scraped the trees. After the accident, Captain Asseline was astonished when he saw
on an amateur videotape that the undercarriage was only 30 ft agl when the aircraft was passing
over the runway. He confirmed the altimeter of the Airbus A320 had indicated 100 ft.
Interestingly enough, no fewer than fifty-two provisional flight notices were subsequently
published by Airbus Industry between April 1988 and April 1989. An Operational Engineering
Bulletin (OEB) is a temporary notice sent out by the manufacturer to the users of an aircraft and
forms a list of anomalies or simply functional features that do not appear in the Users’ manual.
Two OEBs were particularly interesting in relation to the Habsheim crash:
OEB 19/1 (May 1988): Engine Acceleration Deficiency at Low Altitude. Did this imply that it
was already known before the accident that the engines sometimes did not respond normally to
the pilot’s commands on the Airbus A320? If so, did Air France inform their pilots about this
anomaly? After the Habsheim accident, the engines were subsequently modified (OEB 19/2,
August 1988).
OEB 06/2 (May 1988): Baro-Setting Cross Check. It stated that the current design for
barometric altitude indication on the Airbus A320 did not comply with airworthiness requirements.
Could this be an indication as to why the aircraft was as low as 30 ft (9 m) above the runway
whereas Asseline confirmed that the altimeter indicated 100 ft (30 m)?
These OEBs were apparently sent to Air France but they had not been handed down to the
pilots. In fact, both the engine and the altimetric systems were modified after the crash, which
implies that they possibly did not function correctly at that time, but Airbus Industry was not held
responsible by the French Court, the responsibility was placed on the pilots and the airshow
The only change in Air France operating procedures after the airshow crash was a firm
policy that henceforth prohibited the carriage of passengers at airshow appearances. A later
report by the French civil aviation authorities, casting aside the conspiracy theories, contains the
first independent confirmation that the accident was caused by pilot error which the pilot’s union, of
course, contested. The report recommended an eight-year suspension of the pilot’s licence and a
two-month licence suspension for the co-pilot. Officials familiar with the flight recorder evidence
say that despite the pilots’ assertion that the aircraft was slow in responding to the controls, the
flight control computers probably prevented a worse disaster by keeping the aircraft unstalled
when the pilots realized too late that they were about to crash. Among several of the ‘experts’ in
this field, the flight control system was not considered to be contributory, “there was nothing wrong
with the flight control system - the pilot and operating authority just did not fully understand it,
which of course does not make it right!” it was said.
In the words of one of the expert witnesses, “the F-18 was scripted to pass the crowd at
350 kts and convert straight up into the vertical to demonstrate the climb capability of the aircraft.
The aircraft came by at what appeared to be more like 250 knots, did a steep pull-up, and
performed what looked like a ‘square loop’ to fly inverted. The problem was that the aircraft was
less than 200 knots, and less than 1,500 agl when inverted. As soon as the pilot converted down,
the crowd knew that he wasn’t going to make it”.
This was only speculation of course, but it is suspected that the pilot, a seasoned, senior
officer, also knew he was in trouble. At the bottom, spectators watched ‘full burner’ come on as
the pilot attempted to increase the aircraft’s potential energy for conversion to radial ‘g’. When the
aircraft impacted, the pilot received massive injuries to his face and chest but the main injury was
compression fractures of his vertebrae from the impact. Amazingly he survived but later retired on
medical grounds. In the aircraft’s extremely high nose-up attitude at impact, the cockpit was at
least 15-20 feet above the ground when the tail hit. Imagine being slammed down to the ground in
that situation and living to tell the tale.
The aircraft hit the ground hard, more or less flat but with the tail hitting first, the aircraft
remained in one-piece, illustrating the incredible strength of today’s composite airframes and not
much fire either. For a few seconds after the crash, everyone was in a state of shock and not
certain they could believe what had just happened. The aircraft was subsequently repaired and
surprisingly, reintroduced into active Service. There was an episode of Rescue 911 that profiled
this incident, the pilot’s recovery in the hospital at home, and his return to the skies when ‘Sandy’
Sanders took him up in his red Lockheed T-33. (A detailed analysis of the causal factors of this
specific accident is included in Chapter 5, The Demonstration Pilot).
The solo aerobatic pilot had just broken away from the formation to commence his solo
display at the annual Stellenbosch Air Club airshow. Rolling inverted, he noticed an ‘Engine
Overheat’ warning light illuminate, he immediately rolled wings level and the Fire
Warning light
then illuminated. When he tried to turn right to position the aircraft away from a nearby town, he
discovered that he had no aileron or elevator control. An engine bay fire (external to jet pipe) had
burnt through the aileron and elevator control rods that passed through the engine bay, rendering
the aircraft uncontrollable.
The pilot ejected safely but not before some anxious moments as the burning aircraft made
a ‘dirty-pass’ on him while he descended by parachute. The aircraft impacted against a cliff in the
surrounding mountains without causing any collateral damage. Time from first warning to ejection
was approximately twenty-five seconds.
The cause of the engine bay fire was attributed to the immediate past rectification of an
unserviceability. The tail section of the aircraft had been removed and refitted to rectify another
snag and when the diesel pipe for the smoke generator was refitted, the connector was not
tightened properly. Diesel oil under pressure escaped and pooled on the fuselage skin adjacent to
the jet pipe where it ignited. The procedure for fitting the connection did not specify a torque
setting or locking of the connecting nut. Both procedural deficiencies were subsequently rectified.
The Canberra Bicentennial Airshow was scheduled for 13 March 1988 and the Royal
Australian Air Force aerobatic team the Roulette s, were practising for the display and media call
with a Channel 10 cameraman in Roulette 4. During one of the manoeuvres, Roulette 4’s aircraft
pitched-up and struck the underbelly of Roulette lead. Roulette 4 pilot, Flt Lt Crispin, ejected
approximately 2 nm northeast of RAAF East Sale, Vic at 4,000 ft and 200 kts and sustained only
minor injuries while the leader, Geoff Trappett, performed a successful wheels-up landing at RAAF
East Sale.
The Royal Australian Air Force’s Roulette s aerobatic team suffered their first ever accident
when Roulette 2 and Roulette 3 collided at 2,000 feet over the training area of new East Sale. Flt
Lt. Steve Carter (Roulette
2) was killed instantly whi
ejected from his aircraft as it disintegrated. He was able to parachute into a tea tree swamp on the
“Lakeview” property from where an Esso helicopter medevac’d Flt. Lt. Brooks to the Base Medical
Flight but unfortunately during treatment, he suffered a cardiac arrest and later died in the
Gippsland Base Hospital.
A Blue Angels pilot died after a mid-air collision during an airshow at Niagara Falls
International Airport, N.Y. The two A-4 Skyhawk jet aircraft collided during a head-on ‘opposition
pass’. Navy Lieutenant Commander Mike Gershon, of Pensacola Florida was killed but the other,
Lieutenant Andy Caputi, 30, ejected from his aircraft and landed safely on the grounds of the
Niagara Falls AB. Another Blue Angels crash occurred on 12 February 1987 near El Centro after
a routine training mission.
Only five months after the previous F-20 accident at Suwon, Korea, Tigershark No. 2
crashed while at Goose Bay, Labrador, this time killing the newly appointed chief test pilot, David
Barnes. Barnes was in preparation for performances at the upcoming Paris Airshow when during
the final aerobatic manoeuvre of the five-minute flight, the aircraft deviated from the planned profile
and entered a shallow wings-level descent. The descent continued until the aircraft struck the
ground. Although the aircraft was not to blame for either crash, the Tigershark looked bad in the
media and there was a lot of finger pointing between Northrop and the United States Air Force.
The late Frank Sanders, who was deeply involved in airshow safety and accident
investigation for the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, had a theory that the combination of very
high roll rates and high ‘g’ available in the F-20, could make a pilot particularly susceptible to
disorientation and/or GLOC (g-induced loss of consciousness, not to be confused with an ordinary
g-induced blackout).
The USN Test Pilot School apparently tried to reproduce the effect in a T-38 and although
the T-38 had a respectable roll rate of over 270º/sec at 350 knots, it had very little ‘g’ available at
that speed and the roll rate decreased quite quickly with increased speed due to Mach effects.
“We could either roll fast and pull a little ‘g’, or roll more slowly and pull more ‘g’, but still nowhere
near the F-20’s structural limit of +9g”, so the experiment was pretty much doomed to failure.
In the book “Set Phasers on Stun”, the chapter titled “Tigershark!” there is a short account
of this particular F-20A crash near Goose Bay Airport, Newfoundland, Canada. The cause of the
crash was attributed to a combination of human error, fatigue and G-LOC. The Canadian Aviation
Safety Board determined that the Northrop pilot became incapacitated during or following the final
high-g pull-up manoeuvre and did not recover sufficiently to prevent the aircraft from striking the
ground. (Aviation Week and Space Technology, March 30)
There were actually three F-20s that were produced. One crashed in Canada, one
crashed in Korea (inverted stall at low altitude), and the third one is in the LA County Museum of
Flight. A fourth aircraft was mostly complete but the third one never flew again after Northrop gave
up on sales in late 1986. None of the four aircraft were actually prototypes, but were pre-
production standard, the production tools were mostly complete when the programme was
Northrop chief test pilot Darrel Cornell was killed when his F-20 crashed while flying a
demonstration for the Royal Korean Air Force (ROKAF) at Suwon in Korea. Suwon AB was the
Korean host base for a USAF ‘tenant’ unit. Darrel Cornell was on a sales and demonstration tour
with his deputy, Dave Barnes.
Before the entire senior ROK Air Force and the USAF personnel stationed there, the flight
had progressed well and the pilot had just concluded the performance when he began the routine
again. Cornell had put his F-20 into a climbing roll with flaps and landing gear extended. While
inverted, the engine flamed out from fuel starvation, the aircraft stalled and then plunged to the
ground. The pilot attempted to eject but was only approximately 12 feet off the ground and was
ejected straight into the ground landing just feet behind the aircraft’s impact site, a rice paddy. The
local farmers were working only yards from the impact point.
The Recovery Team was first on site, after a delay caused by the ROK Security Police who
wouldn’t open an access gate. Some immediate concern about the Hydrozine in the EPU caused
the Recovery Team and a HH-53 ‘Super Jolly’ which appeared on scene to provide aid, to
abandon the immediate area. Very little fire erupted but the hydraulics and oxygen, fuelled a ricepaddy fire. The pilot was pronounced dead at the scene.
The only communication with the pilot just before the fatal crash was apparently: “I’m glad
its over, I’m tired” or something to that extent. The demo team had just completed a tour of the
Pacific Rim countries trying to find buyers and the ROKAF was apparently ready to sign delivery
contracts up until the crash. The two F-20’s were being flown on ‘demo hops’ all day previous to
the crash. The ROKAF wanted a replacement for the fleet of F-5E’s but after the fatal crash, the
sale of the privately funded fighter came to a halt. The F-20 may have had it’s limitations but there
are many pilots that still think Darrel Cornell gave one of the best demonstrations ever seen at
Farnborough 1984 flying the F-20.
The Buffalo had just completed a demonstration flight at the Farnborough Airshow when
the pilot made a typical fighter approach to Runway 25. On short finals the Buffalo suddenly
descended rapidly as the pilot turned tightly to avoid hammer-heading final approach to land. The
excessive rate of descent caused an extremely heavy landing, the nose-wheel assembly and both
wings catastrophically failed on touchdown due to excessive loading. Debris, including parts of the
propeller blades caused damage to vehicles and other nearby aircraft. There were no fatalities but
the two pilots and one passenger on-board, were injured.
The cause was attributed to human error with contributing factors of unfavourable weather
conditions, a transitory handling problem whilst flying outside the tested flight regime and the
pressure on the pilot-in-command to complete the flying sequence in an effort by show organisers
to keep the show flowing. Ironically, flying supervision came under some blame for this for
accident for ‘over stressing’ the importance of the requirement to maintain the display lines.
Allegedly the comment made by the show supervisor to the pilots was: “the next guy who flies
through the show line will be grounded”. Was this pressure induced failure?
There have been a fair number of landing accidents by medium lift transport aircraft at
airshows. At the 1985 Paris Airshow, a similar accident occurred. On completion of the display by
a Dornier, the aircraft landed off a very steep approach that resulted in an extremely hard landing.
The wing structure broke on impact and the aircraft ended its landing roll with part of a wing
dragging behind the aircraft. Fortunately no one was injured but the aircraft was badly damaged.
Another, at RIAT 2002, RAF Fairford, the Italian Air Force pilot of a Alenia G-222
‘overcooked’ a battlefield assault approach. From a steep approach the pilot underestimated the
‘flare-height’ and put the nose-wheel assembly through the cockpit floor.
A SAAF C-160 was practicing for an upcoming airshow at AFB Waterkloof, South Africa.
The C-160, as a medium weight battlefield support aircraft, had an impressive short field
performance capability as one of the main design features and was thus planned as the climax to
the display sequence. The crew planned to fly two flypasts, a high speed run and then a low
speed run with ramp and para-doors open and undercarriage down, culminating in a short landing.
Flown by a crew of three, the aircraft was set-up on final approach in the short-field landing
configuration. The checklist was completed but due to pilot workload and cockpit resource
management deficiencies, the aircraft touched down with undercarriage up and slid to an
extremely short-landing. Fortunately, no significant damage to the aircraft or crew occurred,
except for their egos of course. In this specific accident, the domino principle was best
demonstrated. A crew was appointed to do the display but time and aircraft availability prevented
them from practicing. When an aircraft eventually became available, only the two pilots from the
assigned crew were available so other crewmembers were substituted for the practice flight and
this ‘patched crew’ departed for the practice. No formal briefing was conducted and only a very
rudimentary crew briefing was done.
Once airborne, they were pressed for time as it was near closing time for the base and they
were rushed to complete the sortie. They elected not to lower the undercarriage for the flypasts
and nobody in the cockpit checked for undercarriage on downwind before landing or on final
approach for landing; the ATC gave landing clearance without the customary ‘5-greens’ call from
the pilot and ATC did not confirm the position of the undercarriage.
This was not the first time that a C-160 Transall had done a wheels-up landing at an
airshow. This also happened at the Paris Airshow in 1981; two C-160D Transalls dropped
parachutists and then conducted a two-ship display. The first aircraft landed followed by the other.
The latter bearing German colours of MBB, attempted to execute a shorter landing with a tighter
approach. In the rush, the undercarriage was extended but apparently not locked and the
undercarriage then retracted on touchdown, the aircraft sliding along the runway on its belly. The
aircraft suffered only minor damage and the crew, safe, then continued by having an argument on
the edge of the runway. Strangely, this is not an unusual characteristic trait following a survivable
accident – apportioning blame seems to be the first defensive mechanism of the pilot and verbal
assaults and even ‘punch-ups’ have reportedly occurred. This was most certainly also the case in
the collision between the two MiG-29s at RIAT in 1993.
Forty-six people were killed when a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter carrying skydivers from
several nations crashed at an airshow at Mannheim, West Germany. Without question, the loss of
this aircraft resulted in the worst and most tragic airshow accident in the history of airshows at that
time, it was also a huge blow for the Chinook and all helicopters in general.
The City of Mannheim had requested two Chinooks to drop skydivers at the airshow for the
375th anniversary of the city. Although both helicopters arrived on schedule, instead of two
Chinooks executing the mission, a decision was made to take only one aircraft. The skydivers
wanted to set a world record by forming the largest joined circle of free-falling skydivers ever
accomplished. As a result, forty-six people climbed aboard the single Chinook but since there
were only thirty-three seats available in the cabin, eleven parachutists remained standing.
The aircrew planned the drop at 13,000 feet and after climbing for about twelve minutes to
an estimated altitude of approximately 8,000 feet, the tower received a message from the aircraft
that a problem had developed and it was descending and returning to land. At about the same
time, the pilot of the second aircraft, watching from the ground, saw the ‘chopper’ start descending
rapidly. Out of curiosity he jumped into the cockpit of his aircraft and on the squadron’s ‘natter’
frequency, made contact. The pilot reported a flickering caution light, a mechanical noise and that
they were returning to land. After a few minutes of autorotation, the pilot set up the helicopter to
land on the airfield.
On passing approximately 600 ft, at the last moment, the aircrew decided there were too
many people in the area where they were trying to land and the descent was halted in an attempt
to cross the autobahn and land on the other side. When power was applied to arrest the descent,
the in-flight break-up of the helicopter began. Witnesses on the ground reported hearing a loud
bang and describing a “whooshing” sound. The aft rotor blades were seen departing the airframe
and shortly afterwards, the aft rotor hub, along with half of the aft pylon, separated from the
fuselage. A split second after half of the aft pylon separated, the aft transmission and the
remaining portion of the aft pylon began to tear away from the airframe. The aircraft slowly rolled
onto its right side as it continued to descend.
The helicopter crashed onto the autobahn between Mannheim and Heidelberg, bursting
into a huge fireball on impact and creating a glowing mushroom cloud above the impact site. The
‘g’ force at impact was estimated at 200g which means that an average 180-pound person aboard
the helicopter would have been subjected to a force of 36,000 pounds; there can be no doubt that
death was instantaneous.
The failure of the Forward Transmission Input Pinion Capsule caused the Number 1
Synchronized Drive Shaft to rotate eccentric and contact the Forward Pylon structure, causing the
shaft to fail followed by the subsequent de-synchronization of the Forward and Aft Rotor Systems.
The forward and aft rotor blades meshed causing the aft pylon, aft transmission and the aft rotor
system to separate from the helicopter with catastrophic results. The entire crew and all
passengers received fatal injuries. The failure of the Input Pinion Capsule was caused by Walnut
Grit, used to clean the transmission during the overhaul process, blocking the oil journals inside
the transmission.
For many years prior to this accident, walnut grit was successfully used as an effective
cleaning agent for the transmissions during the overhaul process. It is softer than the base metal,
but harder than the contaminants that accrue inside the transmission. Shortly before this accident,
a procedural change in the process was made by inspectors working for the Occupational Safety
and Health Administration who examined the working conditions at Corpus Christi Army Depot. It
was noted that high-pressure air at approximately 3,000 PSI, was used to blow the walnut grit out
of the oil journals. This high air pressure was deemed hazardous to workers and it was ordered
that the pressure be lowered. As a result, the walnut grit was no longer completely removed
during the cleaning procedure and eventually, when the transmission was placed into service, the
walnut grit would flow through the oil passages and accumulate in a point blocking a journal. A
bearing would fail from the lack of lubrication.
The Thunderbirds lost the entire formation team, all four, when Lead’s stick apparently
jammed as he came down out of a loop and couldn’t pull out of the recovery dive during a training
sortie. The formation of T-38s were seen to impact the desert at Indian Springs AFB, Nevada. in a
line-abreast loop. Planned entry and exit heights for the loop were 100 ft.
The leader was Major Norman Lowrey, aged 37, who had taken over as team leader in
October ‘81. No. 2 was Capt Willie Mays, 32 and No. 3, Capt Joseph Peterson, 32, both who had
been on the team for two years. The newest member of the team was No. 4 was Capt Mark
Melancon, 31, who had joined the team in October as ‘slot man’. The Thunderbirds
had been
under pressure following two fatal crashes in the previous season (9 May 1981 at Hill AFB, in
which one of the team crashed inverted just outside the airfield.)
They went in, all in line abreast and impacted within 0.4 seconds of each other; the aircraft
were slightly nose up when they hit. Nothing wrong with any aircraft. The first accident report
concluded ‘pilot error’ but the USAF command told the accident investigation team to try again and
they then came back with the actuator theory which was published in Flight International
, 30
January 1982. The report that came out of the crash investigation found that an actuator rod on
one of the control services had bent when the pilot pulled the stick harder coming out of a loop.
He felt that he was giving it more input, but all it was doing was bending.
The original report being bounced back from HQ to the Board of Inquiry, from political
masters to a board of specialists, generally does not bode well for aviation and airshow safety.
The overriding of specialist findings by management in any organisation always tends to alert the
inquisitive to dig a bit deeper, not necessarily understanding the strategic vision of such stronghanded political decisions. In fact, the second report raised more questions than answers and
certainly raised suspicions of a cover up by the USAF. The rejection of the accident investigation
report is dealt with in Chapter 5)
In front of a crowd of several thousand
spectators at the Africa Aerospace Airshow in
1981, the commentator counted out over the
public address system as each turn of the inverted
spin was completed. The aim was to conduct
thirteen turns of the inverted spin and then to
recover. South African aerobatic champion Nick
Turvey recovered from the spin, but with
inadequate height to effect a safe recovery
pullout, the aircraft impacted approximately fifty
metres behind the spectator showline in an open
gully between the showline and the hangars.
Miraculously the aircraft did not explode on impact
and no one was killed but Nick Turvey was
hospitalised for several months as his badly Miraculously the Pitts did not explode on
injured body recovered.
impact and the no one was killed but Nick
This accident was marred by poor crowd Turvey was hospitalised for several months
control, the crowds surging forward to the crashed as his badly injured body recovered. (P. du
aircraft and hampering the rescue vehicles. It was Bois)
obviously never envisaged that an aircraft would
crash behind the crowd line. According to a witness at the time: “The show organisers clearly had
no proper emergency plan in place, or they certainly didn’t rehearse for it! From my own
experience, I know how soon one forgets the drill when not practiced. No proper crowd control, no
procedure (fire engine caught in the fence), too many people ‘lending a helping hand’ thus
preventing the medic’s from doing their job and no crew manning the emergency helicopter.”
Britten-Norman Aviation, the UK based aircraft company dispatched their latest 1976 shorthop transport design, the Trislander, to Africa on a series of demonstration flights with the primary
aim of achieving sales orders. The visit coincided with the annual 1977 Africa Aerospace show
held at Lanseria Airport in South Africa.
Company test pilot Peter Phillips demonstrated the Trislander. The airfield elevation at
Lanseria (near Johannesburg) is approximately 5,000 ft and with a prevailing temperature on the
day of the accident at 30ºC the density altitude was approximately 8,500 ft. Amongst other
manoeuvres, a loop was included in the demonstration sequence. During the practice sessions, it
was evident to the pilot that the density altitude was critical to aircraft performance and the safe
accomplishment of the manoeuvre. As it turned out, the sequence progressively lost energy with
the result that at the apex of the loop, the aircraft was too low resulting in insufficient height to
safely effect the recovery pull-out; it was estimated by reliable sources that the proverbial ‘another
50 ft’ might have been sufficient to avoid impact with the ground.
The aircraft impacted directly in front of show centre, bounced back into the air, the
engines broke off and continued on their independent trajectories leaving the fuselage behind with
the pilot and passenger inside. Fortunately there was no post-crash fire and the pilot survived the
impact but the high vertical velocity at impact resulted in back injuries.
The classic story of the ‘loop that kills you’ - bad weather, too low, too close - the result, a
hole in the ground. Despite a very low ceiling, the airshow programme continued at the Paris
Airshow and the A-10, renowned as an agile close-air-support “tank killer” with the ability to
manoeuvre in confined air space, was on show. It was 3.30 p.m. when the Fairchild A-10 entered
the first vertical manoeuvre, a loop.
The highly experienced test pilot, Howard W. Nelson, one of the A-10 programme test
pilots, pulled up into a loop; the aircraft entered the low overcast and the pilot exited the cloud
completing the loop safely. The pilot pulled up for the next loop, attempting to fly the loop tighter
this time to keep it from entering the overcast. The aircraft remained below the cloud ceiling and
the recovery pull-out was commenced, but this time, the aircraft was too low and it impacted the
ground, tail first before smashing into the ground. The aircraft immediately broke-up on impact,
the tail and cockpit separating from the fuselage and the fuselage catching fire.
Comment by a spectator at the crash: “I estimate that another 50 to 100 feet was still
required to successfully complete the manoeuvre. The pilot, I believe, barely survived the initial
impact but regrettably died from the injuries sustained associated with the ensuing break up. I
remember thinking at the time, geez - if he pull’s this manoeuvre off with what looked like a
possible clearance of 10 to 20 feet above the runway, ‘struth - what a performance! Tragically it
did not turn out that way though. It’s sad when any pilot dies”.
During an inverted pass overhead the runway at RAF Lossiemouth as part of a display
practice for an upcoming airshow, a control restriction was caused by an unrestrained personal
survival pack (PSP) in the rear seat. Instead of using the correct restraint cover to safety the
ejection seat PSP and seat straps, the straps were tied-up with twine which allowed the PSP to
dislodge and fall out while inverted and jam the control column. The pilot managed to keep limited
control of the aircraft to achieve an ejection attitude and to command ejection before the aircraft
crashed into the overrun. The pilot was suffered only minor injuries and there was no significant
collateral damage.
With the rapid advances in helicopter design technologies, it was not long before
helicopters attempted to emulate the fixed wing manoeuvres and it was at Farnborough 1974
where the S-67 Blackhawk prototype crashed. The helicopter started the sequence of consecutive
rolls too low and hit the ground on exit from the last of the two rolls. As one of the major
commercial airshows, the S-67 was on-demonstration as Sikorsky was attempting to sell it to the
Israeli Air Force.
Due to the constraints of early helicopter design, helicopters were prohibited from pulling
negative ‘g’ otherwise the blades could easily strike the tailboom with catastrophic results - rolling
and looping manoeuvres could therefore not be attempted unless they could be flown under
positive ‘g’ throughout the manoeuvre. To do a straight roll in a helicopter thus requires a high
nose-up pitch attitude prior to commencing the roll and a single roll only is usually flown – not
consecutive rolls. However, should the pilot elect to fly two consecutive rolls, the nose-up pitch
attitude would have to be so much higher because it was not possible to push forward to keep the
nose on the horizon. In this specific case, two consecutive straight rolls were attempted but the
helicopter crashed onto the airfield during the final part of the second roll. Fortunately the aircrew
were only injured with no collateral damage being caused to infrastructure. A concise summary of
the findings by the Board of Inquiry: “The Commander made an error of judgement when initiating
a roll manoeuvre at too low a height, although that height was sufficient had the manoeuvre been
flown in the normal manner, and at a height which met the UK MoD, SBAC, Sikorsky minima.”
On 6 March 1973 at Goussainville, France, an Aeroflot Tupolev Tu-144 crashed while
performing during the Paris Airshow. The official synopsis of the accident was that after a very
steep climb, the aircraft was observed levelling off very abruptly and then begin a dive. In the
ensuing dive recovery, the aircraft broke apart in-flight and exploded, the wreckage hit the village
of Goussainville and in addition to the six crew on the Tu-144, eight members of the public were
killed and sixty injured, many of them suffering from burns.
Conspiracy theorists even speculated that the pilot, possibly startled by a close encounter
with a Mirage jet photographing the TU-144, overreacted by pushing-over to a negative angle of
attack causing a compressor stall. The aircraft then went into a dive and broke apart after the
aircraft’s design load-limit was exceeded.
However, an eyewitness account from an eminently qualified witness, world renowned test
and display pilot, Bob Hoover, in his autobiography, “Forever Flying” he recorded: “The last day of
the 1973 Paris Airshow was called the Public Day. More than one million people were on hand to
view the air displays. On the Saturday night before Public Day, the French held a reception for all
of the pilots flying in the show. Throughout the first ten days, there had been a fierce competition
between the French Concorde and the Russian Tu-144, both supersonic transports. I believed the
Russian pilot was exceeding his flying capabilities. On one landing, he overshot the runway and
had to execute a go-around. On another, he landed short. At the reception, he boasted that on
Sunday he would ‘out fly’ the Concorde. That day, the Concorde went first and after the pilot had
performed a high-speed flyby, he pulled the Concorde up steeply and climbed to approximately ten
thousand feet before levelling off”.
“When the Tu-144 pilot attempted the same manoeuvre, he pulled the nose up so steeply
that I didn’t believe he could possibly recover without a whip-stall. I was observing the flight from
the deck of the Bendix chalet with members of the Press. I yelled, “Get your cameras. He isn’t
going to recover.” When the aircraft stalled, the nose of the plane pitched over violently into a
steep dive and as he attempted to pull out of the
dive, the airplane started breaking up, and pieces
of burning debris rained down on a French village
Howard Moon’s Book “Soviet SST: The
Technopolitics of the Tupolev-144” discusses this
accident at some length and entertains
interesting conspiracy theory.
According to
Moon: “The fatal flight followed a spectacular tenminute demonstration by the Concorde, which the
witnessed as passive
while waiting for takeoff. According to some
reports, the Tu-144 crew was under pressure
from Moscow to stage a spectacular flying
When the aircraft stalled, the nose of the
display. The ensuing exhibition featured the 144
plane pitched over violently into a steep
swaying from side to side and with steep banks
dive and as he attempted to pull out of the
and turns at very low altitude. Mikhail Kozlov, the
dive, the airplane started breaking up, and
pilot, had told colleagues two days before, “We
pieces of burning debris rained down on a
have a few tricks. We have more power than the
French village nearby.
Moon concludes that the root cause of the
accident was actually the rivalry between the Concorde and the Tu-144. A contributory cause is
that the French cut back on the carefully rehearsed Soviet display flight time at the last minute and
extended the demonstration flight time of the Concorde. At one stage of the display, the crew on
the 144 were forced to improvise a landing and apparently tried to land on the wrong runway. As
they went around for another landing, they were not in touch with air traffic control and found
themselves on a collision course with a French Mirage III.
To complicate matters, an alternative conspiracy theory proposed that the co-pilot had
apparently been given a TV camera to shoot film for a French TV station during the flight. The
negative ‘g’ avoidance manoeuvre caused the camera to fall into the control-stick-well on the
cockpit floor. By the time it was removed, the only option was a violent recovery attempt, which
led to the failure of the starboard wing. According to Moon, a Soviet simulator ran this scenario,
and it duplicated the events at Paris. Despite this and other theories about technical problems,
disintegration of the canards, stalled afterburners and fatigue cracks in the wings, Moon is
convinced that ‘technical factors’ were peripheral to the fate of 77102. The precipitating factor in
the disaster was political.
The TV camera that supposedly fouled the controls symbolizes the dangerous intrusion of
publicity, but Moon contends that the one event that made the crash unavoidable, was the
decision to cut short 77102’s demonstration flight, practiced at least six times in the USSR. This
would have left a disoriented pilot and crew above a strange airfield in an aircraft with notoriously
poor cockpit visibility and it is thus understandable that Kozlov attempted to land on the wrong
runway, or so it was claimed. Still pursuing the conspiracy theory, what seemed less excusable
according to Moon, was that a second aircraft in the area forced a series of violent evasion
manoeuvres, which even the robust '144 airframe could not withstand. Their boorish pressuring in
the joint commission notwithstanding, it is hard to establish much Soviet responsibility for the
crash. Moon concluded that errors may have been made in the demanding flying conditions over
a crowded airshow, but the sloppy air control of the airport, the straying fighter, and the truncation
of the '144 flight routine were the precipitating, critical events. The managers of the airshow
appeared to be chiefly responsible for the disaster.
Moon doesn’t discuss the Mirage and why it was where it was - it could have been an
airshow participant or a platform for photographing the Tu-144, as suggested by conspiracists but
photographs of the Tu-144 on the ramp show the canard surfaces deployed for all to see. Given
this, plus the surfaces being used during the flying displays in front of the crowd, just what
advantage would photos from the Mirage have given? So, was the Mirage really there to shoot
photos or was it just there for some other, maybe totally innocent, reason? If it was there at all!
To date there has never been any firm evidence corroborating the alleged Mirage III ‘plot’,
although the story seems to have been repeated for so long now that it has become the ‘truth’.
There’s also the issue of compressor stall, which Moon doesn’t really discuss either in his
analysis. According to Moon, one of the major problems encountered with the Tu-144 was inlet
design. It was one of the major design problems with the Concorde too, - half of its wind-tunnel
time was devoted to solving this problem. In 1977, the USSR approached the Concorde
consortium for help with inlet design and control systems but was turned down because of the
military applications of the technology.
Another viewpoint expressed by an experienced pilot at the show: “After these passes,
described as ‘spectacular’ and ‘over-done,’ the 144 indulged in a low-speed exhibition of the
superior low-speed handling provided by the canards. This was described as a low-speed ‘wormburner’ skim over the grass at minimum altitude. Immediately following this low-speed pass, and
with canards and landing gear still extended in low-speed trim, Kozlov pitched the 144 into a steep
climb with all afterburners lit. The 144 climbed to about 3,000 feet and then experienced what
appeared to be a full classic stall, wobbling about all three axes, yawing to the left and then diving
steeply. Some witnesses said that two pieces separated from the aircraft at this point, possibly the
canards, which led some to conclude that the canards’ debris had pierced the wings or possibly
entered the engines. But most believe that the canards were still out and did not break off. The
steep dive that followed indicated that the 144 was in mortal peril for there was only 3,000 feet to
recover, and the 144 was a large and heavy aircraft.”
“Kozlov came close to levelling out the 144 after an almost-vertical drop of several
seconds, but the recovery was too abrupt, with the right wing breaking off at the root and the
subsequent roll breaking off the other wing. Two engines were quickly engulfed in flames and
several explosions rocked the stricken aircraft as it tumbled to earth in incandescent lumps of
titanium and steel. Many expert witnesses agreed that the 144 had been taken beyond the limits
of its flight envelope. It had no ‘g-levelling’ device that prevented it from being manoeuvred
beyond the strength of its airframe. The explosive disintegration was the result of a desperate,
foredoomed attempt at recovery”.
In another viewpoint expressed by James E. Oberg in his book “Uncovering Soviet
disasters; exploring the limits of Glasnost” ISBN 0394560957, he wrote: “On June 3, the last day of
the air show, the two different Mach 2 airliners flew head to head before a crowd of 200,000
aviation fans. First the Anglo-French Concorde made a magnificent flyby and circuit of the field,
performing more like a fighter jet than a passenger airliner. The crowd was impressed. Then it
was the Tu-144’s turn. Pilot Mikhail Kozlov did his best to outperform the Concorde, completing a
series of manoeuvres with a low flyby along Runway 060. As he came along the runway in front of
the main reviewing stand, many aviation experts and journalists grew apprehensive over the
airplane’s low airspeed. They saw the plane’s afterburners kick in, painting shock diamonds
behind the four engines. As the plane reached the end of the runway, it pulled up into a climb
which rapidly became dangerously steep. “Shoot him, shoot him!” one bureau chief cried to his
cameraman. “He’s not going to make it!” Kozlov’s nearly vertical climb had had its intended
effect: The crowd 'oohed' in amazement. The admiration then suddenly turned to horror. As
clearly shown later in photographs, the left canard broke clean off from the stresses, which went
far beyond the design limits of a commercial airliner. It smashed into the wing root behind it, and a
small orange flare blossomed as the ruptured fuel tank exploded. The plane noised over and
dived straight into the ground “like an arrowhead,” one horrified newsman recalled years later.”
With regards to the inquest, it seems reasonable that the French would not want their role
in the accident made public. The presence of the Mirage, either deliberate or accidental, would
not have looked good. This would hold true if it were there to take photographs or simply there as
the result of an air traffic control error. Other actions by the airshow organizers that contributed to
the crash would also not have reflected well upon the French. The Soviet desire for silence could
have been a cover-up of technical problems with the Tu-144, or just a knee-jerk security reaction the Cold War certainly saw enough of those.
It is interesting to note the two widely differing perceptions, the one by a display specialist
Bob Hoover and the other by Moon. Whatever the theories, there are several basic display
lessons to be learnt by display pilots, airshow organisers and Flying Control Committees.
Way back in 1972 at Dulles International Airport’s Transportation Exposition Airshow
(Transpo '72), there was a huge exhibition on what future transportation might look like. They also
had several airshow performers including the Thunderbirds - it happened there - the airshow
organisers “nightmare scenario”, there were three deaths over the duration of the exhibition. By
the week’s end, the organisers who promoted the show must have felt like calling it quits.
The first was when the ‘pilot’ of a hang glider on a towrope stalled and dumped it into the
ground. The second occurred during a sprint race around pylons - the aircraft involved were fairly
small and fast and while in a turn, the propeller of an outside aircraft hit the tip of the wing of the
aircraft inside. The wing pretty much came off instantly and at less than 300 ft agl, the aircraft
rolled fast and hit the ground so quickly that the pilot was still exhaling his first expletive when he
died. The third was during one of the Thunderbird’s more spectacular moves.
At that time, the Thunderbirds were flying the F-4 and on the last day of the show, Howard,
the right wingman, was killed following a stab actuator failure (non-time change item). The team
had just completed a five-ship wedge roll, and were in the first 40º of a 4-G vertical (90º) ‘wifferdill’
turnaround manoeuvre. Howard’s flight controls were disabled and his aircraft left the formation
uncontrollably at very high G, estimated by McDonnell Douglas to have been 17-25 positive G’s
which resulted in an immediate inverted stall, and a completely unflyable aircraft. Although
Howard did manage to bail out at extremely low height, his parachute was ignited by the aircraft’s
fireball and he was killed.
He was an outstanding pilot and an inspirational and caring person. It was a tremendous
loss to the team and of course, his family. The impact of such occurrences on the spectators is
distressful, especially the wives and kids watching the accident. A comment by a spectator was
that: “I don’t think such accidents should cause airshows to be shut down. I do however, think that
airshows increase the probability that people will witness tragic accidents as they happen. And
these days it’s not uncommon to see video footage on the evening news”.
Four pilots were killed in a mid-air collision near Kemble when the two Gnats of the Red
Arrows ‘synchro-pair’ approached each other head-on from opposite ends of the runway. Both
aircraft were flying the horizontal carousel (roulette) manoeuvre (a flat, opposition 360º turn) and
for this accident to happen, both had to have been on the same side of the runway at the
crossover. In the subsequent investigation, members of the House of Commons questioned the
continuance of the team but fortunately, Lord Carrington, the Secretary of State for Defence ruled
that a seven-man team would continue but the carousel manoeuvre was subsequently classified
as a prohibited manoeuvre for the next twenty-five years.
In preparation for a BBC Television filming, the aircraft were being flown by the current
Synchro Lead and Synchro 2 who were giving dual instruction to their successors; it could never
be conclusively concluded which of the four pilots were flying at the time of the accident. To
ensure continuity within the Synchro-team, the Synchro-Lead is always a third and final year Red
Arrows pilot, with Synchro-2, a second year Red Arrows pilot. The rule of thumb for conducting
such head-on passes is that the Synchro-Lead flies the profile and Synchro-2 has the job of
‘missing’ Synchro-Leader.
During the final event of the day, Patrouille de France
flying the Fouga Magister, were
assigned the closing slot for the day’s proceedings. Finishing with the traditional final nine-ship
bomb-burst, one of the aircraft did not manage to recover from the ensuing recovery pull-out and
crashed near the official enclosure. Much of the crash debris was projected towards the crowd,
including part of the engine which finally came to rest against the barriers separating the public
from the runway. In spite of the chaos and panic that followed, miraculously nobody else in the
crowd was injured and only Captain Didier Duthois, the deputy leader of the Patrouille de France ,
was killed.
The 1965 Paris Airshow will be remembered for the two fatal accidents that occurred. The
second accident of the 1965 Paris Airshow occurred with the daily flying display programme
approaching the end. The Italian Air Force Fiat G-91 had completed its demonstration and
approached Runway 03 for landing. The G-91 got behind the power curve in a missed approach
due to a Canadair Tudor being taxied onto the runway. The G-91 crashed into the parking lot
about 300 metres from the threshold of the runway killing the pilot, Italo Tonati, (who did not eject)
and nine spectators while destroying about sixty cars in the car park.
The first accident occurred on Tuesday 15 June 1965 and as in 1961, it was once again a
B-58 Hustler. The aircraft was heavily loaded on arrival from Madrid, approaching for landing on
runway 25, the aircraft literally lost an engine on finals and crashed just beside a taxiway almost in
front of a Husky Fire-fighting helicopter waiting to cross the active. The Huskey just flapped over
and dumped the load on the cockpit and immediately extinguished the fire. The pilot was killed in
the accident while the two other injured aircrew members were evacuated to Paris by helicopter.
The airshow organisers had another aircraft there for the final Sunday and the crash rescue crews
were suited up all along the runway inside their trucks all the time it was in the air.
Sunday, the last day of the flight demonstrations of Hawker Siddeley’s experimental
P.1127 vertical take-off and landing jet. Demonstrating hovering flight after having presented
rearward flight, the aircraft transitioned to forward flight. At this time the P.1127, still within ground
effect, ingested foreign objects which caused perturbations to the airflow and consequently, engine
operation. According to one of the French witnesses, “the FOD partially choked the nozzles and
then the exhaust outlets which, without being commanded, rotated from the vertical to the
horizontal, resulting in the aircraft falling heavily to the ground. The fire-rescue services
immediately intervened and sprayed foam over the aircraft. Fortunately the aircraft did not catch
fire since the fall was only a few metres. The pilot, Hawker’s world renowned test pilot A.W. ‘Bill’
Bedford escaped from the accident without injury. The aircraft was repaired and was thereafter
able to resume its role in the experimental flight test programme, eventually giving birth to the
On a late Saturday afternoon and against a low cloud ceiling, the B-58 performed a barrel
roll, entered the overcast and re-appeared in a steep nose-down attitude with insufficient altitude
to affect the recovery pull-out, crashing into an uninhabited area near Louvres. All three
crewmembers, the pilot Elmer E. Murphy, the navigator Eugene Moses and the radar operator
David Dickenson, were killed. Spatial awareness and disorientation led to there being inadequate
time or height available to effect an ejection.
John Derry’s fatal accident at Farnborough in the de Havilland DH-110 followed the first
pass in which the crowd heard two distinct booms. On the next pass, when Derry arrived over the
field, the aircraft disintegrated during an entry into what could best be described as a climbing roll the wingtips failed, causing a violent pitch-up that overstressed the airframe and the tail-booms
broke away, the aircraft plunging into the spectators.
According to a witness who was standing directly in the path of Derry’s engines, the
engines crashed down into the crowd and just missed him! His friend, standing right beside him,
was spattered with blood from nearby victims of this tragic accident. The accident killed pilot John
Derry, his navigator/observer Tony Richards and twenty-eight spectators during a high speed
pass. Interestingly, the show continued immediately afterwards with Neville Duke doing a
maximum speed flyby, transonic, in a red Hawker Hunter.
The DH110 was a transonic fighter-bomber designed in the early 1950’s. During final
assembly of the prototype it was found that its wing tips would not fit properly and so they were
literally bent into place! Six months after the crash, it was discovered during the structural test
programme that the wings were not strong enough, they had been designed to withstand loads in
bending and not in torsion. Quality, in its broadest sense seemed to be absent.
The year 2003 marked a special year in the exhibition of aviation’s impressive feats, the
100th anniversary of manned flight. All over the world, themes at airshows commemorated man’s
achievements. However, the 2003 airshow year was off to a typical start with at least seven
accidents in the first five months. As early as 3 February 2003, a Su-29 AR of the Argentinean
Cruz del Sur Aerobatic Team crashed during display practice, resulting in the death of two pilots.
The accident happened about 25km from Mendoza and the two pilots who died were Vice
Comodoro Cortez and Captain Danilo Soldera.
In a major blow to the European airshow circuit, the French Mirage F1 duo, Voltige Victor
crashed on 10 March 2003 while the team were practicing at their home base of Reims. Reports
stated that they were flying in close line-astern at low-level (300 metres) rehearsing their display
routine for the 2003 airshow season when the number two aircraft pulled up slightly and hit the
Leader’s tailplane. One of the aircraft crashed at the end of the runway while the other came
down in a field about 500 metres away. The two pilots who were killed were Team Leader Lt.
Guillaume Coeffin, 32 years old, on his second year with the team, and the No. 2 pilot, Lt. Michel
Vernat, also 32 years old, on his first year with the team.
On 22 March 2003, a late Saturday airshow crash at Tyndall AFB claimed the life of a
talented civilian pilot flying a Technoavia SP-95 aerobatic aircraft. Chris Smisson, a highly
accomplished member of the Airshow Unlimited Airshow Team , flying at the Gulf Coast Salute
2003 Airshow at Tyndall Air Force Base, was killed in a ‘near vertical’ impact that reportedly
occurred as part of a ‘faux race’ between his aircraft and a jet-powered truck. No personnel or
spectators on the ground were injured. One spectator described the impact as a “head first”
impact with the ground as the aircraft was coming out of a loop (supposedly in preparation for a
high-speed low pass) as part of the aforementioned race, when the accident occurred. Another
witness stated, “He didn’t pull up or anything. He just crashed.”
The Technoavia SP-95 is a Russian built, M14-P radial powered two-seater produced for
high performance aerobatics. There were only a few in the country and two were listed on the
roster of the Airshow Unlimited Aerobatic Team . According to his extensive bio, Chris Smisson
had over 14,000 hours of flying time and flew professionally for a major airline out of Atlanta, GA.
Chris was the United States Intermediate Glider Aerobatic Champion in 1989 and was a member
of the United States Glider Aerobatic Team in 1991. Chris had been doing airshows since 1986
and held a Surface Level 1 waiver with qualifications in the North American T-6, Beechcraft T-34,
the Zlin 526F, Technoavia SP-95 and Pilatus Aircraft as well as Gliders. He also held waivers for
Solo Aerobatics as well as dogfight demonstrations – he was a highly qualified display pilot.
On 17 April 2003, during the aircraft’s third aerobatic training sortie from its base
Linz/Hoersching, prior to a display in France, an Austrian Air Force SAAB 105E crashed near
Steinberg, Lower Austria, on the Allentsteig military exercise range. Flying at low airspeed in the
approach configuration with the undercarriage down at only 500 ft (150 m), the pilot, Lt Thomas
Ploder, lost control of the aircraft and ejected while the aircraft was at around 90º to the ground.
He survived without injury. ( Air Forces Monthly) Still in April, on the 30 th to be exact, a Spanish Air
Force SRF-5A crashed during a display practice for the airbase’s airshow scheduled for 11 May
2003 at Badajoz/Talavera la Real. The aircraft entered a spin from which the pilot was unable to
recover due to the low height above ground level; the pilot was killed.
On 01 June 2003, celebrating 100 years of aviation achievement, a Swedish pilot, Pierre
Hollander, 59, died after his aircraft, a replica of the Spirit of St Louis in which Charles Lindbergh
made the first non-stop solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927, plummeted to the ground.
Witnessed by approximately 8,000 thousand shocked bystanders, the replica suffered catastrophic
structural failure at about 100ft (30 metres) above ground level shortly after take-off at the annual
Coventry Classics (UK) airshow run by Air Atlantique. According to the AAIB, the right-hand wing
suffered metal fatigue and folded back on itself as the aircraft tumbled to the ground crashing
sickeningly into the top of a warehouse building on the perimeter of the field. The injured pilot was
flown to hospital by air ambulance but subsequently died; there was no collateral damage or injury
to spectators. The displays of vintage and classic aircraft continued following a break after the
crash. Previously, a spectator was killed at the Coventry airshow in 1988, when a Gloster Meteor
T7, a 1940s twin jet aircraft, crashed due to pilot error.
By the middle of the 2003 airshow season, all the signs were evident that 2003 would be
another typical airshow safety year, display pilots were making the same mistakes as those of the
preceding years. On 12 June 2003, a vintage Royal Navy Fairey Firefly crashed killing the pilot
and passenger in front of thousands of spectators at the ‘Flying Legends’ airshow at Duxford’s
Imperial War Museum, near Cambridge. The Firefly was owned and operated by The Royal Navy
Historic Flight, which operated a collection of historic British naval aircraft based at the Royal
Naval Air Station Yeovilton in Somerset. The deceased were Lieutenant Commander Bill Murton,
45, (pilot) and Neil Rix, 29, (aircraft fitter).
Video footage showed the vintage aircraft entering a dive and hitting the ground away from
the spectators’ area in a cloud of dust and smoke as it tried to pull out of a dive. A spokesman for
Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service said one of the dead pilots had been found in the field
where the plane crashed while the other had to be cut from the wreckage. Museum director Ted
Inman said the crash on Saturday was being investigated by the Ministry of Defence. He said
Duxford’s accident record since it started hosting air shows in 1973 was "very good" and that Civil
Aviation Authority guidelines were followed at all times. Organisers had decided to continue with
the show even though it had been a “difficult call”, Inman said. "Initially there was a pause
because our emergency cover was away at the accident," he told a news conference.
The Fairey Firefly was a two-seat British wartime carrier-borne fighter aircraft. The
prototype flew in 1941 and the type entered service in 1943 Production ceased in 1956, after
around 1700 Fireflies had been built. The aircraft involved in the crash, WB271, entered RN
service in 1949 and later saw service in the Korean War. It was transferred to the RN Historic
Flight in 1972
The plane was conducting basic aerobatic manoeuvres in clear conditions before it rolled
inverted and in the ensuring recovery pull-out, there was insufficient height to safely affect the
recovery and the aircraft impacted a field close to the M11 motorway, but well away from
spectators. A report from Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) issued earlier that week,
recommended a review of current arrangements at Duxford airfield to prevent aircraft landing or
aborting take-offs from running on to the M11. This followed an accident on June 2, 2002, when a
former Soviet air force two-seat L-39 military jet trainer aircraft came to rest on the motorway after
going through the boundary fence while landing at Duxford. Considering that the airshow season
for world airshows centres around the six-month period May to October of each year, not a good
year at all.
It is virtually impossible to include all airshow accidents within the confined space of a
single chapter. Many more accidents were not considered, amongst others, several Blue Angels
accidents not covered in the database include fatal accidents in 1966 during a show in Toronto
and two in 1967 during practice that closed out the Grumman Tiger’s otherwise successful twelveyear tour of duty with the Blue Angels . A series of three tragic accidents in 1972 and 1973
resulted in the Blue Angels leaving the Phantoms by 1974 for the A-4 Skyhawk while further fatal
airshow accidents in 1978, 1981 and 1985 resulted in the acceleration of a transition to the F/A-18
On 31 August 2001, a Belgian Army Alouette II crashed following engine failure shortly
after take-off during a Family Open Day at Liege-Bierset Air Base. An elderly man, the father of a
soldier at the base, was killed and the other three on boards were seriously injured. (Air Forces
In 2002 there were several accidents that were not included but which actually increased
the number of accidents for 2002 to more than twenty. On 25 February 2002, Brazilian aerobatic
pilot, Paulo Henrique, successfully bailed out of his Extra 230 when, during a practice session, he
noticed a vibration on the stick that ended in a total loss of the left aileron. Not being able to gain
control of the aircraft which was in a dive, he made a quick and smart decision to bail out at 1,000
ft agl and landed safely without injury.
On 4 May 2002, a Stearman PT-17 biplane lost power and crashed while performing at the
Georgetown (Texas) Air Show. Pilot Harold Smith and a passenger walked away from the
wreckage after the aircraft lost power shortly after take-off. After hitting telephone lines and a tree,
the Stearman crashed into the garage of an unoccupied home near the airport. No one in the
aircraft or on the ground was hurt in the accident, although the aircraft was completely destroyed.
In the UK, the pilot of a Tiger Moth escaped serious injury when his aircraft crashed to the
ground at a charity Airshow on 21 July 2002. The 55-year-old pilot was thrown clear of the
wreckage of the plane when it plunged 300ft to the ground at the
White Waltham airfield near
Maidenhead, Berkshire. Thames Valley Air Ambulance crew, who the pilot was raising money for,
were on standby at the display and flew the pilot to the Wexham Park Hospital in Slough.
SNJ pilot Bob Beckman, a member of the Historical Aircraft Squadron, was killed on, 29
September 2002 in Circleville, Ohio, while flying in formation with two other Texans at a Fly-In.
Witnesses said the aircraft pitched upward and them plunged into the ground.
Some of the accidents of the South African Air Force not addressed over the years, include
an Aermacchi MB-326M from CFS Langebaanweg flown by Capt Les Marshall that crashed while
performing a low-level Derry-Turn at Summersfield (Western Cape) in 1973 in preparation for an
upcoming airshow. An Aermacchi MB-326K flown by Capt ‘Mac’ McCloud crashed during a lowlevel, undercarriage down roll and another MB-326K flown by Capt Richard Miller, crashed during
a one-and-a-half roll from inverted. All were fatal accidents that occurred while practicing for an
airshow, all experienced operational pilots and each with several hundred of hours on type. Then
of course, there was also the case of a pilot from the Harvard Club of South Africa at an airshow in
Pietersburg in 1996. The pilot did not pick the nose up high enough prior to commencing the roll
and ‘mushed’ into ground while conducting an impromptu aileron roll on departure after the
airshow. What is pertinent to note that in the previous four accidents mentioned, the cause was
low-level rolling manoeuvres, not vertical manoeuvres.
Although the Paris Airshow has historically had some nasty accidents, so has
Farnborough. In the mid 1970’s a Gyrocopter at Farnborough International gave a highly dynamic
display but the pilot (a fixed wing pilot), lost control and used incorrect techniques to recover. In a
co-ordinated- synchro display at Farnborough between a Viggen and a SAAB105 in the mid 70s,
the SAAB 105 did a wheels-up landing. In the mid-1990’s, an Su-27 ran off the end of the runway
following an instruction to land by the Flying Control Committee because the practice display was
apparently all over the place with several contraventions of the display arena. The aircraft touched
down fast with more than two-thirds of the runway behind the aircraft! On questioning the pilot
about the deep touch-down, he answered: “but you said land immediately – so that’s what I did!”
The loss of an aircraft in an air force’s prestige aerobatic team is always especially
sensitive to the particular armed force since most air components advertise their national formation
aerobatic teams as representing the best of the flying skills of the force; it epitomises the skills of
the force’s best. Any negative aspects impact adversely on the public image of their pilot’s
abilities. However, this certainly doesn’t have to be like that, after all, nearly all airshow accidents
in the world have involved some of the world’s most experienced pilots. The sooner it is realised
that airshow accidents are not the sole right of inexperienced pilots, that airshow accidents don’t
discriminate, the better for a mature understanding of the hazardous nature of low-level display
Although national formation aerobatic teams pilots are chosen for their above average
flying abilities, they are all susceptible to human error as much as any other Service pilot. While
the teams may undertake many hours of intensive practice in the skills of close formation
aerobatics, they are also required to maintain their currency, through instrument flying,
emergencies and simulator training. Even if errors or accidents occur outside of the public
scrutiny, the tolerance level for errors is extremely tight and it is not uncommon for members to be
dismissed from the team or resign from the Service following an accident – its just that kind of
pressure from performing at the highest professional level.
Between 1965 and 1971, the Red Arrows lost six aircraft due to a variety of causes, and all
during the winter practice period. Three of the losses occurred during 1969, the first in March
when a Gnat impacted with the ground at the bottom of a loop and then again two in December in
a freak occurrence. One of the team reported a fire from the tailpipe of one of the Gnats during a
formation practice. Unfortunately, two pilots, both having heard the fire warning, each assumed
that it was their aircraft that was on fire, left the formation and ejected, fortunately without injury. In
1970, another Gnat was lost when the pilot ejected during a practice session following an engine
failure but it was two months later that the worst Red Arrows
accident occurred. It was on 20
January 1971, while flying the Carousel, the synchro-pair collided head-on, killing four pilots.
Only two Red Arrows accidents occurred during actual displays, neither of which caused
injury to the pilots or the spectators. The first accident, incidentally the first Hawk loss, occurred
during a display over the Brighton sea front on 17 May 1980. After breaking away from the main
formation, the synchro-pair began a series of opposition passes along the display line chosen over
the sea, parallel to the coastline and between the Palace and West Piers. On the fourth opposition
pass, No. 2 struck the mast of a yacht which, unnoticed, had motored slowly on to the previously
clear display line. The yacht carried no sail at the time; the pilot, Sqn Ldr Johnson, ejected just
three seconds after the collision with the aircraft out of control and almost inverted and no more
than 300 feet above sea-level.
The authorised minimum height for the synchro pair at the time was 35 feet, a height
considered to give a safe clearance and provide a spectacle for the public. There was no
embargo on boat movements during the display and therefore no reason for the skipper of the
yacht to suspect that his passage would obstruct the synchro-pair. The pilot did no see the slowmoving obstruction against the vertical pier structure and the sea, and his aircraft struck the mast
just four feet below its tip. Immediately after the accident, the minimum height for all Red Arrows
displays was raised to 100 feet.
The circumstances of the second display accident were more mundane, if engine failure
can be described as ‘mundane’. On the evening of 31 August 1984, the team was performing over
the sea-front at Sidmouth (UK). As the main formation approached the top of a Vixen loop, the
engine of the No 8 aircraft piloted by Flt Lt Pete Lees, positioned on the rear right hand side of the
main formation, surged due to low pressure compressor blade failure. The surge could not be
rectified and the pilot ejected successfully. Once again in 1986, Red 8 suffered an engine failure
on 3 November 1986 during a practice over the airfield at RAF Scampton, Lincolnshire. With the
engine flamed-out and no relight achieved, the aircraft undershot the runway from the forced
landing pattern and the pilot, Flt Lt Dean Findlay, ejected successfully, at a very late stage.
Also in 1984, in fact on 21 March, while the Red’s were preparing for dress rehearsals in
Cyprus, during the final manoeuvre of the synchro-pair, the opposition loop, Synchro 2 struck the
ground on the pull-out. Starting with the 100 ft opposition pass, the synchro-pair pulled up into the
loop to cross at the top in an inverted position, and then cross-over during the pull-out prior to
achieving a ‘crowd departure gate’. On this occasion, it became apparent to both pilots that
Synchro 2 was higher than Synchro 1 at the inverted position. In an effort to balance the
formation, Synchro 2 pulled much tighter than Synchro 1 on the descent resulting in a much
steeper descent angle and insufficient altitude to complete the recovery dive. The aircraft hit the
ground in a near level attitude and bounced several times; the ejection seat was forced up on its
rails and through the canopy on initial impact leaving the pilot, Flt Lt Hirst, exposed to the airflow.
The second bounce breached the seat firing mechanism, rendering it useless. By this
stage, however, the force of impact had triggered automatic man-seat separation so that at the
apogee of the aircraft’s second bounce, the main parachute deployed to drag the pilot clear of the
disintegrating Hawk and lower him quickly to the ground. The aircraft continued to a third and final
impact where it broke-up and caught fire. Flt Lt Hirst suffered major injuries but survived. The
Accident Investigation Board concluded that the accident resulted from the pilot over-concentrating
on achieving the correct cross-over position without appreciating the effect of pulling tighter on the
aircraft’s overall trajectory. After the inverted cross-over, his immediate concerns had been to
achieve a smoothly consistent smoke trail and a precise departure point. His proximity to the
ground and the general geometry of the descent had been a lesser consideration.
Then there was the accident almost a year later on 16 November 1987, Sqn Ldr Miller was
leading a routine formation practice in the Scampton local area when, during a turn at 1,500 feet,
he called for airbrake. When Flight Lt Spike Newbery, flying No. 2 in line-astern selected his
airbrake, nothing happened. Despite pulling the power back, the No. 2 slid under the leader and
the two aircraft collided. Both pilots immediately ejected, both suffering serious injuries. One
aircraft crashed into a field while the second fell onto a row of houses in the village of Melton and
although several were occupied, no one was injured on the ground.
During the filming of a Red Arrows takeoff for a children’s TV programme called “Blue
Peter” in the mid 80s, one of the pilots omitted to check that the airbrake was retracted before
takeoff. The airbrake extension caused the lip of the airbrake to scrape the ground; the pilot found
the effectiveness of the airbrake under such conditions quite spectacular and elected to eject on
the take-off, the aircraft sliding to a halt in the runway overrun.
In an effort to attract spectators to airshows and provide a high level of entertainment,
airshows have expanded their programmes to include a host of ‘aviation’ related events, and in
some cases, even some non-aviation events. Some airshows include radio controlled and
remotely piloted vehicle demonstrations, which must also be subjected to the same safety scrutiny
as for aircraft. It is very easy to ‘look down’ on the scale model flyers ‘toys’ not realising that the
momentum of current models is more than enough to fatally wound bystanders.
At least one person, a teenage girl, was injured after a radio-controlled model went out of
control at an Australian airshow on 13 April 1998. The model was being started up for a flight at
the Mangalore Airshow, north of Melbourne, when the owner, 66-year-old George Markey, lost
control of it and it skidded into the crowd. About 600 people watching the airshow fled in all
directions as it ploughed across the field. Spectators had no warning of the impending danger,
said a witness: “I thought it was going to get airborne, but then it crashed into the crowd and
everyone started running in all directions.” Some airshow attendees even tried to stop the out-ofcontrol model after it hit and injured the girl. Luckily for the girl and the other spectators, the
aircraft’s propeller was in the rear, and not on the nose. “If the propeller had been on the nose of
the aircraft, I would say that there would have been more people injured, really,” he said.
The bottom line is this: “It doesn’t matter how much experience you have, it doesn’t matter
who you are, whether you are from a civilian or military background, whether you are flying a
vintage aircraft or the most modern fighter, whether you are flying at a top international airshow or
some local village motor rally. What does matter is the energy management at each point of each
manoeuvre versus the height above ground level; you’re only as good as your current
performance and all the experience in the world is no guarantee of survival if the pilot is not current
in the specific aircraft flying a disciplined and planned show routine – its as simple as that! These
accidents bring to mind the old adage taught by airshow display veterans: “Warning to pilots, fly in
the middle of the airspace, the edges are defined by hard ground or sea”.
“Life is measured not by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take
away our breaths. An airshow is normally a time of celebration, not grief. As we each deal with
our own feelings, let us remember the families of each of these men”. (Captain Jim Rainwater)
Patrouille de France synchronous pair crossing during the opposition pass at the
Chateaudun AFB national airshow, 10 May 2003. (Antoine Grondeau)
“The ideal display pilot is the perfect blend of discipline and aggressiveness.” (Anon)
Pilots do not intentionally aim to crash during display flying; the environment is hostile and any lapse
in concentration by the pilot, misjudgement, poor anticipation, mechanical failure or rash indiscipline, may
result in a crash. In many cases it is easy to lay blame on the pilot, but one must get to understand the
underlying reasons why the pilot made a mistake, a mistake which in most cases, cost lives. The survival
instinct of the human is an incredibly strong motivator in avoiding crashes, no pilot deliberately crashes an
aircraft - so what is it that causes the pilot’s physiology to be seduced by peripheral inputs? What is it that
convinces the pilot that the selected course of action would offer the best results and survival index?
The old adage “if you cannot express it in numbers, you don’t understand it” is particularly relevant in better
understanding the hazards imposed by low-level display flying. To this end, a random sample of 118 airshow
accidents worldwide, extending over the fifty-year period from September 1952 to November 2002, is
included in Table 1. The sample range is by no means comprehensive and considers 57 current military and
61 civilian and military museum airshow accidents. Each accident has been considered in terms of aircraft
type, category, causal factors, fatalities, ejection, whether the accident occurred during a display practice or
airshow and finally location. The analysis does not attempt to apportion blame, but only to tabulate the
relevant accident detail for the purpose of analysis of the sample data in an attempt to determine trends in
airshow accidents and not necessarily absolute values.
Table 1. Database of Random Selection of Airshow Accidents: 1952 – 2002
Ser Date Aircraft
Mechanical 1 Pilot
2 No
(Structural) 1 Crew
1952 DH110
63 Injured
1 Pilot
3 No
2 Crew
1961 (USAF)
Mechanical 0
(Prototype (Engine)
1963 P.1127
Fiat G-91
Loss of
1 Pilot
(Italian Air
1965 Force)
1 Pilot
June Magister
1967 Patrouille
de France
(French Air
2 x
4 Pilots
4 No
Hawk T
1971 Mk 1
Red Arrows
Loss of
1 Pilot
June Phantom
1972 Thunderbir
Loss of
2 Pilots
Mar Tu-144
4 Crew
1973 (Aeroflot)
8 Public +
60 Injured
Sikorsky S- Helicopter FIT
2 Pilots
Sept 67
Injured +
1974 Blackhawk
1 Aircrew
10 30
BAe Jaguar Trainer
Apr T.2
1975 (Royal Air (Ground
11 08
1 Pilot
Injured +
1977 Trislander
1 Pax
Paris Air
Paris Air
Paris Air
Paris Air
Display RAF Kemble,
Practic United
Transpo 72,
Paris Air
Show, France
Display RAF
Practic Lossiemouth,
South Africa
Ser Date
12 03
1 Pilot
Paris Air
Show, France
4 x T-38
1982 Thunderbird
Sept (United
1982 States
1 Pilot
South Africa
4 Pilots
4 No
Displa Nevada,
Transall C160
Displa AFB
Practic South Africa
Northrop F20
2 Pilots
3 Aircrew
41 (Pax)
Loss of
2 Pilots
1 Pilot
Goose Bay,
Northrop F20
2 x MB
2 x A-4
Blue Angels
(US Navy)
2x MB
1 Pilot
2 Pilots
1 Pax
1 Pilot
Pitts Special
Sale, Victoria,
Niagara Falls,
Displa RAAF East
Sale, Victoria,
Practic Australia
Douglas F18 (USMC)
(Air France)
South Africa
1 Pilot
3 Pax
Killed +
50 Pax
El Toro,
Ser Date
26 28
3 x MB 339
(Italian Air
3 Pilot +
+ 300+
3 No
Paris Air
Show, France
1 Pilot
1 Pilot +
1 Pilot
1 Pilot + 2 No
Public +
20 Injured
New Delhi,
1 Pilot
Displa Raumani
Range, New
Practic Zealand
1 Pilot
1 x Pilot
1 x Crew
2 Yes
1989 AT-6D
2 x CT-114
(Indian Air
2 x A-4
Kiwi Red
2 x F/A-18
Blue Angels
F-86E Sabre Jet
Boeing PT- Vintage
17 Stearman Propeller
Loss of
SAAB JAS39 Gripen
Air Force)
High Alpha
(Roll from
Lake Ontario,
El Centro,
RAF Fairford,
Martin F-16
Boeing B52
1 Pilot
South Africa
1 Pilot
Displa Nevada,
Loss of
(Steep Turn
2 Pilots
2 Crew
1 Outside
1 Yes
3 No
Displa Washington
Practic USA
Ser Date
40 17
2 x Aero L39
(Slovak Air
mitt Bf-108
FIT (Roll)
2 x Pilatus
Hawker Sea
(Royal Air
2 Yes
1 Pilot
1 Pax
2 Pilots
5 Aircrew
l (Engine)
2 Pilots
1 Crew
2 Pax
1 Yes
Loss of
1 Pilot
FIT (Roll)
1 Pilot
1 Yes
Beja AB,
Loss of
1 Pilot
FIT (Roll)
1 Pilot
St Louis,
Martin F-16
AF) +
BAE Hawk
112 Venom
South Africa
Lakeland Sun
‘n Fun,
1996 DH 98
Aug Special S-1
Loss of
1 Pilot
1 Crew
1 Pilot
Ser Date
53 01
54 14
F-86 Sabre
Lynx S-170
Sukhoi SuJun
27 Flanker
1997 Russian
Air Force)
Formula V
1997 Homebuilts
1997 (ROCAF
Extra 300
1997 Jordanian
Air Force)
Special S24
mitt Me109
Air Tractor
1 Pilot
1 Pilot
Goraszka Air
SIAD ’97,
Wheels-Up 0
1 Pilot
1 Pilot
1 Pilot
Long Island,
New York
Loss of
1 Pilot
killed + 40
4 Public
Flanders ‘FlyIn’,
1 Pilot
l (Engine)
Air Force,
Texas, USA
Loss of
1 Pilot
1 Pilot
2 x Boeing
(Red Baron
Loss of
(Ultralight) Control
2 Pilots
2 Police
1 Pilot
South Africa
Sun ‘n Fun
Ser Date
66 08
2 x Cessna
Royal Black
(Korean Air
Hunter F4
1 Pilot
1 Pilot
1998 Air Force
1 Pilot
2 x AT-6
1 Pilot
1 Pilot
3 Pilots
Chengdu F7 August 1st
2 x CT114
Martin F-16
BAE Hawk
Sukhoi Su-
3 No
1 Pilot
Moose Jaw
1 Pilot
1 Pax
Nowra, New
South Wales,
1 Pilot
4 Public
SIAD ’99.
2 Yes
Paris Air
Reno Races
Nevada, USA
Patrick AFB,
30 MKI
F-86 Sabre
g High
Loss of
1 Pilot
1 Pilot
(Communic injured
Show, France
New Jersey,
Ser Date
78 12
A Cessna
Cessna O-2
2 x Beech
D-45 (Lima
Special S-1
2 Pilots
1 Pilot
1 Pilot
2 Pilots
California Int
Air Show,
Moody AFB,
1 Pilot
1 Pilot
l (Engine)
1 Pilot
1 Pilot
Naval Station,
2 Pilots
1 Pilot
Martin F-16
Spitfire Mk
Edge 360
Wild Ride)
2 x Mudry
Cap 10
Aero L-39
(Slovak Air
1 Pilot
Reno Air
Races, USA
Sliac Military,
2000 Tomcat
Loss of
Aero L-29
1 Pilot
1 Crew
3 Rescue
1 Pilot
Beech T-34
Tutor CL114
H-4 Co-A
112 Venom
Bell P-63A
e Spitfire
2 x Aero L39
Air Force)
2 x CT114
Loss of
Loss of
Loss of
l Failure
Wheels Up
2 Pilot
1 Public
killed +
1 injured
1 Pilot
Izmit City,
South Africa
Loss of
Loss of
l (Engine)
2 Pilots
Biggin Hill,
Biggin Hill,
1 Pilot
1 Pilot
Biggin Hill,
Rouen Vallee,
1 Pilot
2 Yes
St Petersburg,
2 Yes
1 Pilot
1 Pax
Sun ‘n Fun,
Deke Slayton
Hawker Sea Vintage
Edge 540
Loss of
Loss of
(Hammerhead Stall)
1 Pilot
1 Pilot
1 Pax
1 Pilot
New Mexico,
Jiln City,
Air Force)
2 x
Hawk Mk
e Air
2 x Hawk
Mk 53
n Air
Alpha Jet
de France
Air Force)
Trainer Jet FIT
1 Pilot
4 Public
2 Yes
Tabuk Air
Base, Saudi
1 Pilot
Monte Real,
4 Pilots
4 No
(Run In
1 Pilot
Loss of
2 Yes
Loss of
Loss of
1 Pilot
1 Crew
1 Pilot
RAF Fairford,
0 Pilot
2 Yes
Alenia G222
Air Force)
Air Force)
San Salvador,
(Royal Air
1 Pilot
1 Pilot
1 Yes
AAD 2002,
South Africa
Vought F4U Corsair
4 Pilots
8 Aircrew
3 Public
7 Public
1 Pilot
Goa, India
Note 1. Aircraft categories are divided into Fighter, Bomber, Trainer Jet, Trainer
Propeller/Turboprop, Transport, Vintage Propeller, Vintage Jet, Helicopter, Glider,
and Sports Aerobatic including categories up to Ultralight.
Note 2. Causal factors are considered in terms of Mechanical Failure, Flight-IntoTerrain, Mid-Air Collisions, Loss-of-Control, Wheels-up Landings and Birdstrikes.
Note 3. Ejections are considered in terms of the number of opportunities for
ejection, those that ejected, those that did not eject and ejection survival rate.
Note 4. Fatalities are considered in terms of those killed or injured and then
subdivided by category into pilots, aircrew, passengers, spectators and the
general public. Rescue and Security personnel injuries at accidents sites are
included under the category, spectator.
Note 5. Considering the foregoing, it is prudent to statistically define the accident
categories in terms of the accepted convention of 3-M, ie Man, Machine and
Note 6. The occurrence of one causal factor invariably results in interaction with
another of the 3-M’s; there is often a secondary or ‘knock-on’ effect. For
example, the failure of an engine (MACHINE) may lead to loss of control (MAN) if
energy levels are not maintained, formation entry into cloud (MEDIUM) could lead
to a Mid-air Collision (MAN); interaction between the 3M’s is not necessarily a
singular effect.
Fig 1. Display Flying: Causal Factors
Air Show Accident
System Error
Flight Control System
Human Error
Loss of Control
Mid-Air Collisons
Flight into Terrain
Wheels-Up Landings
Pilot Physiology
Situational Awareness
Pilot Incapacitation
Density Altitude
Airshow versus Display Practice Accidents
Within the scope of the analysis of 118 airshow accidents, 69% of the accident
‘sample’ occurred during an actual Airshow while 31% occurred during Display
Practice sessions – the difference is significant (Refer Chart 1). The most
probable causes of this 69:31 split can be attributed to the real world pressures of
airshow display flying; the pressure to perform and to impress is higher during the
actual airshow than during practice - training is unfortunately, by its inherent
nature, more relaxed. This emphasises the tried and trusted military ethos to
‘train as you intend to fight’, which is directly applicable to display flying – ‘you
must train as you intend to display’. Failure to do so introduces an unknown
variable into the display routine that has bearing on spectator and pilot safety.
During display training, the opportunity to try again is available should a
manoeuvre be ‘overcooked’. During the display, however, if something goes
wrong or the pilot errs slightly in any manoeuvre, there is no second chance and
the pilot continues to press on to the next manoeuvre from an insecure energy
baseline, possibly starting the chain
of events that leads to the accident.
This certainly seems to be the case in
the Biggin Hill Air Fair 2001 crash of
the vintage Kingcobra spinning in
from the top of the loop?
The intensity and complexity of each
display practice should approximate
that of the ‘real’ show, the pressures
Air Show
and stress loads should be similar.
The greater the realism, the more
effective the practice. It is pointless
to practice under ‘false’ or relaxed
non-realistic pressures and then only
Chart 1. Airshow versus Training be exposed to the real world
pressures on the actual show day.
Once the pilot’s competency has
reached the required level, display practices must be as realistic as possible, the
heights, positioning and the compactness must be flown as accurately as for the
show day. The bad weather sequence must be flown in bad weather, right down
to the worst-case ‘flat show’ weather requirements. If the routine was not
practiced successfully, it becomes hazardous to fly the specific routine on the day
of the show. It is that level of discipline that is required from professional display
pilots and teams. The show day is no time to improvise or develop sequences ‘on
the fly’. Every practice display must be an ‘actual’ display.
Contributory factors include the spectator, peer and organiser pressure to perform
before the public – the attitude that the ‘show must go on’ despite poor
environmental conditions of wind, visibility, cloud, rain and density altitude – all
these factors can be found as contributory causes to airshow accidents. And then
of course there’s the pilots ego – the desire to compete, the desire to impress, the
desire to fly the best show. All demonstration pilots will have encountered this
emotion and know exactly the feeling being referred to here. These factors may
lead to display pilots ‘pressing for maximum effect’. Not recognising that the
aircraft’s performance is ‘maxed out’, the display persists in trying to squeeze out
every last bit of energy, not realising that in some occasions the conservation of
energy principles require potential energy being converted to kinetic energy and
the only real result at low altitude, is catastrophic.
Another observation is that most bad weather display practice usually takes place
in good weather and is not necessarily given the due emphasis and respect it
deserves. It is essential that ‘bad weather’ sequences are flown in realistic
conditions. There is a recorded case in the RAF where the Station Commander
questioned the rationale of the Red Arrows practicing in really lousy weather only
to be told that “we have to train in the most realistic conditions” – show organisers
are usually loathe to cancel displays with many thousands of spectators having
driven for miles and many hours to attend the popular airshows.
The reputation of the display pilot or aerobatic team is at stake and judgement
often becomes blurred in the effort to accommodate and please the show
organiser and the public – a good display pilot or team leader must recognise the
hazards of persisting in adverse weather and make the unpopular decision if
necessary, without fear of retribution. Which brings to mind the RJAF Xtra 300
crash in extreme weather conditions, rain and wind conditions that forced a large
percentage of the crowd to leave and others to take refuge in the local First Aid
tent – before the Xtra 300 crashed adjacent to the tent.
Airshow Accident Survivability
Within the scope of the airshow accident analysis, approximately 61% were fatal
while 30% were survivable, the survival index mainly due to the aircrew ejecting.
(Refer Chart 2) The remaining 9% of the accidents were ‘partially survivable’ and
essentially includes those accidents in which at least one member of the aircrew,
or one of the aircraft involved in a mid-air
collision, survived. In the twenty-nine midair collisions between two display aircraft,
in approximately 50% of the cases, at
least one of the aircraft suffered
catastrophic damage while the other
aircraft sustained a level of damage
leaving it controllable and recoverable.
Survival of acrash impact obviously
requires that there is no post impact fire
and that the actual rate of descent at
impact is absorbable by the human body.
The probability of surviving an airshow Chart 2. Airshow accident survivability.
accident therefore, is not high, although
not impossible. The 1988 Mulhouse-Habsheim Airbus A-320 crash in the
approach configuration resulted in only 3 fatalities and 50 passengers injured out
of a total of 136 on-board. In this case, energy levels were relatively low and
vertical descent speeds were those
appropriate to the landing approach,
hence at least survivable.
Those cases falling into the extremely
‘fortunate to survive’ category include
amongst others, the Sikorsky S-67
rolling accident at Farnborough 1974,
the Britten-Norman Trislander ‘loop’ at
Lanseria Airport in 1977, Nick Turvey’s
‘thirteen turn inverted spin’ also at
No Ejection Survived
Killed in
Lanseria in 1981, the F-18 ‘square-loop’
at El Toro, California in 1988, the
Thunderbirds pilot’s ‘spiral descent’ in Graph 1. Analyses of airshow accident
the Nevada Desert in 1994, the Danish ejections.
Lynx S-170 ‘wingover’ in Poland 1997
and the Corsair ground collision with a Bearcat during takeoff at EAA AirVenture,
USA in 1999. In all the aforementioned cases, the aircraft impacted the ground
with relatively high vertical or rolling energy which should in theory have resulted
in fatal accidents, but didn’t.
In some of the survival and partially survivable cases, the accident aircrew were
able to return to flying. Kirby Chambliss, former 1998 U.S. National Aerobatic
Champion and one of the world’s top aerobatic pilots, ranked No 5 at the time of
the accident, survived a crash into the river at Jiln City, during the Chinese Grand
Prix in October 2001. The aircraft impacted into the river at approximately 200
mph (approximately 173 kts) after a “turn-around” manoeuvre and although he did
not suffer any broken bones, he received several cuts to his head and face.
Chambliss not only recovered from his superficial injuries, but went on to be
named US National Aerobatic Champion at the US National Championships in
In another case, the F-18 crash at El Toro, USA in 1988, the damage done to the
pilot’s body was excessive which brought an end to his flying career. Not only did
the pilot survive the crash impact from an unintentional ‘square loop’, but the
aircraft was also restored to operational flying condition again. The crash impact
loads on the body, acceleration forces and post impact fires are generally the
major factors that cause the fatality. The Denel Aviation test pilot that crashed in
the SAAF Museum’s Piston Provost at AFB Swartkops in 1998 performing a ‘stall
turn’, survived the initial impact but the post impact fire caused critical internal
inhalation damage, the pilot passing away days later.
When considering the ‘bigger picture’, the role of the ejection seat as a survival
enhancer, is significant. Ejection seats obviously provided the major contribution
to survivable airshow accidents but unfortunately, the ejection seat is not a
panacea for all conditions and has its limitations. Even so, an unacceptably high
number of pilots did not make the ejection decision. The single largest factor
militating against the use of the ejection seat by the pilots flying aircraft equipped
with ejection seats is the inability of the human to make a timeous decision to
In the analysis of 118 airshow accidents, there were 93 opportunities for ejection
but only 36 (39%) ejections were actually made. (Refer Graph 1.) The question
is, “why did the fifty-seven other aircrew not eject?” This question can never be
answered with certainty but the dynamics of high closure rates, severe angular
attitudes and decision time available to the pilot, coupled with the human’s poor
decision-making performance and reaction times would have contributed strongly
to this phenomenon. Of the thirty-six ejections, twenty-four pilots (67%) survived.
The 33% that did not survive the ejection, invariably ejected outside the ejection
seat envelope being too low with either an excessive downward vector, or an
extreme bank angle.
In fact, of the thirty-five ejections, seven were outside the ejection seat envelope
and one was a fireball impact, a not uncommon result from extremely low-level
ejections. In two fatalities, a USAF Thunderbirds pilot ejected into the post impact
fireball at the Transpo Expo in Dulles (1972) and the USN F-4 crewmembers in
April 2002 at Point Mugu (USA) airshow came very close. In the case of VSTOL
aircraft, this problem is amplified. The ejection by Flt Lt Tony Cann from a Harrier
GR7 on 02 August 2002 at the Lowestoft Airshow (UK) was a major let-off for the
ejecting pilot.
The Harrier, hovering off the beach at approximately 100 ft suffered an engine
failure and the pilot ejected at approximately 50 ft with a moderate rate of sink.
The parachute opened with sufficient time to complete only one pendulum before
the pilot entered the water, landing virtually on the sinking Harrier. If the aircraft
had crashed over land, any postimpact fireball would have certainly
killed the pilot.
From low-level
ejections, the aircraft’s forward travel
after ejection is never too far ahead
of the near-vertical trajectory of the
seat occupant.
The role of the
prevailing wind is an extremely critical
element of safe low-level ejection and
an on-crash wind blowing the
parachute into the fireball is a real
hazard that all pilots are faced with.
The close proximity of the ejected pilot to the Importantly,
aircraft impact point following a low-level
successful ejections were mostly
ejection is clearly depicted in this MiG-29
characterised by essentially level
crash at Paris Airshow in 1989. (Aviation &
attitudes with positive or at worst,
Week Space Technology)
minimal downward vertical vectors.
The classical examples of successful
low-level ejections of course being the rather spectacular MiG-29 ejection at Paris
Airshow in 1989, the two MiG-29 ejections at RIAT 93 (RAF Fairford, UK), the SU30MKI, again at Paris Airshow in 1996 and the F-117 ejection following
catastrophic structural failure in Baltimore, USA in 1997.
The category, ‘most successful airshow ejection to date’ most certainly belongs to
the dual ejection of the two Ukrainian Air Force pilots that ejected from the Su-27
at the world’s worst airshow disaster on 27 July 2002. Both pilots ejected only
after the aircraft was about to impact the ground – it had already clipped the
ground with a wing before both pilots decided that the only option available for
personal survival was ejection – both suffered fractured vertebrae. Ejection
seats, in particular the Russian Zvezda, have provided spectacular examples of
successful ultra low-level ejections and the potential for the modern ejection seat
at increasing the survivability rates for display accidents.
Analysis of Airshow Accident Fatalities
19 29
49 52
Pi ts K
ts ille
C Inju
re re
C wK d
w ille
Sp nju
ec red
Sp K
ec ille
In d
Pa jure
Pa Ki
x lled
Pu Inju
Pu lic ed
ic illed
Graph 2. Airshow accident fatalities and
population sample covered in the
analysis, a total of at least 1,074
people were killed or injured in
pursuance of display flying, either
as pilots, aircrew, spectators,
passengers or even as members of
the public totally divorced from the
airshow itself. (Chart 3 and Graph
2) Although the accident sample
size was only 118 accidents, 107
(10%) pilots lost their lives while
nineteen were injured. There were
only 22 (19%) accidents out ofthe
118 in which there was no
significant injury to the aircrew, spectators or public. Invariably, aircrew in a
display accident perished with the pilots.
One of the major concerns is the high number of spectators killed or injured while
attending airshows. Within the scope of the analysis, 66% of the victims (703)
were spectators, 202 killed and in excess of 501 spectators were injured while
attending airshows. Even more disconcerting is the ratio of aircrew or airshow
performers to spectators and public fatalities. In the analysis that equates to a
ratio of 156:917 or 15% vs 85%. In the face of such statistics, the question can
rightly be asked, who is at the higher risk at an airshow, the aircrew or the
spectators? You decide!
The major contributors to such
Ukrainian Air Force’s Su-27 crash into
Pilots Killed
the spectator enclosures killing 83 and
Pilots Injured
injuring 156 spectators in July 2002.
Crew Killed
The Frecce Tricolori accident at
Ramstein AB in Germany in 1988 (69
Spec Killed
Spec Injured
killed and more than 300 injured), the
Pax Killed
Royal Jordanian Air Force Xtra 300
Pax Injured
that crashed adjacent to the First Aid
Public Killed
tent at the ‘Flanders Fly-In’ in 1997 (9
Public Injured
killed and 40 injured) and also John
Vixen accident at
Farnborough in 1952 (28 killed and 63
injured) are just some of the display
Chart 3. Airshow accident percentiles in
accidents that have claimed the lives
of airshow spectators.
The imposition of safety regulations by show organisers and the compliance with
such regulations by the display pilots is essential to reduce this unacceptably high
percentage of airshow fatalities. Failure to do so poses a serious threat to the
future continuance of airshows that have already been hit by the extremely high
insurance and security costs.
The hazards facing spectators at airshows are generally known and regulations
are imposed to address spectator safety, however, in the case of the general
public not even involved with the airshow, there is no elegant solution. The
concerns by inhabitants of housing estates around the airfield are certainly well
founded with added housing insurance implications. The area in and around an
airfield being used for an airshow is at risk to collateral damage in the event of an
aircraft crashing outside of the display arena or airfield. In the analysis, fourteen
members of the public were killed and one hundred were injured – members of
the public that just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, were
killed or injured by airshow crash debris.
The innocent bystanders, the public killed or injured by collateral airshow accident
damage, is pertinently illustrated in the case of the Tupolev Tu-144 accident at
the Paris Airshow in 1973 in which eight members of the public were killed and
sixty injured by crash debris coming down on the village of Goussainville, a few
miles from the Le Bourget airport. Also, the Indian Air Force Mirage 2000 crash in
Delhi in 1989 not only claimed the lives of two spectators, but also injured twenty
members of the public outside the airfield. The USAF F-117 catastrophic in-flight
break-up at an airshow in Maryland, USA during September 1997 resulted in
injury to four members of the public and also to several homes, fortunately, the
residents were not at home at the time of the accident. In October 2002, two
Indian Navy IL-38 maritime patrol aircraft in formation practicing for an airshow to
mark the 25 th anniversary of the Indian Navy’s 315 Squadron, collided in mid-air
in the western state of Goa. One of the aircraft impacted on a road and the other
on a building construction site, all twelve aircrew died while crash debris killed
three labourers and injured seven.
In terms of passenger fatalities, 49 passengers were killed and 52 injured in
airshow accidents. The major contributor to passenger statistics was the 1988
Mulhouse-Habsheim Airbus A-320 crash in the approach configuration, which
resulted in 3 fatalities and 50 passengers injured out of a total of 136 on-board. In
this case, energy levels were relatively low and vertical descent speeds were
those appropriate to the landing approach, making the crash survivable, at least.
Correctly or incorrectly, the statistics of the US Army Chinook accident in 1982
with 41 Skydivers on-board was, due to lack of adequate definition, included as
'passengers which inflated the passengers killed statistics. In strict accordance
with aircrew definitions, skydivers are not
considered as aircrew, but rather in this
specific instance, ‘passengers-on-duty’.
Two enthusiastic aviation photographers
from the UK were killed in the crash of the
Mid-Air Collision
sole airworthy B-26 Marauder during a
Loss of Control
Wheels Up
display practice at Odessa, Texas in 1995
while a passenger was killed in the
Bird Strike
Wirraway accident at Nowra, Australia
(1999) and another was killed in June
2001 in a Fouga Magister at Deke Slayton
in Wisconsin. An astronaut died in the Bf108 airshow accident at Berlin Johannistal
Germany in 1995.
Fortunately, the Chart 4. Percentiles of accident causal factors.
passengers in the Britten Norman Trislander crash at Lanseria, South Africa in
1977 and in the De Havilland Buffalo crash at Farnborough in 1994, suffered
injuries only.
In terms of litigation, this is obviously not normally an issue within military circles
since military personnel would have the necessary authority and insurance cover.
However, in modern regulatory society, any proof of negligence would most
definitely provide the basis for claims against the Company, the Service or even
the display pilot. The prudent rule of thumb remains, no passengers should be
allowed to participate in flight displays unless essential to the safe operation of
the aircraft, and then only once all the legal aspects have been covered.
Analysis of Accident Causal Factors
Analysis of the sample data clearly illustrates that the highest percentage of
accidents can be attributed to Man, 79% (Chart 4). Man’s weaknesses are
accentuated in the categories of accidents represented by human error, more
specifically, Flight-Into-Terrain (31%), Mid-Air Collisions (25%), Loss-of-Control
(20%) and Wheels-Up-Landings (3%). MACHINE’s contributions of Mechanical
(17%), Weather (3%) and Birdstrikes (1%) make up the remaining 21%. Although
Man’s contribution to airshow accidents is a staggering 79%, considering the
hostile environment of the low-level display arena and the human’s physiological
shortcomings, certainly not surprising.
In the real world, there is a fine line between the definitions of Flight-into-Terrain
(FIT) and Loss-of-Control (LOC). FIT considers those accidents where the
aircraft impacted the ground at high energy levels, those typically associated with
not recovering from a low-level vertical or rolling manoeuvre, for whatever reason.
Loss-of-Control on the other hand, is associated with the low airspeed, high angle
of attack flight regime manifested as departures and spins - the pilot losing control
of the aircraft for whatever reason.
Of the 38 FIT accidents, twenty-seven accidents (71%) were in the vertical while
only six (16%) were associated with low-level rolling manoeuvres. The remaining
13% typically resulted from inverted flypasts, flight control systems failures and
turning manoeuvres. One of the more disconcerting factors in the analysis is the
relatively high percentage of downline multiple rolls that ended in tragedy, there
are several in the NTSB reports and in the analysis, six of the twenty-seven (22%)
fatal accidents in the vertical were attributable to downline rolls.
So, what is it about a downline snap that gets away from some highly
experienced display pilots? Is it poor situational awareness or just a case of
excessive energy loss, bearing in mind that energy management in this
manoeuvre is highly sensitive to small changes in technique? Do display pilots
really let their energy budget get so close to the edge during an airshow? Do
display pilots even begin to realise the extremely high rate of descent generated
when pointing nearly vertically downward while conducting the roll? The question
that must be asked is, how many consecutive downline rolls are available from a
given height band? Is it worth ‘pressing’ for completing the exact number of
downline rolls rather than forsaking the showline?
Unfortunately, the NTSB reports on most of these kinds of accidents are of no
value to learn from, using broad descriptions at best: “Pilot failed to recover”, etc.
A deeper analysis of the specific cause is required, what was it that seduced the
display pilot into misjudging? What is it that makes a display pilot, already flying
an extremely hazardous trajectory
with a fierce rate of descent, decide
to do one more roll, just to get the
aircraft alignment correct? Surely a
safe recovery height is more
important than showline? Survivors
of the airshow circuit will certainly
confirm that recovery altitude is a
higher priority than maintaining the
Although the analysis indicated that
a higher percentage of airshow
Graph 3. Airshow accident causal factors.
accidents occurred in the vertical
than in roll, most display pilots will
certainly question the validity of such findings since low-level rolls have certainly
killed more pilots manoeuvring at low-level than anything else. Correct yes, but
not display pilots at airshows, rather ‘hotdogging’ amateur pilots carrying out
unauthorised low-level aerobatics. A possible reason for these surprising
statistics is that display pilots are very well aware of the hazards of low level rolls
and place paramount importance in making sure that in terms of technique, their
performance is flawless, or almost.
Low-level rolls are not something a pilot just decides to do, the pilot must practice
the roll at high altitude until it can be executed completely without ‘dishing out’;
then more work on perfecting the roll to guarantee a minimum of 100% success
rate. The display pilot’s regimen must be a zero error tolerance in roll. Out of a
series of ten rolls at altitude, any error at all in ‘dish’ should be an automatic reset
to begin the entire series again. Ten with no dish is acceptable.
The problem is that the ‘dishing out’ is caused by not using enough rudder and
forward stick during the beginning of the last half of the roll, which is the killer for
the amateur doing a roll to impress friends over the field. The aircraft’s nose
leaves the point above the horizon where the pilot has put it to execute the roll
and starts a wide descending arc, being pulled down both by adverse yaw and by
the lack of positive pitch control necessary to keep the nose pegged. This control
use requires both forward stick in the corner and top rudder combined - with little
airspace below the aircraft, it can be a killer. The display pilot simply cannot
afford to let this happen at low altitude and still survive.
An extremely important consideration is one of situation awareness. By the time
the display pilot begins working an aircraft at low-level, the pilot’s situational
awareness must be as natural inverted as right side up or again, the pilot won’t be
in the business for very long. That said, many pilots doing low altitude aerobatic
work will trim the aircraft slightly nose low and particularly in formation aerobatic
flying, this technique is even more relevant for two reasons. First, a nose low trim
becomes a nose high trim when inverted and if something suddenly goes wrong
while inverted and the display pilot’s attention is distracted for an instant, the nose
trim may provide a safety buffer. The second reason is to keep positive pressure
on the stick and avoid any neutral null in pitch forces which comes in real handy
when flying a tight formation. It keeps everybody’s hand tight, and ‘tunes’ each
aircraft in the formation closer to the hand/eye reactive link of each pilot.
“There is no substitute for practice in the low altitude aerobatic business. If you
make a mistake, the penalty box is your own coffin. There are many professions
in this world where a specific action equates to complete and total commitment.
Working an aircraft acrobatically at low altitude is one of those professions - there
is zero margin for error. The name of the game is simply that you don’t make
errors....EVER!!! (Dudley Henriques International Fighter Pilots Fellowship)
Within the sample, a total of twenty-four Loss-of-Control accidents contributed to
approximately 20% of the airshow accidents. The relatively high percentage of
accidents of this type highlights the requirement for above average handling and
flying skills required by the pilot, especially critical in the realm of display flying.
Loss of control accidents typically included, amongst others, the Russian Tu-144
steep pitch-up which consequently led to loss of control and catastrophic
structural failure at the 1973 Paris Air Show, the entry into a spin from a wingover
by the De Havilland Mosquito at an airshow at Barton, UK in 1996 and the
departure of the P-63 Kingcobra at Biggin Hill Air Fair in 2001. Also included
under loss of control are the two Hawker Sea Fury accidents, the first on the
ground during the landing roll-out where the pilot was killed when the aircraft
flipped onto its back at the EAA Sun ‘n Fun 1996 and the second, the loss of
control from a climbing turn at Sarnia, Canada in 2001. Surprisingly, the cause of
the US Navy’s QF-4S that crashed at the Pt Mugu in April 2002 during the run-in
to break for landing was assigned to loss-of-control arising from pilot mishandling.
Considering that several aircraft flying only a few feet apart at high speeds and
high angular rates, it is not surprising that mid-air collisions typically account for
25% of airshow accidents. Mid-Air Collisions in the context of airshows are unique
to formation aerobatics, synchronised pairs displays and pylon racing, occurring
principally between members of formation aerobatics teams or the racing aircraft.
In the sample, seventeen formation aerobatics mid-air collisions occurred, eight
collisions occurred between synchro-pairs and three collisions occurred during
Pylon Racing. Not only do collisions occur in flight, but there are of course, also
cases of individual members of formations colliding while on the ground. The
unusual ground collision accident in 1999 at the EAA AirVenture in the USA in
which the leader of a two-ship Bearcat formation collided with the Lead aircraft of
the Corsair formation on the runway – the Corsair formation had aborted a takeoff ahead when the Bearcat formation suddenly commenced the takeoff run. The
primary contribution to this ground collision was poor communications.
Formation aerobatics most probably represents the pinnacle of low-level display
flying hazards, not only does the close proximity of the ground present a hazard,
but also the extremely close proximity of the other aircraft in the formation adds
significantly to pilot workload and the requirement for situational awareness.
Formation aerobatics requires extremely good reactions, anticipation and fine
motor skills from all the pilots in the formation. In 1982, all four members of the
USAF Thunderbirds aerobatic team were killed when the four T-38 Talons
crashed in the Nevada desert from a line-abreast loop. The first report concluded
with ‘pilot error’ but having been ‘thrown back’ to the investigators, subsequently
concluded that the formation leader’s control stick jammed as they came down
out of a loop. The second report, however, raised even more questions that were
never adequately answered.
In any mechanical system, there will always be a certain failure rate, the meantime-between-failure (MTBF). MACHINE’s contribution to airshow accidents,
specifically mechanical, was only 17% (twenty failures) consisting of eleven (55%)
engine failures, seven structural failures (35%) and two (10%) flight control
system failures. The overall contribution of 17% to airshow accidents is
considered realistic considering the rigorous environment and the stresses and
strains the engine and airframe are subjected to during low-level aerobatics – this,
in spite of the significant numbers of vintage and ex-military aircraft on the
airshow circuit worldwide.
The spread of engine failures was distributed in the ratio 5:7 between current
operational aircraft types at the time of accident and ex-stock or vintage aircraft.
Some of the current operational types at the time of the accidents included the
P.1127 prototype’s uncommanded nozzle operation at Paris Airshow (1963), the
Impala engine fire at Stellenbosch Airshow (1988), the MiG-29 compressor stall,
at Paris Airshow (1989) and the Harrier engine failure at Lowestoft (2002). The
ex-stock or vintage aircraft engine failures included the only airworthy Me-109G-6
from Duxford (1997), two WWII vintage Spitfires, one privately owned (2001) and
one belonging to the SAAF Museum (2000), the only airworthy B-26 Marauder
(1995), a privately owned Hawker Hunter (1998), a SAAF Museum Harvard T6-G
(2002) and a privately owned F-4U Corsair (2002). This is particularly interesting
since in many aviation circles, vintage aircraft are regarded as higher risk due to
their age, but statistics indicate that there is essentially no significant difference.
In terms of the definition applied, mechanical failures addressed not only engine,
but also structural failure. As can be expected from the wide spectrum of positive
and negative ‘g’ loadings experienced during display flying, six (5%)
failures contributed to airshow accidents. Structural failure contributed 29% to
MACHINE and often resulted in some of the most spectacular crashes. John
Derry’s DH-110 in-flight structural break-up at Farnborough 1952, the South
African Air Force’s Silver Falcons formation aerobatic team singleton’s wing
separation in 1993 and the F-117As in-flight catastrophic wing separation at
Baltimore USA in 1997, are cases in point. The in-flight break-up of the Chinook
carrying forty-one parachutists in Mannheim 1982, the Pitts Special wing fold-up
in Pennsylvania in 1996 and the in-flight break-up of the privately owned Fouga
Magister at Deke Slayton, Winsconsin in 2001, making up the other contributions.
Once again there was no statistical evidence to substantiate the suggestion that
vintage aircraft are more likely to experience structural failure, despite their age.
On the contrary, four of the cited examples were currently operational aircraft at
the time of the accident while three were ex-Service or vintage aircraft types.
Flight Control System (FCS) failures are a relatively new phenomenon and can be
expected to increase in the future as more aircraft are fitted with modern fly-bywire systems. The introduction of fly-by-wire systems to commercial and military
fighters since the 1970s has seen at least two accidents that can be indirectly
attributed to such failures. The Air France Airbus 320 accident at HabsheimMulhouse in 1988 and the SAAB Gripen FCS induced accident in Stockholm in
1993, were recorded as the first two airshow accidents by fly-by-wire aircraft. It is
however, debatable whether or not to consider the A320 as an FCS failure.
Despite the aircrew’s vehement counter-arguments, the official accident
investigation ruled ‘pilot error’ in that the aircrew did not use the flight control
system optimally. The ongoing argument about irregularities within the evidence
produced at the inquiry and the post-accident modifications introduced to the
A320 fleet, make it difficult to categorise this particular accident. In the final
analysis though, it would not be incorrect to at least partly assign the FCS and
aircraft systems as an indirect cause of the accident.
Still under the heading of MAN, the ever-present threat of basic flying mistakes
remains a constant hazard to the display pilot; the adrenalin release of ‘doing the
job’ safely can often lead to a form of tranquillity. A period of intense
concentration followed by the sudden release of tension in completing a safe and
successful display can lead to a loss of focus on the part of the display pilot. The
bottom line is that the display, as in all categories of aviation pursuit, is never over
until the paper work is ‘signed-off’ and the tendency for the pilot to relax and let
his guard down before the flight is over, could result in mistakes such as a
wheels-up landing. The 3% contribution by wheels-up landing incidents remains
unacceptably high, especially considering that display flying is usually legislated
to be flown by experienced pilots. That said, every pilot, no matter how
experienced, realises the fickleness of the human and is always aware of the
ease with which a wheels-up approach can be made.
Lastly, there is the element of MEDIUM, more particularly, the environment. In
aviation, Medium will always contribute a certain percentage to accident causal
factors, typically in the form of birdstrikes, wake turbulence and weather related
elements such as density altitude, cloud base and visibility to list just a few. In the
sample analysis, however, Medium’s direct contribution to display accidents is
surprisingly low at only 4%, constituted by 3% weather related and 1% birdstrikes
(Chart 4). However, this does not reveal the true picture.
Weather contributed directly to at least three and indirectly to at least eight
airshow accidents, accidents in which pilots were deceived into ‘pressing’, trying
to squeeze their displays in below the cloud base under conditions in which the
airshow could have, or should have, in most cases, been cancelled. The B-58
Hustler barrel-roll under a low cloud ceiling at Paris Airshow 1961, the A-10
Thunderbolt attempt to squeeze the loop in below the low cloud ceiling, also at
Paris Airshow, but in 1977 and the synchro-pair of MiG-29s at RIAT 1993 that
collided on exit from ‘light’ clouds while carrying out the ‘lost wingman’ procedure,
serve as prime examples as to the hazards of conducting aerobatics at low-level
with cloud present.
Strong crosswinds forced display pilots to cross the crowd line or overfly
prohibited overflight areas which required the pilots to take aggressive handling
action to avoid the wrath of the safety directors. Density altitude caused pilots to
miss the ‘energy gates’, orographic turbulence contributed to formation team
members colliding with each other and wake turbulence caused the
uncommanded departure of a trailing formation team member.
Indirectly, weather could have contributed to at least five airshow accidents. The
very high density altitude prevailing at Lanseria, Johannesburg (1977) contributed
to poor energy management in the crashed loop of the Britten Norman Trislander.
The B-52 loss of control in a very steep turn while trying to remain within the
display arena and avoid prohibited areas was partially attributable to very strong
surface winds at Washington State in 1994. The Royal Jordanian Air Force
singleton aerobatic display at the ‘Flanders Fly-In’ in Belgium in 1997 was flown in
such rain and strong winds that many of the remaining spectators took shelter in a
First Aid tent, not comprehending the impact of the strong crosswinds on the
pilot’s ability to maintain the showline. The crash of the SAAF Museum’s Piston
Provost from a ‘stall-turn’ due to a low cloud base at AFB Swartkops in 1998 and
the uncommanded departure of the Vampire trailing in the wake of the Sea-Vixen
at the Biggin Hill 2001, emphasise the insidious effects of weather as indirect
contributions to airshow accidents.
Considering that demonstration flying is essentially a VFR exercise, the display
pilot’s persistence and logic in flying displays at airshows in adverse weather
conditions, is questionable. The existence of a practiced ‘bad-weather’ sequence
in any display repertoire is essential to eliminate such accident categories, the
price for non-compliance can prove fatal for not only the pilot, but also the
spectators. The relatively low percentage contribution of 3% due to weather is
however, considered excessive since it is theoretically possible of being reduced
to zero, but that would require fine judgement and fortitude by the pilots and
airshow organisers to take the ‘unpopular decision’ and recognise that conditions
have regressed beyond the bad weather sequence criteria and either postpone or
cancel the flying display.
Analysis of Airshow Accidents by Aircraft Category
The value of analysing airshow accidents by aircraft type is moot but for the
purpose of comprehensiveness, it is insightful to consider airshow accidents by
aircraft type. What is clear that there is no aircraft category that is spared the fate
of an accident at an airshow – the total spectrum of aircraft that have
demonstrated at airshows in the past have been involved in accidents in one way
or the other – from the frontline fighter to ultralight. By the inherent nature of lowlevel display flying, there is a natural distribution of airshow accident aircraft
categories. There is no doubt that spectators attend airshows to watch the
dynamic manoeuvring of the different aircraft types and nearly by default, the
more manoeuvrable aircraft types of aircraft performing at airshows, such as
fighters, by far exceeds that of large transport aircraft types.
It is thus not surprising that the greatest number of aircraft crashes at airshows is
made up of fighters at 29% and jet trainers at 23% which is not unexpected
considering the high frequency of appearance and the number of fighters and jet
trainers flying at airshows. (Graph 4 and Chart 5) Most importantly of course, the
range of manoeuvres performed by fighters are more dynamic than the less agile
aircraft and in this case, the dynamics of manoeuvring must be considered –
helicopters, bombers and transport aircraft, by the nature of their intended
mission and manoeuvrability, are not subjected to the extremes of handling and
agility required from fighters. In fact, in the case of the less manoeuvrable
aircraft, there is no significant rolling or looping manoeuvres reducing the
probability of pilot errors in anticipation and judgement errors significantly. The
less manoeuvrable aircraft types such as helicopter and transport types make up
only fourteen (12%) of the 118 airshow crash types.
What is also interesting to note, is that from the sample of airshow accidents,
vintage aircraft accounted for a total of twenty-seven (22%) airshow accidents of
which 19% were attributable to vintage
propeller, and 3% to vintage jet aircraft.
In all likelihood, this 27:91 ratio of vintage
aircraft to current operational type
Trainer Jet
accidents most probably closely reflects
Vintage Prop
the frequency of participation of vintage
to current aircraft types.
The bottom line is that not all pilots are
Vintage Jet
‘good sticks’; they may fly safely and
Trainer Prop
accurately during their ‘daytime job’, but it
takes a different type of pilot and attitude
to display an aircraft at low-level.
Chart 5. Percentile breakdown of airshow Conversely, some exceptional display
accidents by aircraft category.
pilots would possibly not survive too long
in the more conventional type of flying.
Certainly one of the most significant observations emanating from the analysis it
that is that the pilots were all generally highly experienced, professional aviators
with flying experience ranging from 3,000 to 24,000 flying hours and in several
cases, more than twenty-years flying in the airshow circuit. In most cases, the
accident investigation reports concluded that the pilots had erred in some way or
the other. The important point to be made here is that where ‘pilot error’ had
been identified, none of the errors were committed intentionally. What must be
asked is what made the pilot respond in the manner that caused the particular
accident? Why was that particular course of action pursued? What was it that
drove the pilot to think that his incorrect chosen course of action would be
successful? What distractions in the cockpit made the pilot select the incorrect
course of action? Did the pilot experience physiological problems, were the pilot’s
sensors overloaded with peripheral cues and rate information, or did he just
Tr hte
Sp Pro
an rt/U
ag s
ne e t
decide to ‘take a chance’, thinking that it would be alright? Was it an educated
decision or was it just taking a chance?
We will never know the answers to these questions. Accident investigation
boards make conclusions based on a given set of accident evidence – they are
never privy to those vital cues, information or terrors that the pilot faced at the
time of decision making, in most cases, they can never know just exactly what
happened in the cockpit. The bottom line is that pilot error in most cases, has a
mitigating factor that the accident investigation board do not necessarily discover
or consider during the investigation. Not that this stops the Accident Board from
making the standard ‘clique finding’ of “pilot error”.
Based on the legacy airshow accidents then, airshow organisers and aviation
authorities world wide, both military and civil, have had no other alternative but to
introduce and impose regulations governing the safety of the spectators and
public firstly, and the pilots secondly. Airshow accidents are not a new
phenomenon, the statistical evidence presented in this chapter bears witness to
the vast number of accidents that have occurred in the past. Statistically, the
number of airshow accidents annually at airshows worldwide, is increasing, but on
the good news side, the number of spectators and members of the public that
have been killed or injured in Western countries has not shown any increase,
which implies that the regulations imposed are in most cases, successful.
Following the Su-27 tragedy at Lviv in the Ukraine in which 86 spectators were
killed and 156 injured, it is clear that standardisation of safety regulations
throughout the world is essential if spectator safety is to be maximised. The
weakest part of the safety chain
however, remains the pilot and it is
only through trying to iron out the
weaknesses of each individual display
pilot that airshow safety can be
These statistics leave one in no doubt
as to the fallibility and weakness of
Man in the low-level demonstration
environment. Armed with these facts,
it is essential for Man to focus on his
weaknesses and develop counters for
Graph 4. Airshow accidents by aircraft
them to improve survivability indices.
This once again emphasises the fact
that the display arena is a hostile environment. Flying high momentum aircraft in
three dimensions very close to the ground at extremely high closing speeds and
high angular rates, which when coupled with the human’s inability to accurately
measure closure rates, makes for a high risk of misjudgement by a pilot.
What can be gleaned from the foregoing statistics and analysis is that the range
of contributory causes to airshow accidents is extensive. From insidious
elements of weather and mechanical or structural failure, to totally unprofessional
flying and blatant disregard for safety regulations. It is evident that there is no
single, major factor that leads to an airshow accident. The display arena is a
hostile environment. Controlling an aircraft in three dimensions very close to the
ground at high closing speeds and high angular rates, creates a high pilot
workload and a lot of adrenalin. When coupled with the human’s inability to
accurately assess closure rates, it makes for a high risk of judgement error by the
pilot. In display flying, the margin for error is zero. It is not necessarily display
pilot skill that is the problem, but rather pilot judgement.
Former world champion acro-pilot, Lithuanian Jurgis Kairys flies his Su-26 under a bridge
in Vilnius. (Jurgis Kairys)
“Truly superior pilots are those who use their superior judgment to avoid those
situations where they might have to use their superior skills.” (Anon)
Accident Investigation Boards are an essential component of any aviation authority, military
or civilian, and exist to investigate any and all accidents with the primary aim of determining the
cause and introducing procedures to prevent the same mistakes being made again. In most
countries, the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) is a part of the specific country’s
Department for Transport and is responsible for the investigation of civil aircraft accidents and
serious incidents within the that particular country. The Chief Inspector of Air Accidents usually
reports directly to the Secretary of State for Transport. Within military circles, accident
investigation is usually the remit of the specific air force’s Directorate of Aviation Safety or similar
The fundamental purpose of investigating accidents is to determine the circumstances and
causes of the accident with a view to the preservation of life and the avoidance of accidents in the
future - not to apportion blame or liability which is a legal prerogative outside the remit of an
accident investigation. In considering random accident case studies, the UK’s Air Accident
Investigation Board (AAIB) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident
investigation reports are reproduced nearly verbatim with only slight changes in grammatical
tenses with commentary by the author relating the accident case to the dynamics and realities of
display flying. Accident investigations are supposed to be unemotional and objective reports in
which conclusions must be supported by fact, not hypothesis or opinion. Such reports are of a
technical nature and the written style is usually abrupt and not in the novel form. Unfortunately,
the unavailability of hard accident causal evidence and facts often makes it difficult for
investigation teams to reach conclusive findings and as such, a comprehensive technical analysis
of each accident leads to objective conclusions and recommendations.
In an overview of selected fatal accidents, the devastating Su-27 loss-of-control crash in
the Ukraine in 2002 is considered. The AAIB’s Bell P-63 Kingcobra loss-of-control crash at Biggin
Hill 2001, the NTSB’s Canadair Sabre F-86E flight-into-terrain crash in 1993 at El Toro Marine
Corps Air Station, California and the AAIB’s flight-into-terrain of the P-38 Lightning at Duxford’s
‘Flying Legends’ Air Display in 1996 provide a broad-brush analysis of accidents representing a
wide spectrum of airshow accidents. The non-fatal crash of the South African Air Force Museum’s
only airworthy Spitfire describes the inner thought processes of a pilot in a survivable accident
while an analysis of the USAF Thunderbirds four-ship formation fatal accident in the Nevada
Desert in 1982, serves to highlight some of the real world questions that are not always considered
by accident investigation boards for whatever reason.
The specific examples serve to verify the vulnerability of pilots to the hazards of low-level
display flying. There is no differentiation in category of pilots or aircraft, military, civilian, ex-military
all are equally vulnerable to the hazards of the airshow environment. High time pilots with
thousands of hours, modern fighters to vintage propeller aircraft, there is no discrimination.
It is always easy to be clever after an accident; “hindsight is an exact science” or so the
quotation goes. Questions that however remain unanswered are: “How in today’s world can an air
force task a frontline fighter like the Su-27 to perform at an airshow without adequate practice and
knowledge of the display arena? Even worse, instruct the pilot to fly overhead the crowd for
maximum effect? Why a highly experienced display pilot flying the Kingcobra applied full up
elevator and full right rudder while inverted at the top of a low-level loop? Why such poor
communication without inadequate back up existed at Biggin Hill for the Flying Control Committee
to stop the show routine after the aircraft entered the first incipient
spin? What would make a
highly experienced display pilot continue a display after entering an incipient spin and then
immediately re-enter the next vertical manoeuvre in the sequence with an excessively low
airspeed? Is it overconfidence, ego, unpracticed, situational awareness?
How could an experienced display pilot make the decision to perform a low-level display in
a Sabre without a well-practiced sequence? What would make one of the world’s most
experienced vintage aircraft display pilots conduct two consecutive aileron rolls in a P-38 Lightning
at low level even though the normal procedure was to only conduct one roll? The relatively poor
roll rate and the requirement to positively keep the nose above the horizon are well-documented
techniques for vintage aircraft aerodynamics? There are so many unanswered questions resulting
from fatal accidents.
Could it be that airshow pilots have inadequate flying hours on specific types and
insufficient continuation training to reduce the risks of handling and anticipation errors during the
low-level display? Could it be that pilots do not plan their displays considering the worst-case
scenario of failure? Does the art of pre-planning even exist in some cases? Could it be that some
display pilots do not fully consider and plan for each specific manoeuvre of their routine and then
rather make in-flight energy management decisions on an ‘ad hoc’ basis? In considering the fatal
accidents, the question of supervision must be continually raised. Are display pilots adequately
focussed on the task at hand, are their minds on the task at hand or are they busy with ‘other
distracting issues, domestic or show organizing?’ Can or should display co-ordinators be allowed
to fly at the airshows? Is age a handicap to safe display flying? These are all ‘real-world’
questions that must be answered if display flying is to achieve lower accident rates.
The dynamic environment requires that pilots are not only in current practice on the
particular aircraft type, but should also be at peak physical condition. High angular acceleration
rates and high G-forces place a high fatigue load on the human body and it is one of the reasons
that air force fighter pilots are drawn from the younger ranks. Is it possible that age makes display
pilots more susceptible to airshow accidents? Is there any scientific evidence militating against 65
to 80-year old pilots displaying aircraft at airshows?
With age, the ability of the display pilot to continuously absorb the highly dynamic
manoeuvres, decreases, just as it does for professional sportsmen. But as they get older, they
also get wiser and eventually understand the value of peak physical fitness that youth provides.
That said, the ironic side is that experience only comes with age, display pilots get clever in
knowing ‘when’ and ‘how much’ to pull, ‘when’ and ‘how much’ to roll, to still create the best
spectacle – this is not something that an inexperienced youngster generally can do, it is a ‘feel’
that comes from experience. There have been airshow accidents in which the possible causes
were listed as possible medical causes, but the question of pilot incapacitation is often one of the
variables in airshow accident investigations difficult to confirm.
Any dissertation on display flying would not be complete without at least discussing the
tragic events surrounding the world’s most disastrous airshow accident in history, the Ukraine Air
Force’s Su-27 that ploughed into the spectators at Lviv, Ukraine on 27 July 2002. Just when
airshows worldwide appeared to have achieved a standard in which the safety of spectators was
no longer jeopardised by display line incursions, a Ukraine Air Force Su-27 crashed into a
spectator enclosure at an airshow at Skniliv Airfield and exploded in a fireball killing 86 people
(including 27 children) and injuring more than 156. The accident occurred at the airshow to mark
the 60th anniversary of the 14 th Air Division of Ukraine’s Air Force. The Su-27 had amazed
audiences at its first appearances at Western airshows in the 1990s with aerobatic manoeuvres
previously unknown and unheard of for a twin-engined jet aircraft of its size.
The actual impact of this accident on airshows worldwide had far reaching implications for
the way aircraft are displayed. Vociferous comment by display and ex-display, military and civilian
pilots worldwide was forthcoming, in particular, the UK and the USA. Farnborough Airshow 2002
was in full swing at that time and the world’s attention was focussed on the safety regulations in
force at Farnborough. Several commentators, attempting to protect the airshow circuit from the
media and also looking after public interest and attendance figures, claimed that such an accident
could not happen at Farnborough or even in the UK.
The supposition put forward was that the strict regulations in force would negate the
probability of such an occurrence – a shortsighted prediction if ever there was one. The fact of the
matter is that any air vehicle, even with moderate airspeed, could very easily transgress the safety
buffer between showline and spectator enclosure. An aircraft departure from loss of control or
catastrophic structural failure for whatever other reason, could change the directed inertia and
traverse the safety buffer zone of 450 metres in a very short space of time, certainly less than five
seconds, definitely not enough time for the pilot to regain control and steer the aircraft away in a
safe direction or for the spectators to evacuate the enclosure. The Su-27 airshow crash serves to
confirm this statement of fact.
Approximately two minutes into the display routine, and from analysis of video footage, the
aircraft was in a tight left hand, level steep turn when for some inexplicable reason, the aircraft
suddenly rolled over through another approximately
110º into a steep, nose-low, inverted position. The
pilot instinctively proceeded to pullout from the
ensuing dive from which it failed to recover due to
insufficient height. It is highly unlikely that this
manoeuvre was intentional; no pilot in his right mind
would attempt this ‘half-roll pull through; from such a
low altitude. During the uncommanded roll, the
aircraft became displaced from the showline
heading directly at the spectator enclosure.
From the video analysis it appeared as if the
left engine had failed and the aircraft yawed and
rolled left. The ailerons were clearly full right stick
and the rudders were full over to the right the whole
way down to the ground, and it looked like there was
no roll recovery at all. Fortunately for the crew, they
initially hit the ground at a small enough bank angle
for the impact to tip the aircraft to an attitude
approximating straight and level.
According to a Russian flight test engineer
that had previously worked on the Su-27
development programme, when the Su-27 loses an
engine at high power settings, the yaw and roll is
uncontrollable - the standard recovery technique if
altitude permits, is to bring both throttles to idle and
recover roll control in the dive, and then fly home.
There is more than enough power from the
remaining engine to fly home at low enough power
settings so that the yaw/roll mechanism is
controllable. Rather surprising considering the
narrow thrust lines involved. But factoring in a left
yaw/roll moment from the port engine failing with the
right at engine at power, occurring simultaneously
with the pilot induced left roll, could only end in
catastrophe, especially at such low heights. The
right control deflections were maintained prior to
impact and considering the high AOA and ineffective
control response against the momentum, the pilot
was fighting a losing battle all the way down. If the
aircraft did lose one engine, then it would have been
at the absolute worst possible moment it could have
happened. The left wing appeared to drag on initial
ground contact which positioned the cockpit just
long enough to allow an ejection that taxed even the
superior Zvezda seat.
Both crew ejected between the aircraft being tilted
erect after scraping the ground and the explosion in
the cartwheel; one of the empty seats actually fell
into the fireball. Both pilots Vladimir Toponar and
During the uncommanded roll, the
aircraft became displaced from the
showline heading directly at the
Yuri Yegrov, the co-pilot, survived the ultra-low ejection but suffered fractured vertebrae. If nothing
else, it once again demonstrated the Russian Zvezda ejection seat’s capabilities. The pilots
ejected only after impact with the ground was the only option, an indication that they were
struggling to control the aircraft and prevent the impending impact with the ground and spectator
enclosures. The aircrew were correct to stop fighting the aircraft and to make the instantaneous
but very late decision to eject when all was lost. Due to a slight discontinuity in the video coverage
it was hard to tell, but it looked like less than two seconds between first ground impact and the
The considered opinion of those pilots who weighed in with comment on this, was that there was
absolutely no way to point this aircraft away from the crowd, since full right rudder and aileron
were already being applied with no effect to counter the yaw from the failed port engine with the
right still at high power setting. The aircraft banked left to an angle of approximately 40º at first
impact and was then slewed into the spectators watching in horror as the aircraft ploughed across
the airfield before bursting into flames. Dazed and bloodied survivors of the tragedy stared in
shock and horror at bodies of the victims strewn over the ground.
The intention of a pilot trying to avoid crashes into populated areas is honourable, but it must be
understood that there are circumstances when a high performance aircraft like the Su-27 can
become nothing more aerodynamic than a rock. Such was the case in this accident. The pilot
never had a chance to avoid the crowd once that left roll had been initiated. Suffering a port
engine shutdown at the worst possible moment in the manoeuvre as he was initiating a left roll
with lateral stick in the same direction that the failed port engine produced a high yaw moment in
series, resulted in a twisted roll with an extremely high angle of attack recovery that denied further
effective control input. His only chance to avoid the crowd was when he was originally positioning
his aircraft for that roll, which on his own admission, was overhead the crowd as instructed by his
The final analysis of this horrible tragedy involved isolating the exact point in space the aircraft
occupied, as well as it’s heading in relation to the crowd at the point when the aircraft encountered
the problem that brought it down. As for the ejection itself, there was absolutely no question in the
minds of other experienced pilots who saw this happen, that the aircraft was completely out of
control through the roll and on the edge of an accelerated departure due to excessive angle of
attack all the way down through initial impact.
The photographs were rushed to the media and published worldwide which had a pronounced
shock-effect on a world in which television coverage of carnage has become common viewing.
The burning wreckage of a twenty-five ton aircraft ploughing into the spectators, next photograph,
dead, mangled bodies scattered around. The type of photographs that could influence even the
most diehard airshow supporter to supporting initiatives to ban airshows – it was those kind of
photographs. What a mess!
Experts unanimously blamed the organisers of the airshow for the disaster. Former
Ukrainian air force general Vadim Grechaninov, told Interfax that the pilots of the Sukhoi were
unable to avoid ploughing into onlookers because of improper safety measures on the ground, and
because the aircraft was flying too low. Another Ukrainian expert, former fighter pilot Colonel
Alexei Melnik, agreed, saying that the air force had flouted the rules stipulating that demonstration
flights must be performed at an altitude not lower than 400 metres. Besides flying below show
altitude, the close proximity of the spectators to the show line also contributed to the high numbers
of fatalities.
Fingers of blame were immediately pointed at the Ukraine, of course. Some were saying
that the pilots had modified the routine to demonstrate an unapproved even, some said,
‘unpractised’ manoeuvre; others blamed the air force for not calling the demonstration off when it
became apparent the routine wasn’t going by the book, and/or for ordering flight over the
spectators, presumably for maximum crowd thrill; still others said the pilots should have recovered
in a different direction and a few even blamed the aircraft.
As word of the disaster spread throughout the world, and in a flurry of rash actions,
enraged Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma immediately dismissed the Air Force Commander,
General Col. Volodymyr Strelnikov and Commander Serhiy Onyshenko who were under
investigation for criminal negligence as well. The Defence Minister also offered his resignation but
Kuchma refused to accept it. Meanwhile, a military court in Lviv ordered the flight’s ground-control
leader, Yuriy Yatsuk, jailed on charges of criminal negligence. Judge Oleksandr Yaremenko said
that Yatsuk should not even have controlled the exercise. “He was not experienced enough to
lead Su-27s flying at low altitude in manoeuvres requiring the highest level of piloting,” Interfax
quoted the judge as saying.
Speaking at the site of the tragedy, a shocked Kuchma who cut short his vacation in the
Crimea to fly to the crash site, said that the air force should concentrate on their military duties
rather than performing for crowds. “In my opinion we need to stop these kind of air performances.
People should do their military business and should train, not take part in airshows,” Kuchma told
local television stations. We don't know anything absolutely except that the pilots were the most
experienced, of the highest class,” Kuchma said in comments shown on state television.
Struggling to speak, the veteran leader said the worst thing about the crash was that
“innocent people died.” Kuchma also ordered the secretary of the Defence and Security Council,
Yevhen Marchuk, to lead a government commission to investigate the case and announced a ban
on military airshows in Ukraine while vowing to pursue those responsible. “The culprits should be
punished, there is no doubt,” he said.
Residents in this western Ukrainian city began two days of official mourning Sunday after a
fighter jet crash. Music and entertainment programs were curtailed as residents attended church
services to pray for the victims. Hundreds of anxious relatives waited outside the Lviv morgue for
officials to identify the victims, whose bodies were being held in refrigerated trucks outside pending
identification. “These are sad statistics,” Marchuk said. He said the remains of twenty-five victims
had been identified, but the badly mutilated condition of many other victims was making the
identification process difficult. “The highest priority is to identify these people,” he said.
Mykhailo Kurochka, deputy head of Lviv's police service, said officials had begun to call
relatives of victims to start the identification procedure. “One-by-one, they will be taken to identify
bodies, which will then be prepared for funerals”, he said. Svetlana Atamaniuk, whose daughter
and granddaughters were killed, waited with the others for official confirmation of their deaths.
She said that she was at her home across from the airfield when she heard the plane go down. “It
was ripping the air,” she said. “My only daughter, her husband and their two daughters are lying in
there,” she said late Saturday night, waiting outside the morgue for information. “I can't get in, I
will be here until the morning,” she said.
Many of the bodies were in terrible condition, complicating the identification process.
Bohdan Hupalo, 18, said he was posing for a picture when the plane came down. He dove
to the ground and saw the jet race over him, missing by only a few yards. “There weren't any
survivors among those who fell down late - they were cut down like grass,” he said. When Hupalo
opened his eyes, he said he was surrounded by human remains. “I will never forget this tragedy,”
he said from his hospital bed, where he was being treated for an injured back. After the crash,
parents frantically searched for missing children and used the public address system to call out
their names. One group of children with cuts on their faces and arms sat stunned on the ground.
Severed body parts littered the tarmac at the air base. One woman was seen clutching the lifeless
body of a child in front of a jet on display; another man was covered in blood while he examined
the stump left of his right hand. More than $1.9 million was set aside from the federal budget in an
initial fund for funerals and first aid for victims, Kuchma said. (Interfax News Agency)
Comment by a veteran airshow performer: “When he completed the half roll, he yanked a yard of
stick and pulled the aircraft in deep stall, effectively on the ragged edge of an accelerated
departure all the way down. It was hard to tell from the video angle just where he was in the
manoeuvre set-up when the screw-up occurred, and I hate to speculate without seeing the set-up
sequence, but he very well might have been bitten by something I feel has killed many pilots
working an airplane that low.”
“I considered it a safety one issue in any and all low routines I ever did, and watched for it VERY
carefully. It occurs when you are doing a manoeuvre series in fairly rapid succession. What
happens is that somewhere in the sequence, you find yourself just a hair off of where you actually
should be for the next manoeuvre. It could be in roll, but more often than not, it’s a pitch error.
You make an instant decision and decide the error isn’t enough to break the sequence, and initiate
the manoeuvre anyway, fully aware of the slight error and thinking you will correct the error AS
THE MANEUVER PROGRESSES! This can kill you...especially in roll!” “Who knows if this is
what caught him, but from the video analysis, it is most probable that something happened to blow
his exit heading as well as his altitude problem. I feel for this poor guy! I just hope he wasn’t
breaking any regulations when this happened. It’s going to bad enough for him without that!”
The official accident investigation report concluded that that the cause was ‘pilot error’. Chief
investigator Yevhen Marchuk, said that he blamed the pilots for the crash, saying they broke from
their flight plan and performed difficult manoeuvres which they had not done before. He added
that operational issues, organisational problems and a lack of safety measures had contributed to
make it the world’s worst airshow disaster. He elaborated by implicating the pilots’ flight
commanders and the airshow’s organizers, who he said did not conduct a rehearsal of the event.
“The pilots were not properly instructed on their task and the two pilots had only trained for three
days before the show but didn’t see where they would perform until they arrived in the western city
of Lviv on the day of the show”. He also said that commanders failed to call off the performance
after the pilots deviated from the flight plan on their first pass, flying too close to the public. The
question it raises in this case is of course: “why would the commanders call it off if they had
instructed the pilot to fly overhead the spectators for increased effect in the first place?”
According to witnesses, the jet flew directly over the crowd of about 10,000 people. In
many countries, crowd exclusion zones are enforced at airshows and pilots are barred from
carrying out manoeuvres below a certain height. Mr Marchuk said there was no proper coordination among the bodies taking part in the show. The two pilots had been serving in different
wings, the flight controller came from another base and the jet was supplied by yet another unit.
Mr Marchuk also accused the ground services of not taking adequate measures to ensure the
safety of spectators. As in several high profile aircraft accidents, the conspiracy theorists were not
slow in getting into the act. The theory was mooted in the media soon after the accident was that
the aircraft was brought down by a mysterious cylindrical object, but this was rejected by the
Although technical failure was rejected as a cause by the president of the Accident Investigation
team, from the video footage it certainly looked like the aircraft experienced a compressor stall or
complete failure port side just as he had initiated a tight left turn which torqued the aircraft around
nose down. This was followed by a strong positive pitch input during recovery that over-rotated
the aircraft right through critical alpha and deep into drag rise putting the aircraft right on the razor
edge of a departure. It was a ‘done deal’ all the way in - it’s a miracle they got out at all. If the
wingtip hadn’t grazed the ground just before final impact, rotating the lift vector back into the seat
envelope for just the instant they hit the handles, they wouldn’t have made it out at all.
In an interview with the Ukrainian news agency and reported by the British publication The
Guardian, Vladimir Toponar, the pilot of the Su-27 ‘Flanker’ didn’t agree that he and fellow pilot
Yuri Yegrov should be held responsible for the accident. The pilot said, “At the decisive moment,
the plane became uncontrollable, it was completely unexpected. I fought the plane up to the last
second to spare as many people as possible and only thanks to Yegrov did we save our own
lives.” Contrary to the statements released by the Accident Investigation Board, the pilot’s
description and perception of what happened seemed to collate with the video footage. The same
statements were repeated by Volodymyr Toponar to the UNIAN news agency carried on Ukrainian
STB television which confirmed that published by the Guardian blaming technical problems and a
faulty flight plan for the crash.
It was the first public comment from either of the pilots after doctors had pronounced the pilots fit
enough to answer investigators’ questions. Toponar’s comments came after the chief investigator
accused the pilots of ignoring their flight plan and attempting difficult, untested manoeuvres that
caused the plane to nick the ground, slice through a parked plane and cartwheel into the crowd.
“The pilots failed to follow the flight plan and performed four difficult manoeuvres that they had not
done before,” Yevhen Marchuk, the chief investigator of the accident, said.
The decision whether to prosecute the pilots would only be made after they had fully recovered, a
spokesperson from the prosecutor’s office said. Toponar was released from hospital after a month
while Yegrov needed two months to recuperate. Toponar said that he was following orders in
flying over the crowds. “The flight shouldn’t have been performed over people, but the order was
to fly where people were”, Toponar told STB television. All in all, not only a sad indictment of
airshow safety regulation application and supervision in the Ukraine, but also total disregard of the
implications of an accident on spectator safety, a shame really!
Releasing the preliminary results of its investigations, Marchuk’s commission said that pilot error
and officials’ failure to prepare for, plan and execute the show safely were the main causes of the
crash. Marchuk rejected pilot Volodymyr Toponar’s claim that technical failures caused him to
lose control of the Su-27 seconds before the crash. “All of the plane’s systems worked properly
until it hit the ground,” he said. The commission recommended restructuring Ukraine’s armed
forces and speeding up military reforms. President Leonid Kuchma adopted Marchuk’s proposal
to increase funding of the cash-strapped armed forces and instructed his Cabinet to submit draft
laws to parliament strengthening flight regulations.
By 14 August 2002, the first of what promised to be a series of lawsuits against the
government, the father of a 24-year-old man killed in the accident sued the Ministries of Defense
and Health and regional officials, news reports said, seeking $66,000 in damages. (AP)
The apparent reason for limiting the pilots to only three practice flights was attributable to
‘budgetary constraints’ and it is here that the accident began, the first domino was knocked over,
setting off the rest. It is all very well for the President to dismiss the middle management, but in
fact, fingers should ultimately point all the way up to the Ukraine Government. No military can
operate without a proper budget that can assure that the operators of equipment are adequately
trained – these are the first principles of health and safety in any professional organisation.
Even more distressing was that the Government was quick to provide additional funding to
the military after the accident. After the unnecessary deaths of eighty-six people it is a sad
indictment of society in general, it is easy to just say, ‘typical’ – people must first be killed before
the urgency of a situation is realised. A very important lesson from this accident was that after the
event, the pilot discovered just how few friends there are. The pilot could have refused to fly the
display in the knowledge that insufficient practice and preparation had been done, but in the spirit
of ‘getting things done’, he did not. However, when things went wrong, all peripheral support dried
up and the ‘action men’ were left to be the ‘fall guys’. It is an unfortunate fact of life that
management systems always needs someone to blame, in this case, the pilots and their
immediate seniors. Unfortunately accident investigations tend to be “bottom-up” not “top-down”
processes. Supervision in flight safety must be “top down”, it cannot function effectively “bottomup”.
Accident investigation teams, unless the exact cause can be confirmed, normally avoid
speculation, understanding that if one was not in the cockpit at the time of the accident, it is difficult
to reach conclusions with any certainty. In some cases, the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) of
course can provide definite evidence of what transpired aboard the aircraft, carrying with it the
emotions, actions and terrors facing the aircrew. A Ukrainian translated the cockpit voice
recording directly to English and the English translation may not exactly replicate the English
aviation terminology exactly.
On 27 July 2002, Vladimir Toponar was the pilot in command of the Su-27 and Yury
Yegorov, the co-pilot. Anatoly Tretyakov was the vice-commander of the 14 th Air Division and Yury
Yatsuk, the assistant controller in the display arena.
12 .40.30. Yatsuk (Ground Controller): “2000 metres, some thin broken clouds. Weather is good,
visibility better than 10 kilometres”.
12.40.47. Yegorov (Co-Pilot): “Look, Volodya, the weather is good”.
Toponar (Pilot): “Take the controls”.
Yegorov: “Taken”.
12.41.09. Toponar: “Turn right”.
Yegorov: “Roger”.
12.41.17. Yatsuk: “31152 turn right, landing course 312, bearing 136, distance 24. Altimeter 738,
descend 600”.
12.41.25. Toponar: “Come out, come out of the bank, come out”.
Toponar (to Ground Control): “Descend 600 31152”.
Yatsuk: “Roger. Altimeter 738,0 set?”.
Toponar: “Set”.
Tretyakov (Ground Controller): “31152, this is Lavender (callsign)-- start”. Toponar:
“31152 Responding: leaving 1500”.
12.41.59. Tretyakov: “Good, using altimeter 738,0 descend 600 metres inbound to the marker”.
12.42.06. Toponar: “Descending 600 inbound to the marker”.
12.42.11. Yatsuk: “152, radio check Lavender-base?”.
Toponar: “Loud and clear”.
12.42.16. Toponar: “Turn left 10”.
12.42.23. Toponar: “Now come out”.
12.42.38. Toponar: “That’s all. Observing”. Yegorov: “Yes, slow down”.
12.42.41. Tretyakov: “31152 once again, make sure altimeter is set to 738,0”. 12.42.50. Toponar:
“738,0 set, runway in sight 600 horizon”.
12.42.56. Tretyakov: “Good. What’s the visual distance?”
12.43.00. Toponar: “Visually about 10 kilometres. Request descent lower”.
12.43.05. Tretyakov: “Yes. 152, you’re in sight, further descent approved according to mission
12.43.13. Yegorov: “Vova (to Toponar, short for Vladimir), trim the plane and let’s start from 300
metres. Vova, let’s not, why would we go there?..” Toponar: “OK”.
12.43.26. Yatsuk: “152, I’m Lavender-base: observing, you’re cleared to start”.
12.43.31. GPWS warning (lasts for 5,5 seconds).
12.43.33. Yegorov: “We have too much remaining, understand...?”
12.43.37. Yegorov: “6 tonnes, understand?”
12.43.43. Toponar: “Where the f... is the crowd?”
12.43.48. Yegorov: “I don’t know where the f... they are”
12.43.49. Toponar: “Ah, there, I see”.
Yegorov: “f...our mother...! There’s none on the right!”
12.43.54. Toponar (to the ground): “Executing pilotage to the left”.
Yegorov: “So, let’s roll?”
12.43.58. Yatsuk: “Left, left”.
12.44.14. Yegorov: “Turn it on”.
12.44.34. Yegorov: “Let’s go”.
12.44.36. GPWS warning.
12.44.39. Yegorov: “Barrel roll”.
12.44.44. Yegorov: “Enough -- angle”.
12.44.51. Voice warning: “Flight 42, speed at the limit”.
12.44.58. Yegorov: “Turn”. Voice warning: “Flight 42, critical angle of attack, critical G-load”.
12.45.01. Yatsuk: “Turn”.
12.45.02. Yegorov: “F...... turn”.
12.45.05. Yatsuk: “Come out”.
12.45.07. Tretyakov: “Come out, add RPM”.
12.45.10. Yatsuk: “Afterburners”.
Voice warning: “Critical angle of attack, critical G-load”.
12.45.11. Tretyakov: “Add RPM”.
12.45.18. Recording stops.
Just listening to the cockpit voice recorder and studying the crash video footage provides
significant insight into those last few minutes in the cockpit and also seems to contradict some of
the findings of the Accident Investigation Board. Firstly, the weather was partly cloudy and fair at
the time, and did not contribute to the accident. Secondly, the report ruled out technical failure and
concluded that there had been no plan, that unpracticed manoeuvres were attempted and that
there was no effort on the Ground Control Team to warn of the impending catastrophe or cancel
the display.
Well, there certainly seemed to have been a plan. At 12.43.05, the vice commander of the
14th Air Division, Tretyakov, cleared the Su-27 down according to “mission plan,” whatever that
implied. If there was a technical problem, the pilots were unaware of it or did not have time to
discuss the aircraft behaviour. From the time 12.44.44 it appears that the uncommanded motion
of the aircraft put it on an incipient departure, both maximum angle of attack and critical g-load
limits were approached. The susceptibility to departure would have been increased by excessive
fuel weight which the co-pilot brought to the attention of the pilot at 12.43.33. The higher display
weight would have made the aircraft all the more difficult to control especially considering that the
aircraft had basically become ‘a dumb flying bomb’.
The pilot flying the aircraft would have been mentally saturated trying to work out ‘what the
hell was happening’ to the aircraft – under such conditions, there is no time to assess, it becomes
purely a matter of survival and a reversion to basics trying to prevent the aircraft from impacting
with the ground. For the pilot, the co-pilot and the controllers, moments of sheer terror!!
It is prudent ask: “Under the prevailing conditions, would the pilot have even realised that
the port engine had failed, especially considering the narrow distance between both the engines?
It is prudent to note that during the last seventy-seven seconds, the pilot made no audio input, he
did not speak at all, respond or acknowledge any information provided by the co-pilot or ground
controllers which is indicative that that he had his work cut-out just trying to fly the aircraft. Not
surprisingly though, the co-pilot is heard continuously pattering the pilot flying the aircraft with
irregular messages from not only the ground controller Yatsuk but even from Tretyakov, the vice
commander of the 14 th Air Division. Then there was the aircraft’s continuous voice warnings being
activated in the background – to say that the audio traffic for the pilot at a critical stage of flight was
excessive, is an understatement and the pilot’s sensory cues would have been bombarded with
input and rapidly reached saturation level.
For the Accident Investigation to conclude that the Ground Controllers were negligent for
not exercising firm control over the display is maybe a bit harsh. Within the first set of manoeuvres
of the sequence, the aircraft departed controlled flight – leading up to the crash, the Ground
Controllers were constantly pleading with the pilot to “turn”, to “come out” and even to “add RPM”.
Not physically being in the cockpit meant that the controllers had no direct effect on the ultimate
outcome – especially in the final thirty seconds when the aircraft was essentially out of control.
From the CVR at 12:44:39, Yegorov called for the barrel roll but during this manoeuvre, in
fact twelve seconds after calling the barrel roll, the airspeed limit was approached, by nineteen
seconds, just seven seconds later, the voice warning called “critical angle of attack” and “G-load”
and at twenty-two seconds the co-pilot and ground controllers instructed the pilot to “turn”. Only
one second later the co-pilots’ exasperation is clear in his instruction to the pilot to “f……ing turn”.
The Ground Controller at twenty-six seconds pleading for the pilot to pull out followed two seconds
later by the Division Commander commanding the pilot to “pull out!!!” The Ground Controller plus
the Division Commander in desperation even called for the pilot to select afterburner and increase
RPM but whether the pilot, his mental and audio capacity saturated by information overload, was
able to comprehend, is uncertain. From starting the barrel roll, thirty-nine seconds elapsed before
final impact and the death of eighty-six spectators.
The comments at 12.43.43 from the pilot stating that he did not have the crowd-line visual
implies that no previous site study had been completed, nor a pre-show practice conducted.
Herein lies some of the most damning evidence of unprofessional conduct and an indication of a
total disregard for safety, in particular, spectator safety. Flying overhead the spectators left no
buffer to cater for failures of any sort and any type of mechanical failure could in all probability
have contributed to the large number of spectator fatalities that actually occurred.
The crash recorder data was apparently recovered and a 3-D model of the flight path was
computer simulated. All aspects of the preparation of the show and responsible personnel actions
were investigated, as well as the radio communications with the ground. It was concluded that
contributory causes included the flight crew not having a flight card, the flight crew was not briefed
about the features of the airfield, there were no practice flights in the display arena, the show
officials did not co-ordinate the participant’s actions and when the aircrew violated the display
arena, ground control did not warn them that the event itself was allegedly not approved by the
local authorities and the requirement for the practice flights was dropped. The flight data showed
that the manoeuvring took place at the altitude lower than 200 m, which was well below the
airshow limit.
One can understand that no mechanical system is perfect and that failures do occur in the
real world – it is the impact of such failures that must be considered not only from the pilot’s
perspective but also from the spectator safety perspective. Failure to do so can quite rightly be
regarded as grossly unprofessional and negligent in the extreme. Considering the horrendous
accident, it is possible to feel for the pilots, but considering the poor and total disregard of airshow
safety exhibited by the pilot and also the air force, the decision by the Accident Investigation Board
and the rash response of the President, is considered just.
Worldwide, besides sentiments of sympathy and concern for the spectators that were killed
and injured, there was also concern as to what effect this accident would have on the airshow
world, particularly the regulations governing display flying. The entire airshow community would
be affected in some way or another before the Accident Board had deliberated. More particularly,
the aircraft heading in relation to the crowd at the manoeuvre onset was critical. If the pilot
initiated in violation of current regulation limits for crowd proximity and heading, the impact would
be minimal. But, if the final analysis of the entry heading put the aircraft inside present regulations,
and what happened to the aircraft as a result of losing the left engine at manoeuvre onset took him
through that roll, twisting the aircraft out with an exit heading at the crowd, then it is difficult to
predict the end result.
The FAA certainly looked at this scenario in great detail, and some regulation changes
would be instituted in the United States. No matter what happened, though, it was not good for the
airshow community, especially the military community. One last thought for the pilot...rummaging
through the crowd.....on his way to a hangar...whatever...probably wished he were dead. What a
tragedy indeed bringing back memories of Frecce Tricolori in Ramstein in 1988. From the results
of the on-line survey question posed by CNN immediately following this accident, it becomes easy
to understand the rationale behind 30% of the respondents agreeing with the statement “airshows
should be totally banned?”
The Bell P-63A Kingcobra aircraft was being flown in an air display at Biggin Hill. The pilot
displayed the aircraft successfully on the first day of the airshow but on the second day, at the top
of a vertical manoeuvre, he appeared to lose control and the aircraft departed controlled flight
before impacting the ground in a steep nose-down attitude.
On the second day of the airshow three American World War II fighter type aircraft were
scheduled to perform a joint display. With the Kingcobra designated to be the third aircraft, the
plan was for the three aircraft to fly together initially, while performing various manoeuvres. The
Kingcobra would then break away and the first two aircraft would carry out a pre-planned routine
together, consisting principally of low-level horizontal manoeuvres. The role of the Kingcobra was
to ‘fill-in’ between these two aircraft with a display that included some vertical manoeuvres. This
arrangement meant that unlike the first two aircraft, the Kingcobra was not flying a pre-planned
All three aircraft waited at the holding point for Runway 03 for fifteen minutes before
takeoff. After take-off the aircraft held to the west of the airport for three minutes prior to
commencing their display. They then ran in together and each performed a loop followed by a half
Cuban eight, following which the Kingcobra broke away from the other two as planned. One
minute later, after performing a flypast along the display line at a measured speed of 220 kts and
having passed opposite the other two aircraft, the Kingcobra was seen to pull up into a rolling
climb. At the top of this manoeuvre, with the aircraft partially inverted, the pilot appeared to lose
control and the aircraft entered an incipient spin. The pilot recovered the aircraft, having lost
considerable height, and then continued with his display.
Next he flew past the crowd from left to right, carried out a wingover to the left and returned
past the crowd from right to left at 190 to 195 kts. The aircraft then went out of view for some
twenty seconds, in which time it turned to the right through some 220° before running in directly
towards the crowd and pulling up into the first half of a loop. At the top of this manoeuvre, in the
inverted position, full nose-up elevator was maintained and a substantial amount of right rudder
was applied. The aircraft yawed to the right and then departed into an upright incipient spin. The
nose dropped steeply, full nose-up elevator was maintained, and the rudder returned to neutral.
The aircraft did not recover from the ensuing dive and impacted the ground in a nose down
attitude at about 160 kts. There was an immediate fire that was quickly extinguished by the
attending fire crew but the pilot suffered fatal injuries on impact.
The pilot had originally been trained to fly whilst serving in the Royal Air Force (RAF).
During his RAF service he completed a three-year tour of duty as a member of the Red Arrows
display team flying Hawk aircraft. After leaving the RAF he continued to fly professionally, initially
with a display team flying a Pitts aircraft and latterly as an airline pilot. For the last three display
seasons he had also flown a variety of historic aircraft on an occasional basis. He first flew the
Kingcobra in April 1998 and had flown it in displays on at least 10 occasions since then and was
known to have enjoyed flying the aircraft.
As a holder of an Airline Transport Pilot’s Licence, the 43-year old pilot had a total of 7, 730
flying hours of which 13 were on type. He had flown 143 hours during the last 90 days and 56
hours during the last 28 days. The pilot held a current Display Authorisation (DA) for a Category C
aircraft. The certificate of test had been renewed and was valid until September 2001. To
maintain the validity of the DA the pilot was also required to carry out at least three display
sequence practices, one in the same category of aircraft, in the 90 days preceding a display.
During the required period the pilot had flown 30 minutes dual in a Harvard, 25 minutes of display
practice in the Kingcobra on 1 June 2001 and the airshow display on 2 June. Relevant display
practices were not recorded in the pilot’s logbook but were recorded as having been carried out by
the aircraft operator’s organisation.
No evidence was found of any pre-existing disease or medical condition that could have
contributed to the accident. A post mortem toxicological examination did not reveal any factors
which might have influenced the performance of the pilot. Special attention was given to the
possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning but the levels of carboxyhaemoglobin in the medical
samples were insufficient to have had any effects of an incapacitating nature. Shortly before the
accident, the pilot was observed by several witnesses to have been in good spirits and looking
forward to carrying out his display.
The maximum continuous operating limits for the aircraft engine as stated on the Permit to
Fly were 2,500 RPM and 40 inches manifold pressure (MP). These were also the limits used for
carrying out aerobatics. The takeoff limits were 3,000 RPM and 46 inches MP and the
recommended entry speed for looping and other vertical manoeuvres was 250 kts. The Centre of
Gravity (CG) at the operating weight, including the pilot, was at the aircraft forward limit. Fuel load
did not materially affect the CG position so the aircraft was normally operated at the forward CG
The weather conditions were good for display flying except that both the surface and upper
winds were towards the crowd. The surface wind was northwesterly at 10 to 12kt, visibility was
greater than 10 km, cloud was broken at 1,500 feet and the air temperature was 13°C.
A large number of video recordings and still photographs were made available to the
investigation and as a result, it was possible to reconstruct most of the display sequence flown by
the pilot. It was not possible to make any direct comparison with his display on the previous day
because only limited film footage was available and the weather conditions were different. The
elapsed time from takeoff until the accident was seven minutes. One unsuccessful manoeuvre,
which resulted in a departure from controlled flight, two minutes before the accident, was clearly
observed and recorded on video film. The aircraft was quickly recovered and all the other
manoeuvres until the final manoeuvre appeared to have been conducted normally but at slower
speeds than might be expected.
Some sections of video allowed estimates of the aircraft’s speed to be derived and
manoeuvre entry speeds were calculated so that they could be compared with target entry speeds.
These calculations showed that on the entry to the first loop, when all three aircraft were flying
together, the speed of the Kingcobra was around 250 to 270 kts. Just before pulling up into the
first manoeuvre from which a loss of control resulted, the speed was 210 to 230 kts. After this
manoeuvre, airspeed was never again measured at above 200 kts. Later in the display, on the
crowd flypast before the final manoeuvre, the speed was measured by two separate methods at
192 kts. The engine speed was also calculated at this point from recorded sound at 2,750 RPM.
During the final manoeuvre, control surface positions could be determined which showed
full up elevator throughout. When the aircraft was inverted over the top of the manoeuvre with the
nose about 30° below the horizon, there was a large input of right rudder and the aircraft
responded by yawing to the right. Once the aircraft had departed into the incipient spin, the rudder
returned to neutral. There was some movement of the ailerons during the dive and the aircraft
rolled to the right before impact.
The Kingcobra was a single seat WW II fighter aircraft with tricycle landing gear and a
laminar flow wing. It was powered by a 1,325 HP liquid-cooled piston engine which drove a
hydraulically controlled, four-blade, constant speed propeller. The propeller was driven through a
reduction gearbox at a fixed ratio of the engine crankshaft speed. The governor in the propeller
regulator assembly, mounted on the rear of the propeller hub, controlled the blade angle to
maintain the selected propeller RPM. The propeller was 11 feet in diameter and had a pitch range
between 20° (fine) and 55° (coarse). The engine wa s located behind the pilot with a drive shaft
running forward connected to the propeller gearbox. The landing gear and flaps were electrically
operated. The flying controls were conventional and manually operated. The elevators and
ailerons were operated by control rods and the rudder via control cables. A ‘bag’ type fuel tank of
66 US gallons capacity was located in each outboard wing section. The aircraft had been
refuelled to full tanks on the previous day.
This particular aircraft was constructed in 1944 and after acquisition by the operator in
1991, having flown a total of 1,085 hours, it was completely dismantled. The airframe and all the
systems were overhauled and a zero-timed engine, gearbox and new propeller were fitted. After
the overhaul the aircraft first flew on 12 August 1994 and between August 1994 and January 2001,
it had flown 73 hours. The most recent annual inspection for the ‘Permit to Fly’ renewal had been
carried out on 24 May 2001 following which the aircraft next flew on 1 June 2001. Between that
flight and the accident flight the aircraft had completed two hours flying.
The aircraft had crashed in a confined area to the west of the runway just within the airfield
boundary, in a steep nose down attitude and on a heading of approximately 076°. The Pitot tube
on the left wing was found embedded in the earth at an angle of 70°. The marks made on the
ground by the wings indicated that the right wing had impacted first and there had been very little
ground slide. The front section of the aircraft was buried in the ground to a depth of around one
metre. The outer section of the left wing, including the left fuel tank, together with the right fuel
tank, had become detached and were located approximately 13 metres from the main wreckage.
There had been an impact fire around the fuel tanks which was extinguished by the Airport Fire
Service. Both tanks still contained some fuel and there was evidence of fuel spillage on the
vegetation nearby. The main wreckage was unburned apart from a small fire around the rear of
the engine.
It was established that at impact the landing gear and flaps were retracted and the
propeller blades showed some evidence of rotational scoring associated with high power, but no
tip damage. The blade pitch mechanism had broken and no assessment could thus be made of
propeller pitch angle from the site.
The wreckage was recovered to the AAIB’s facility at Farnborough for a detailed
examination. There was no evidence of any mechanical failure within the engine. The propeller
regulator and the blade pitch change mechanism were examined; the initial dismantling was
performed with the assistance of the operator’s maintenance organisation and revealed no
evidence of malfunction. The position of the regulator control lever indicated a position
approximately midway between the fine and coarse positions. The angle of each blade was
controlled hydraulically by means of a torque unit. The position of the piston within each unit was
consistent with the position of the regulator control lever and showed a similar angle for each
blade. Therefore, the propeller appeared to have been operating within the governed pitch range.
The needle on the propeller RPM gauge had struck the face of the instrument at a reading
of 2,800 RPM which was consistent with the audio analysis of the video evidence. The tail of the
manifold pressure gauge needle had also struck the face of the instrument, indicating a reading at
impact of around 48 inches; this would represent an engine power above the maximum continuous
setting. The throttle quadrant had been crushed in the impact; the throttle lever was in a mid
position, the propeller lever was close to the maximum RPM position and the mixture control was
at the idle cut-off position. However, these levers could have moved as the fuselage collapsed
after the impact and so their positions were unreliable indications of pre-impact settings. The
mixture control on the carburettor was at auto-rich, the normal setting. The extensive break-up of
the airframe precluded an assessment of the possibility of a flying control restriction due, for
example, to a loose article, but there was no evidence of any pre-impact disconnection.
Guidance concerning the regulation and organisation of flying displays is contained in Civil
Aviation Publication (CAP) 403. This document contains a recommendation that at large displays,
a Flying Display Committee should be utilised. It also states that at least one member of the
committee should be positioned on the crowd line with direct communication to the Flying Display
Director who holds the responsibility for control and modification of the flying display programme.
A Flying Display Committee was established at the airshow to monitor the display
standards and ensure that the safety regulations were not infringed. A system was in place
whereby a committee member could contact Air Traffic Control (ATC) and arrange for a display to
be stopped if they considered safety was being compromised. Because the ATC tower was
located on the opposite side of the runway from the crowd line, communication was to be by
telephone or radio. On this occasion, during the Kingcobra’s display, a committee member
became concerned by the loss of control at the apex of the first rolling climb manoeuvre. The
committee member attempted to contact ATC five times by radio and the Display Director twice by
telephone but he was unable to get an answer. The high-speed display line was established west
of Runway 03/21, 230 metres from the crowd line. The aircraft impacted the ground 100 metres
further west of the display line.
It is difficult to understand why the pilot, who was experienced and practised in the display
environment, continued with his display after experiencing a departure from controlled flight during
one of the manoeuvres. If there was a problem with the performance or handling of the aircraft
then it seems unlikely that he would have continued the display without reviewing the problem.
This was, however, a large public display and it is relevant to consider the extra psychological
pressures this could have exerted on the pilot. Nevertheless, the pilot had considerable
experience of airshow displays and his associates had had no reason to question either his ability
or his judgement.
Because of the constant need to check the positions of the other two aircraft, as well as his
own position with reference to the display line, and make adjustments accordingly, the display task
was more difficult than a solo display. The intention was to carry out a flexible series of individual
manoeuvres and it would have required a positive trigger, such as failure to achieve a target
airspeed or minimum height, to cause him to stop it prematurely. The absence of a pre-planned
and practised sequence of manoeuvres could have contributed to the pilot’s task of assessing the
aircraft’s potential to complete the next intended manoeuvre, but it should not have had a bearing
on his decision to continue the display after the first incipient spin.
Analysis of the aircraft speeds from video footage showed that the final manoeuvre was
probably entered with insufficient speed for it to be completed successfully. The lack of speed was
most likely evidence of a continuing loss of energy during the display, partially as a consequence
of the earlier failed manoeuvre. The aircraft engine at one stage was running at a higher RPM
than recommended which may have been an attempt to regain the energy and airspeed.
The rudder and ailerons could be seen to move during the final manoeuvre but the elevator
remained fully up. This would have required positive backpressure on the control stick to be
maintained, or a jam in the control system. There was no evidence of the pilot having a problem
with the flight controls earlier in the flight so it is more likely that the stick was held in this position.
The flight control inputs at the top of the final manoeuvre, in particular the rudder, were not
consistent with a display manoeuvre or a recovery action. In fact, they were similar to the control
positions used to effect deliberate entry into a spin and the aircraft entered an incipient spin. From
consideration of the evidence and the experience of the pilot, it seems likely that an unknown
factor affected the pilot’s physical and/or mental performance during the display.
Communication difficulties across the airfield were responsible for the failure of the system
established by the airshow organisers to interrupt the display when required. After the accident,
the event organisers installed a direct telephone line between the Flying Display Committee on the
crowd side of the runway and the Display Director in the ATC tower. (AAIB Bulletin No: 4/2002
Ref: EW/C2001/6/4)
On May 2, 1993, about 1343 hours Pacific
daylight time, a Canadair F- 86E Mark 6, N3842J,
crashed during an aerial demonstration at the El
Toro Marine Corps Air Station, Santa Ana,
California. The airplane was being operated as
part of an annual airshow when the accident
occurred. The airplane, operated by the pilot in
partnership with National Airshows Inc., was
destroyed by impact and post-impact fire. The
certificated commercial pilot, the sole occupant,
received fatal injuries.
Visual meteorological
conditions prevailed. The flight originated from El
Toro at 1341 hours.
An Operations Inspector, Federal Aviation
Canadair Sabre N3842J. The aircraft was
Administration, Long Beach Flight Standards
later marked 'Sabre Dance' by pilot/owner
District Office, was present at the airshow. He
Jim Gregory. (Jim Sterling)
reported that the pilot was to participate in a mock
partner/operator flying another aircraft as a portion of the normally planned demonstration. The
pilot of the second airplane did not feel well and cancelled his participation in the demonstration.
The pilot of the accident aircraft then planned to perform a solo aerobatic routine. The routine that
the pilot began was not one that had been practiced.
At 1318 hours, Air Traffic Control personnel cleared the accident airplane to taxi to the
runway in preparation for the aerial show. Ground personnel working with the pilot reported that as
the airplane taxied out from parking, the pilot’s shoulder harness was observed lying back behind
the seat back and unsecured. At 1324 hours, while waiting for takeoff, the pilot made a radio
request for assistance with the airplane’s canopy from his ground crew. A witness reported
observing the pilot leaning far forward in the seat of the airplane on the right side of the airplane.
At 1325 hours, the pilot cancelled any assistance from his ground crew and at 1341 hours, the
pilot was cleared for takeoff on Runway 34L.
After departure, the pilot performed a right 90º climbing turn, followed by a left 270º
descending turn. This positioned the airplane over Runway 16R at about 75 feet above ground
level (AGL). The pilot then began a loop with an aileron roll at the top of the manoeuvre.
Following the descent at the bottom portion of the loop, the airplane descended in a near level
attitude until striking runway 16R about mid-field. An intense explosion occurred. Wreckage was
scattered along the runway for about 1/4 mile. No spectators were injured.
The operator reported that the loop in the accident airplane required a minimum of 275
knots at the entry point and a minimum altitude of 4,000 feet above ground level (AGL) at 125
knots at the top of the manoeuvre. The operator indicated to FAA personnel that he observed the
accident airplane’s manoeuvre and that it appeared to him that the accident airplane did not have
the minimum entry speed. The operator estimated that the maximum altitude gained at the top of
the manoeuvre was about 2,500 feet and the airplane appeared to experience an accelerated stall
at 100 to 200 feet AGL just prior to impact. Additionally, the operator indicated that it was normal
for the pilot to wear a “G” suit during his aerobatic routine.
The pilot held a commercial pilot certificate with airplane single engine land and sea,
airplane multiengine land (limited to VFR only), and instrument-airplane ratings. The most recent
second-class medical certificate was issued to the pilot on April 9, 1993, and contained no
limitations. The pilot’s airman records, maintained in the FAA’s Airman and Records Center
located in Oklahoma City, were reviewed by Safety Board investigators. The review noted that
pilot was first issued a student pilot certificate on May 18, 1976, followed by a private pilot
certificate on May 25, 1976. The pilot then received a commercial pilot certificate on July 21,
1976. The pilot held a letter of authorization (LOA) to act as pilot-in-command of North American
F-86 Sabre Jets (All Models).
The operator reported that the pilot’s formal aerobatic training was unknown but that the
pilot had owned and flown aerobatic aircraft in aerobatic flight in the past. The pilot received a
checkout in the accident airplane on January 10, 1992, and the pilot completed all approved
manoeuvres by January 15, 1992. During 1992, the pilot did not fly any aerial demonstrations,
however, he did practice the F-86 solo routine several times, down to ground level. In 1993, the
pilot prepared for solo and dual airshow routines by practicing in a Pitts S-2 and the accident
airplane. The operator indicated that practice sessions exceeded 25 sequences.
The operator reported that the pilot portrayed himself as an ex-naval aviator and A-4 pilot.
U.S. Naval Investigative Service (NIS) personnel assisted Safety Board investigators in an inquiry
of the pilot’s military experience. According to the NIS, the pilot was terminated from the U.S.
Navy advanced jet-training curriculum, Pensacola, Florida, on May 19, 1976.
Review of pilot logbook entries submitted by the operator revealed that the pilot’s total
aeronautical experience consisted of about 5,596.4 hours, of which 47 were accrued in the
accident airplane. In the preceding 90 and 30 days prior to the accident, the logbook lists a total of
26.8 and 24.5 hours, respectively, flown in the accident airplane. On the last application for
medical certificate, dated April 9, 1993, the pilot listed a total time of 6,200 hours, with 150 hours
accrued in the preceding 6 months. The application did not have any entry for military experience.
Pilots participating in aerial demonstrations are required to demonstrate to the FAA their
competency. The FAA utilizes airshow professionals as Airshow Certification Evaluators (ACE) to
evaluate other airshow performers for the purpose of recommending a performer for aerobatic
flight. The ACE program is administered by the International Council of Airshows Inc (ICAS) and
evaluations and recommendations are forwarded to the FAA for review. The FAA is the final
authority to issue a Certificate of Acrobatic Competency, Form 8710-7. An FAA statement of
acrobatic competency is valid for 1 year and an ACE has evaluation authority through ICAS Inc.
that is valid for two years.
Safety Board investigators examined the evaluation records of the pilot and those of his
last evaluator that are maintained by ICAS Inc. The pilot received an initial evaluation of acrobatic
competency on September 19, 1991, by an ACE. The FAA issued a Form 8710-7 for solo and
formation manoeuvres in Pitts S-2 aircraft, with a level 2 (250 feet) altitude limitation to the pilot,
with an expiration date of September 30, 1992. The evaluator indicated that the pilot’s initial
qualification at level 2 was based on the pilot’s prior military low level and air-to-ground
On October 19, 1992, the pilot applied for a statement of acrobatic competency with a level
1 (no restriction) altitude. The pilot was evaluated again by the same evaluator on January 4,
January 18, and January 19, 1993, in a Pitts S-2 airplane. Additionally, the evaluator observed the
pilot in formation flight in the F-86 with a MiG-15 on February 9, 1993. A review of the pilot’s
logbook indicated that the pilot logged flights in the Pitts on January 12 and January 18, 1993.
On February 24, 1993, the pilot was given an ACE acrobatic competency recommendation
to the FAA with the following limitations: Manoeuvre limitations - solo/formation; Altitude limitations
- Level 1, surface; Authorized aircraft - Pitts S-2, F-86 Sabre. A Level 1 authorization means that a
performer may conduct aerobatic manoeuvres down to the surface, not having any other altitude
restriction for termination of a manoeuvre. On February 26, 1993, the FAA issued a statement of
acrobatic competency (FAA Form 8710-7) to the pilot.
The pilot’s evaluator submitted an application for designation as an evaluator on March 1,
1991, and listed 8 years of airshow performance experience. He was again evaluated on October
17, 1992, by the operator of the accident airplane for an ACE renewal. The evaluator held an FAA
Form 8710-7 that expired on March 31, 1994.
FAA personnel interviewed the pilot’s evaluator who recommended him for his aerobatic
competency. The evaluator, a member of an aerobatic team and an employee of National
Airshows Inc., indicated that on the preceding two days before the accident, the pilot exhibited
poor control or judgement when he utilized an unusually low altitude to terminate manoeuvres
during his airshow performances. The evaluator indicated that he counselled the pilot about his
performance and thought the issue resolved.
The airplane had accumulated a total time in service of 1,666.8 flight hours. Examination
of the maintenance records revealed that the most recent airframe and engine inspection was
accomplished on February 3, 1993, 24.8 flight hours before the accident. The engine had accrued
a total time in service of 132.9 hours of operation since being overhauled on August 1, 1977.
Examination of the maintenance records revealed no unresolved maintenance discrepancies
against the aircraft prior to departure.
The closest official weather observation station is located at the El Toro Marine Corps Air
Station. At 1345 hours, a surface observation was reporting in part: Sky condition and ceiling,
20,000 feet scattered; visibility, unrestricted; temperature, 77ºF; dew point, 55ºF; wind, 150º at 3
knots; altimeter, 29.88 in Hg. Review of the air-ground radio communications tapes maintained by
the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station facility revealed that the aircraft successfully communicated
with the ground and local control positions.
Examination of the airplane by FAA personnel revealed that the seat belt attachment
fittings were both securely fastened to the seat; however, both halves of the seat belt were
consumed by fire. The seat belt buckle was found in the fastened position; however, the seat belt
material was consumed by fire. The shoulder harness was consumed by fire with the exception of
about 4 inches of harness material remaining in the inertial reel mechanism. The shoulder
harness inertial reel mechanism was in the unlocked position and when tested, the reel functioned
properly. The aircraft canopy was found in the closed position.
A post mortem examination of the pilot was conducted by the Orange County Coroner’s
Office on May 3, 1993. According to the report, the cause of death was attributed to
exsanguination (excessive loss of blood due to internal or external haemorrhage). No pre-existing
conditions were noted during the post mortem examination which would have adversely affected
the pilot’s abilities to pilot the airplane. An external examination of the pilot by FAA personnel at
the accident site revealed that the pilot was not wearing a “G” suit.
Toxicological examinations were conducted by the FAA Civil Aeromedical Institute (CAMI) on May
12, 1993, and revealed the presence of 14.4 ug/ml Salicylate, the main ingredient of aspirin in the
The airplane’s altimeter was examined by the National Transportation Safety Board’s
Materials Laboratory Division. An external examination revealed that the outer case was covered
by black sooting and the glass face of the instrument was broken and missing. Detailed visual
examination of the dial face under the bottom portion of the 100 foot and 1,000 foot pointers
revealed impressions (witness marks) directly beneath the pointers. With the pointers aligned over
the witness marks, the altimeter indicated an altitude reading between a minus 20 and minus 30
feet. The Kollsman window barometric scale could be rotated by the adjustment knob.
Examination of the internal components revealed that the pivot screw was displaced from the
centre of the jewel bearing of the rocker shaft and the face of the rocker shaft contained an impact
mark adjacent to the position of the pivot screw.
A video tape recording of the accident was submitted to the National Transportation Safety
Board’s Engineering Services Division. Safety Board investigators reported that at the start of the
final manoeuvre, the airplane passed the viewing stand at an altitude of 75 feet AGL and at 350
knots ground speed. At the top of the loop, the airplane reached an altitude of about 3,650 feet.
The speed at the top of the loop was not determined.
As the airplane approached the ground, the speed had increased to 380 knots and then
slowed to about 360 knots at ground impact. The airplane descended to about 75 feet and then
pitched down. The angle of attack at 75 feet was about 16º and then dropped to 8º at ground
contact. The pitch angle at 75 feet was about -3º and then dropped to about -5º at ground contact.
Calculation of acceleration loads during the last quarter of the loop indicated that the pitch
change rate was about 20º/second, which equates to about 6.4 Gs. During the last second before
impact, the pitch angle changed from -25º at 350 knots, to -6º at 370 knots. The total flight load for
the last second was about 7.3 G. The wreckage was initially released to representatives of the
owner on May 5, 1993. The altimeter was released on October 5, 1993. No wreckage or parts
were retained by the Safety Board.
This particular accident could be regarded as a watershed event in the UK Airshow Circuit
being part of a particularly bad safety year for display flying in the UK, a total of four fatal accidents
occurring. It was literally the ‘straw that broke the camels back’ forcing the CAA to establish a Civil
Air Display Review Group in the United Kingdom.
The legendary P-38J Lightning was performing at the ‘Flying Legends’ Air Display at
Duxford, which was being staged over the two days of the weekend of 13/14 July 1996. The
display on 13 July was completed without incident. On 14 July, the aircraft had taken off at 1435
hrs as the lead aircraft in a formation comprising one Curtiss P-40B Tomahawk and one Bell P-63
Kingcobra fighter aircraft. The display ‘slot’ commenced at 1439 hrs and after several formation
passes in front of the assembly of spectators, the trio split up in order to enable each aircraft to
carry out a solo display.
The P-38 was the final aircraft to perform its solo routine and was due to clear the display
area by 1455 hrs. The aircraft commenced its run-in from the east of the airfield, in a shallow dive
to gain speed, then carried out a loop. This manoeuvre was followed by a ‘Cuban Eight’ which
involved two short periods of flight under negative ‘g’.
At the end of the ‘Cuban Eight’, the aircraft was passing from east to west (crowd left to
right), pulled up and to the left initially, levelled the wings, then performed a 270° roll to the lef
The aircraft then came back to pass across the front of the crowd from west to east. With the
aircraft appearing to be at a normal entry height and speed, an aileron roll to the left was
commenced as the aircraft crossed the western threshold of runway 06. The first 360° roll was
completed normally but the aircraft continued, without pause, into a second full roll. While the
aircraft was inverted in this second roll, the nose dropped towards the ground and the aircraft
began to lose height while the roll continued. By the time the aircraft became upright again, it had
descended to a very low height above the runway. The aircraft continued to roll left and struck the
runway with its left wing and approximately 30° of left bank applied, about two thirds of the way
along runway 06.
The left outer wing ruptured and collapsed, followed by the impact of the left engine. At
this time, a large fireball erupted as the aircraft began to cartwheel across the airfield, breaking up
into multiple segments as its trajectory took it diagonally away from the main spectator area
towards a row of parked light aircraft on the south side of the airfield. Several of these aircraft
were destroyed or severely damaged in the wreckage’s path. One of the engines bounced further
than the rest of the wreckage, crossing the airfield boundary and then the M11 Motorway which
runs almost perpendicular to the end of the runway. A passing freight truck sustained some minor
damage from pieces of wreckage but was able to continue travelling northwards along the
motorway. The engine came to rest in a field just to the east side of the motorway, close to where
several members of the public had been standing in order to watch the flying activities from
outside the airfield boundary.
The airfield Fire and Rescue services were quickly at the scene and brought the numerous
areas of fire under control in a short time. The pilot was found in the seat amongst the wreckage
of the main fuselage pod with his four point harness still fastened. A post-mortem examination
found that the pilot had been killed by a severe head injury. No physical condition was found
which could have caused any incapacitation of the pilot and no traces of drugs or alcohol were
found to be present. It was assessed that the destruction of the cockpit was such that survival was
impossible. The pilots and passengers of the visiting light aircraft had been required by the airport
operator to move to the spectator side of the runway in order to watch the air display and
fortunately, there were no injuries to any spectators.
The display routine followed by the P-38 formation was identical to that flown at the display
on the day prior to the accident. The significant difference was that during the Saturday display,
only a single 360° aileron roll had been carried ou t, but at the time of the accident two consecutive
360° rolls had occurred, with a continuation past t he wings level at the end of the second roll. The
weather at the time was a surface wind from 270° at 6 kts, variable in direction between 240° and
300°, visibility in excess of 10 km, scattered clou d base 3,000 feet, QNH 1026 mbs.
Photographs and video coverage of the aircraft’s manoeuvres were analysed with a view to
assessing not only the pre-impact flight path characteristics but also the pre-impact aircraft
integrity and the operation of aircraft systems. A full flight path analysis was carried out using
several video sequences which had been filmed from a variety of viewpoints. Analysis of the
single aileron roll flown during the previous day of the show, revealed that the time taken to
complete the roll on this occasion was 3.4 seconds and it was noted that the aircraft had an
upward trajectory throughout this manoeuvre.
The analysis of the accident coverage showed that the aircraft had performed two
continuous aileron rolls, taking 4.4 seconds and 3.6 seconds respectively to complete. A time
difference of 0.8 seconds is significant in terms of roll rate, approximating 80º of roll angle at
100º/seconds. The rolls had been started at a height of about 250 feet above the runway, at a
speed of about 250 knots and with an initial nose-up pitch attitude. The roll to the left was initiated
by a rapid roll control input which produced a considerable aileron deflection. This aileron
deflection remained essentially constant until the aircraft had completed approximately 675° of roll,
at that point, the ailerons were returned to the neutral position where they remained until the
aircraft struck the ground.
During the first roll the aircraft climbed to an apogee of about 360 feet when inverted,
descending to about 260 feet by the time it was erect again, a loss of 100 ft. At this point the
aircraft pitch attitude was very slightly nose-down. There was no pause before the second roll was
executed. During this roll, the nose dropped progressively and an increasing rate of descent
developed. At the inverted position, the aileron position was observed to be maintained in the
almost fully (left roll) deflected position and a considerable elevator displacement in the ‘stick back’
sense was made. Considerable left rudder control was also added at this time and the roll rate
increased. Approximately 45° of roll angle before the aircraft reached the erect attitude, the rudder
and aileron inputs were moved to neutral, but were not applied in opposition to the roll. The roll
rate increased slightly as the aircraft rolled through wings level (from about 110°/sec to 125°/sec),
with a rate of descent of about 7,200 feet per minute, to the point of impact. Ground speed at
impact was assessed as 230 kts with the final angle of descent of 14.5° giving a speed along the
flight path of 238 kts.
Impact was seen to occur on the left wing tip at an attitude of about 30° left roll with the
fuselage level in pitch. The aileron and rudder positions were approximately neutral and the
elevator was deflected up. An analysis of the propeller speeds from video showed that they had
remained constant throughout the rolling manoeuvre. Both propellers were turning at about 1,300
RPM, the right slightly faster than the left. With the engine propeller reduction gearing ratio of 2:1,
this accorded with the aircraft operating limitations which quoted the engine limits for use in
aerobatic manoeuvres as 2,600 RPM/40 inches manifold pressure.
The aircraft had struck Runway 06, straddling the centreline and about 450 metres short of
the eastern end. The initial impact had been with the left wingtip on the runway and the sequence
of marks of the immediately subsequent impacts, was consistent with the aircraft being on a
heading of approximately 079°M (the runway heading
is 062°M), in a substantially level pitch
attitude and significantly banked to the left. Examination of the cuts made by both propellers in the
runway surface indicated that both engines were developing considerable power and that the
aircraft had a high rate of descent. Initial assessment of the propeller marks, without making
allowances for rate of descent, indicated that the aircraft had struck the ground with engine speeds
of the order of 2500 RPM associated with a ground speed of about 200 kts.
After the initial impact, the left outer wing, empennage and both tail booms separated from
the remainder of the airframe which yawed sharply to the left before crossing the southern edge of
the runway and cartwheeling across the grass. The main wreckage came to rest, inverted, in a
wheat field, about 420 metres from the point of initial impact, just outside the southern boundary of
the airfield. Both engines detached from their mountings after impact; the right had been thrown
60 metres beyond where the main wreckage came to rest and the left, 180 metres beyond,
crossing the M11 Motorway. Although the aircraft burst into flames very shortly after the initial
impact, there was little evidence of significant fuel spillage between the point of initial impact and
where the main wreckage came to rest, there being only isolated areas of blackened grass.
There was no evidence of any pre-impact structural distress of the airframe or loss of
attachment of control surfaces. There was no evidence of pre-impact loss of integrity of the
control systems, all damage being consistent with the nature and degree of structural break-up
after impact. The extent of the disruption to the control systems precluded eliminating the
possibility of any transient obstruction of the systems. Assessment of the scrape marks on the left
outer wing and aileron made during the initial contact on the runway, showed that the aileron had
been at a substantially neutral position at that moment. Damage on the left end rib of the elevator
and on the closing rib at the left end of the tailplane cut-out, indicated that the elevator had been
deflected up at the time the left fin base struck the runway.
The aileron boosters were examined. The position of the by-pass control piston of the left
booster showed that when it became disrupted at the time of impact, hydraulic pressure had been
available. Damage to the input rod of its control valve indicated that there had been no aileron
movement demand at that time and damage to the output rod of the actuating cylinder was
consistent with its being at a neutral position. All damage to the left and right booster assemblies
was consistent with the damage to the structure to which they were attached and there was no
evidence of any pre-impact failures.
The pilot held an Airline Transport Pilot’s Licence and was type rated on Boeing 737 series,
Boeing 757/767 and Piper PA-23/34/44 series aircraft. He was a Captain with a UK charter airline
flying Boeing 757 and 767 aircraft and was the Chief Pilot for the operator of the P-38, responsible
for the crewing and operation of a varied fleet of some 15 vintage ‘warbird’ aircraft types.
The pilot was also the Airshow Display Co-ordinator for the ‘Flying Legends’ display at
Duxford, being responsible for the planning of the display items and for the choreography of the
show finale, which also involved leading a mass flypast of some forty historic aircraft. He gave the
daily display briefing to the participating pilots and undertook some in-show replanning on the
Sunday afternoon when the planned show sequence was interrupted by the arrival of a significant
display item almost an hour ahead of the planned schedule. This undoubtedly added to the pilot’s
workload for the afternoon. Shortly after this, the pilot participated in the show in the lead aircraft
of a pair of DH89A Dragon Rapides. After landing from this, there was then some twelve minutes
before he then taxied out in the P-38 for the start of that display item.
The pilot was operating the P-38, an aircraft registered in the USA, under the privileges of
his FAA Commercial Pilot’s Licence. Under normal circumstances, as the aircraft maximum takeoff weight was in excess of 5,700 kg (12,500 lb), a specific aircraft type rating would be required.
In this case, the pilot held a letter, issued by the FAA Flight Standards District Office in Oakland,
California during 1988, which authorised him to operate as pilot-in-command in experimental
category aircraft - “All types and makes of high performance piston-powered aircraft.”
The letter
also noted that it did not, in itself, authorise the performance of aerobatics in airshows. A separate
authorisation for this activity is required, but only in respect of participation at airshows within the
The FAA indicated that the documentation held by the pilot did comply with the appropriate
US Federal Aviation Regulations and the special operating limitations for the aircraft during this
flight. However, the FAA did note that since the issue of the letter of authority, the procedures had
since been changed to reflect current requirements, but the letter remained valid. The pilot held a
CAA Display Authorisation (DA) covering many aircraft types including the P-38. He also held an
appointment as a Display Authorisation Evaluator on behalf of the CAA.
The pilot’s DA had a current validation and permitted the performance of flypasts down to
30 feet agl and aerobatic manoeuvres (in certain types) down to 100 feet agl. For the P-38, the
minimum aerobatic height was specified as 200 feet agl. Formation flying was also permitted.
From the video evidence available, it was apparent that the pilot commenced the final rolling
manoeuvre at a height which was in accordance with his DA.
On the Saturday, the day prior to the accident, the pilot flew a similar display profile but
with only one aileron roll at crowd centre. Some minor transgressions of the pilot’s DA limitations
were noted by the attending CAA Air Display Inspector, notably in terms of the minimum aerobatic
height during the aileron roll and for being marginally inside the minimum lateral separation
distance appropriate for aerobatics. Both of these comments were made by the Inspector to the
pilot after the event and the pilot gave assurance that the Sunday display would fully conform to
the DA limitations.
The pilot had conducted a display practice in the P-38 on 11 July and had flown in the
public display on 13 July. In the 28 day period prior to the accident, the pilot had also flown each
of the following types: Boeing 757, Spitfire V, Hellcat, Skyraider, Bearcat, Rapide, Aztec, Baron
and Cub.
The aircraft was manufactured during 1943 at the Lockheed Aircraft Factory in Burbank,
California and had the serial number 42-67543. It operated in service with the United States Army
Air Force until being discharged in February 1945. It was found by its current owner in a derelict
state in Texas in 1988. After purchase, it was taken to California and restored to flying condition.
Test flying was carried out early in 1992 and the aircraft was imported into the UK during the
summer of that year. Since then, the aircraft had operated under a CAA Exemption to the Air
Navigation Order which permitted the aircraft to fly without a valid Certificate of Airworthiness for
the purposes of Demonstration and Exhibition flying only, provided that the FAA Special
Airworthiness Certificate and Operating Limitations dated 9 January 1992 were current.
The FAA Special Airworthiness Certificate was issued in January 1992 in the Experimental
category, for the purposes of Exhibition flying and was current at the time of the accident. The
aircraft was being operated in accordance with the Operating Limitations document. The aircraft’s
maintenance documents showed that it had been correctly maintained in accordance with the FAA
requirements and had been properly certified by an FAA approved licensed engineer. The FAA
Certificate of Registration was issued on 21 February 1992 to an owner with an address in Las
Vegas, Nevada.
The aircraft was also subject to an exemption issued by the CAA in order to allow it to
operate at speeds greater than 250 kts while below 10,000 feet. A current Aerial Work Operating
Permit for the aircraft had also been issued by the Department of Transport. The pilot had
compiled a set of aircraft operating notes for the P-38, which indicated that, for aerobatics, the
engine limits were 2,600 RPM and 40 inches manifold pressure (the maximum continuous power
setting for the aircraft), the entry speed for rolling manoeuvres was 200 kts and that no negative ‘g’
manoeuvres were permitted because of possible hydraulic problems. It was ascertained that a
previous occurrence of negative ‘g’ had caused a hydraulic aeration problem which prevented the
landing gear down function and required manual hand pump operation to recover. It was also
indicated that the preferred rolling direction was to the left in order to prevent the unlocking of the
nose landing gear door mechanism, which was known to have occurred during previous rolls to
the right. These hydraulic problems were not known to have caused any adverse effects in the
aileron booster systems.
Information from the aircraft’s Maintenance Instruction Manual states that with aileron
hydraulic boosters operating, the pilot’s control input applies one sixth of the total aileron load.
The implication of this is that, in the event of a failure of the hydraulic booster system, the aileron
control forces felt by the pilot would be six times greater than normal for a given aileron deflection
under the same flight conditions. From examination of the aileron booster system, it is considered
that, in the event of a hydraulic failure while the ailerons were deflected during the rolling
manoeuvre, the aileron deflection would have tended to reduce as a result of the aerodynamic
Copies of the original 1944 Pilot’s Flight Operating Instructions for this type of aircraft were
also available. These contained the following relevant extracts:
“AILERON CONTROL HYDRAULIC BOOSTER - ...On these airplanes most of the aileron control
force is provided by hydraulic boost; the remainder is applied by the pilot. Control cables which
control the boost mechanism are mechanically connected to the control surfaces, allowing manual
flight control in an emergency. The aileron boost shut-off valve is located on the right side of the
cockpit near the pilot’s control column. In addition to this valve an automatic by-pass valve is
incorporated in the mechanism to allow free movement of the ailerons in case the hydraulic
pressure should fail.”
In the “Flight Restrictions” section, it was noted that “Snap Rolls” and continuous inverted
flight were prohibited. The section also contained the cautionary note: “ Extreme care must be
taken during acrobatic manoeuvres which require a downward vertical recovery. Acrobatics
should not be attempted at altitudes below 10,000 feet.”
Evidence was obtained which showed that the aircraft had successfully completed a
double rolling manoeuvre in the past, with a significant upward trajectory apparent throughout.
However, the majority of other pilots, who also flew aircraft belonging to the same operator,
indicated that a single aileron roll manoeuvre was by far the more common. This view was
supported by Air Display Inspectors from the CAA.
Consideration of the flight profile indicates that the start of the final manoeuvre occurred
over the western end of the hard surfaced runway. At the end of the first roll, the aircraft was still
in a location which was to the right (west) of the centre of the crowd. It is considered unlikely that
the pilot would have intended to stop manoeuvring at this position as the display would then have
appeared ‘asymmetric’ from the crowd’s viewpoint.
It is known that the pilot was a very experienced display pilot and produced high quality,
aesthetically pleasing displays. There is no evidence to explain why the aircraft entered the
second part of the final manoeuvre in a less than optimum pitch attitude which developed into a
significant downward trajectory. The possibility of a temporary restriction to the flying controls
(especially the roll control), or some other form of distraction of the pilot, could not be dismissed.
In response to this and several other UK air display accidents which occurred during the
1996 display season, the CAA set up a Civil Air Display Review Group. The group identified some
eighteen areas for detailed investigation and comment, covering many aspects of display
organisation and participation. The work of the group is continuously ongoing but relevant
recommendations are implemented, either by means of amendments to CAP 403 or by other
means, in time for the start of the next display season. There was also an intention for the CAA to
develop additional guidance material for display pilots in a similar fashion to the RAF Flying
Display Notes. In view of the Review Group activity undertaken, AAIB considered that no further
Safety Recommendations were necessary in this case.
Of course after any accident, the state of mind of the pilot is an important crash
investigation consideration. Not having been present at the accident, but reading the proceedings
of the Accident Board, an aviation psychologist raised the question of ‘negative transfer’ due to the
number of different aircraft that this pilot had been flying at the time - he transferred from one to
another type within twelve minutes at the airshow. This phenomenon can occur when an
experienced pilot flies one type of aircraft, but due to his comfort zone being on one specific
aircraft type, or prior and recent conditioning, transfers the actions required in one aircraft, to
another. This is typical during high stress or high mental work-load tasks, where automatic
behaviour takes over.
The information processing that occurs is where we use semantic memory, “that which
should happen as planned according to short-term memory”, as opposed to episodic memory,
which is “what we normally expect to happen next”. In this case the pilot intended using semantic
memory in doing one roll, while his episodic memory took over and allowed for two rolls. This is
due to normal reliance on the motor memory which allows us to carry out many skill based actions
which through practise no longer requires central processing capacity, which frees up the memory
and the central processing capacity to concentrate on other more immediate tasks. Had the pilot
been thinking of some task that he may still have to do once on the ground, this thought could
have captured his central processing, passed the roll manouevre over to his motor memory and
subsequently the episodic memory, while his active thoughts were on the problem at hand. He
may have done two rolls in his previous aircraft or just seen someone do two rolls and
subsequently carried out this action. One will never know with any certainty.
In March 2000, the SAAF Museum’s Spitfire display pilot resigned leaving only one other
pilot, Lt Col Neill Thomas that had flown the aircraft previously. Unfortunately he had only
maintained proficiency on the aircraft and not display currency since he was also the P51-D
display pilot. Because of the dissimilar characteristics, the pilot did not mix flying the two different
aircraft at display level. He had been flying the P-51 regularly and was in the process of handing
over the display flying of the Mustang to another Reserve Force pilot, Col Jeff Earle and he would
then take over the lead display role on the Spitfire. The Spitfire at this stage was in for a minor
service and only became available for practice two days before the airshow on 15 April 2002.
Lt Col Neill Thomas, Commanding Officer and display pilot of the SAAF Museum described
the events leading up to the non-fatal accident of the SAAF Museum’s only airworthy Spitfire.
“The other Spitfire (ZU-SPT), privately owned by Andrew Torr, was only available that day for a
duo practice so we briefed on our sequence and I took off in the number two position which I
maintained for the duration of the flight. ZS-SPT was a standard MK IX and was not fitted with the
extra weight of two 20mm cannon but had the added disadvantage of clipped wings which resulted
in a 10 MPH increase in airspeed performance. #5518, on the other hand, had the restriction of a
limit on boost due to the age of the propeller and max boost was limited to 8 psi (75% of the
available 12 psi) but SPT had no such restrictions. During the practice I had struggled to maintain
station with the other Spitfire but attributed this to the fact that I had not flown formation with the
Spitfire for six months and the Mustang was far heavier on the controls but more responsive to
throttle movement than the Spitfire. The landing was normal and all power checks and
temperatures and pressures during the flight were normal.
For those who don’t know the Spitfire’s fuel system, the mixture is automatically controlled
ON or OFF, and has no fuel pressure gauge. The throttle is mechanically linked to the fuel injector
carburettor which has automatic mixture settings. When the throttle is opened past a certain
mechanical position, the mixture is automatically increased to full rich and a further movement of
the throttle results in the mixture being increased to emergency rich. At idle, the boost is -4 psi
and a 50% movement of the throttle increases the boost to 4 psi (a normal flight boost), from 4 to 8
psi uses 40% of the remaining movement and a small movement of the throttle is required to get to
12 psi; it is very easy to overboost the engine during close formation manoeuvring. The selection
to emergency rich is not dependant of the actual boost pressure in the system and is a function of
mechanical movement of the throttle lever only.
I was planning a solo practice for the Friday but received a call from Colonel Earle to inform
me that the SAAF Association conference was running late and he would not be able to practice
for the show, this in contradiction to the stated SAAF policy of “no practice, no fly”. I was at this
stage happy with the Spitfire practice the day before and cancelled the Spitfire sortie to rather
practice in the Mustang.
At this stage, it may seem irrelevant, but the Surgeon General of the SANDF had suddenly
passed away and his funeral was scheduled for the Saturday morning of the airshow at a venue
very close to the Zwartkops airfield. On Friday I received a call to say that the Chief of the Air
Force was concerned about the noise that could interrupt the funeral proceedings and cancelled
all flying between 10h00 and 13h00. I approached his PSO and it was agreed that no jets would
fly during this period and early on Saturday morning, I received a call to say that CAF wanted a
noise check at 08h30 over the field to ascertain if the aircraft noise could be heard at the funeral
site. This was done in the midst of the final aircrew briefing and all the last minute emergencies
that usually have a habit of occur during any airshow.
As the Commanding Officer of the Museum I also hold the title of airshow host to all the
VIP’s that attend the airshows and at 09h30 I was at the VIP enclosure. I proceeded to the flight
line and for some or other reason, pre-flighted the MUSTANG for the duo show with the Spitfire,
instead of the Spitfire - had I only continued this mistake. I then met with Torr, the other Spitfire
pilot and we briefed the profile to be flown in detail as well as the fact that I had been struggling to
keep up with him during the rehearsal. At 10h12 we walked out to the two Spitfires and while
strapping in, I realised that my helmet was not hanging over the cockpit side rail where I had left it.
I looked to my left and there it was, hanging on the Mustang’s side rail which I had inadvertently
pre-flighted earlier.
I asked the groundcrew to fetch it, climbed out and then pre-flighted the Spitfire, climbed
back in, started and taxied out behind the lead aircraft. The take-off, join-up and the few minutes
spent holding for our slot did not provide any hints of the impending problems since I had easily
maintained a loose formation position, awaiting the call to run-in.
Air traffic control called the formation in at 10h19 and I closed up in the descent for the first
high speed flypast, station keeping was easy until
the lead aircraft commenced with a wingover to the
right for a steep turn away from the crowd. It was
reasonably bumpy and I only got back into position
at show centre as Torr called the turn to the left.
Halfway through the turn I was struggling to keep up
and was increasing throttle to maintain 8 psi boost.
I was frequently checking boost and coolant
temperature and with the boost still marginally
below 8 psi, I did not notice any abnormality
between throttle position and boost.
Concentrating on keeping station with the
the exhausts spat out increasing
An eye witness on the ground (an exlengths
smoke (symptomatic of a an overSpitfire pilot) noticed black smote
as we passed crowd centre for the
intermittently appearing from the right
second time, Torr called the pull-up for the wingover
exhaust but he was not near a radio and
to the right. Once again I again fell behind again as
started to run towards the control tower
he pulled up and as the formation passed through
120 metres away. (SAAF DFS)
600 - 700 feet AGL, the first indication of the engine
failure was the sudden pull away of the lead aircraft and the nose of my Spitfire dropping rapidly
below the horizon.
As the engine failed and the nose dropped, I immediately realised that the aircraft had
suffered a catastrophic engine failure and thus lowered the nose as the airspeed was already
decreasing through 150 mph (Spitfire best glide speed). I closed the throttle, called MAYDAY on
the BOX frequency, switched to Tower frequency and repeated the Mayday call. I don’t recall
receiving any response from the tower but Spitfires radios are known for poor reception due to the
high cockpit noise level (an audio boost button is fitted on the RIGHT side of the cockpit to
enhance reception, very handy when you are controlling the throttle with your left hand and the
stick with your right) so that was no help.
I knew the runway was below and to my right, I dropped the right wing slightly and there
was Swartkops; 6250 feet of tar runway, right in the position I had practiced numerous forced
landings from during the two years I had been flying the aircraft. A better place to have an engine
failure you could not get, apart from being on the ground that is. I had practiced forced landings in
a configuration recommended by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and had in most cases,
overshot the intended landing point during the practices.
My first thought was that I could make the runway easily. Of the approximately forty-nine
Spitfires in the world flying at that time, forty-eight were fitted with the factory fit air bottle that
blows the undercarriage down in a second or two in an emergency, only one was fitted with a
modified Impala (Aermacchi MB-326M) emergency system requiring ninety cycles of the
emergency undercarriage extension pump handle to lock the undercarriage down, you guessed it,
Spitfire #5518 had this system. My initial thought was to get the gear down while I still had height,
I selected the undercarriage down, the indicator lights went red and I then turned to the engine
failure to try and ascertain what was wrong. I still did not know about the smoke which would have
told me to pull the mixture to idle cut-off to clear the engine, the exhaust stacks are not visible from
the cockpit and I checked the gauges, no fuel low pressure light, temperatures normal, fuel
quantity almost full, engine RPM 600 odd.
I advanced the throttle and the engine responded for a second or two before cutting again,
indicating that the cause of engine failure was related to the fuel supply to the engine. I pulled
back the RPM lever and tried the throttle again, this time the response was less and the engine cut
quicker, confirming a fuel problem. At this stage, six seconds had elapsed since the engine cut
and was turning onto final approach to the runway when I noticed the threshold sliding slowly UP
the windscreen, speed was 150 MPH and it was at this stage that I realised that I was not going to
be landing on any runway. I turned the aircraft away from the airfield towards what I thought was
clear area but the higher rate of decent (in excess of 4,000 feet per minute) had caught me
unawares and in front of me was a large town house complex with the impact point somewhere in
the middle. This left me no choice but to turn back towards the only open ground, a patch of
grassy area 300 metres wide and no more that 100
metres in length, sloping at a angle of at least 15º to
20º (had I known the size of the rocks in this area I
would probably have had a heart attack right there).
I selected full flap, unloaded the aircraft and
tried to drag her up the hill by blipping the throttle but
it very soon became apparent that I had become a
passenger in my own aircraft and that I now had very
little input left to determine mine, or her fate. One last
look at the airspeed dropping thought 70 MPH, I
pulled hard back on the stick and braced myself for
what I though was the final seconds of my life. The
only thought going through my mind at that stage was
that I had not said goodbye to my boys who were
The SAAF Museum Spitfire was a writeoff and required £1 million to restore to
watching the show at the time. All that happened in
17 seconds!
flying condition again. (SAAF DFS)
The aircraft impacted the ground tail first with
a nose up attitude of 18º, the tail hit a rock the size of a Mini-Minor and dislodged it sideways
before the tail broke off, slewing the aircraft slightly to the right and causing the right wing to drop
to just above the ground. At this point the nose impacted the airfield’s eight-foot high concrete
security wall followed very shortly thereafter by the left wing, undercarriage and the right wing, the
wall collapsed and the aircraft burst through the wall coming to a rest forty-five feet from the point
of initial impact and two-feet away from a rock the size of a truck.
In July 1998 I was on the same airfield when a Piston Provost crashed during a display
practice after failing to recover with sufficient height from a stall turn, skidded to a stop and the
cockpit burst into flames, fatally injuring the very experienced pilot. The impact was very hard and
knocked my wind out and when I started to focus on the surroundings, my first impression was the
absolute silence and then the realisation that I was still alive. Then after all the trauma of an
engine failure and a crash landing, the only strange sound I heard was what sounded like running
water.... for those not familiar with the Spitfire, the only fuel tanks in the aircraft, all 76 gallons, are
mounted behind the engine, separated from the pilot only by the instrument panel. The impact
had caused the feeder pipe to break loose and the ‘running water’ sound was in fact petrol pouring
out of the tank into the cockpit and over my legs.
The brain now went into overdrive, I selected the canopy release lever and grabbed the
winder and cranked the canopy open; subsequent investigation indicated that with the brain in
‘overdrive’, getting my body to flee as fast as possible, I may have wound the handle before the
catch released and snapped the cable, jamming the canopy closed. I pulled the emergency
release, no luck, released my harness and chute and tried to open the side hatch, jammed too. I
turned around in the cockpit on my back and tried to kick the canopy loose, still no luck, pulled the
emergency handle again and this time it released, unplugged my radio cord, jumped out of the
cockpit and got slammed down on the ground when the plug on my radio cord hooked around the
seat up/down lever, threw my helmet off and left the scene in a hurry.
The other Spitfire passed overhead as I waved to indicate to Torr that I as all right, then I
immediately pulled out my cell phone and called the Museum’s Operations Officer and told him I
was alright and to get the next display going to keep the crowd busy. I knew the Yak was waiting
at the threshold for clearance. I then phoned the tower, no reply, probably too busy to answer the
phone at that stage, can’t think why. My next concern was my family as they where watching, I
phoned my wife and when she answered I said “Honey I’m alright,” silence, “where are you?” I
asked, “on the way home to fetch a kettle”. I then told her that I had crashed the Spitfire but was
only slightly hurt, thought that I had broken my face up a bit as I was covered in lots of blood and
maybe broken my right elbow and told her to meet me at No. 1 Military Hospital.
Still no rescue team in sight and my arm was beginning to hurt so I gave up waiting and
walked to the threshold of the runway, seventy-five metres away. As I approached the threshold,
the Museum Alouette II helicopter appeared which picked me up and flew off to No.1 Military
Hospital. The hospital saga is also a long story, they were not informed that an aircraft accident
casualty was on the way in and thus had no ambulance driver available on arrival which meant
that I had to walk from the heli-pad to the emergency ward. The staff on duty were, however,
exceptionally good and today none of the wound scars I received are visible. I received stitches in
both knees from impact with the lower part of the instrument panel, a badly bruised right elbow,
presumably from the undercarriage quadrant, a bump on the head from hitting the standby
compass and a cut and bad bruising of my left cheek, courtesy of a piece of rock that penetrated
the side windscreen panel when the aircraft impacted the wall. My day visor bounced up on
impact, releasing the emergency clear visor which lessened the impact damage. What was the
lesson here? Never fly without a helmet, visor, gloves, flying boots or a fire retardant full length
flying overall.
I was discharged after a full examination, returned to the airfield to finalise the
arrangements for the evening as the Museum was hosting a gala banquette for which I was the
host and eventually went home and fell into a deep sleep. It was only the next day that I returned
to the crash site to view the extent of the damage when I saw the wreck for the first time. I went
cold just realising that this was a crash I should not have been able to walk away from, the tail had
broken off on impact, the fuselage was erect but the right wing had separated and the left wing
was barely still attached.
Any good safety investigator will tell you that no accident happens in isolation and there are
normally a number of related incidents that lead towards the accident or warning signs that
indicate a potential accident in the making. When one looks at the Spitfire accident, the
indications were there, even if only very subtlety, that the engine was not running 100%,
combining this with my low time on type (twelve hours) and the fact that I had not been actively
flying the aircraft in the past six months, meant that I was not 100% mentally prepared to fly the
In this particular incident, the accident was attributed to mechanical failure of the engine,
nothing that could have been detected by normal servicing or inspections, however, the external
environment contributed extensively towards the eventual outcome by camouflaging the warning
Even to a total outsider it must be very obvious that as the Officer Commanding the
Museum, Airshow director (with a brand new safety officer), display pilot and the co-ordinator for
all the aspects pertaining to the airshow, my mind was not where it should have been in the days
leading up to the airshow. The external pressure from the funeral arrangements, sudden changes
in crew allocation and the cancellation of my solo display practice put far too much unnecessary
pressure on me. There were a number of key point decisions that were made by others and
myself that could have prevented the accident.
When Colonel Earle withdrew from the show, the Mustang should also have been
withdrawn, I would have flown a solo practice in the Spitfire, the engine would have probably
malfunctioned during the practice and since I would have not been in formation, the failure would
most likely not have been as catastrophic. Without the other Spitfire in formation (there is only one
thing nosier that a Spitfire, and that’s two Spitfires), the subtle changes in power and engine
fluctuations from the over fuelling might have been noticed sooner.
After the accident I often theorized on what if I had reacted differently to the failure, landed
straight ahead into open ground strewn with boulders or elected to land with the gear up on the
airfield. Had I followed one of the alternatives I would probably have inflicted as much damage to
the aircraft and more to myself, I may have not been around, but whatever happened, it would
most probably have been the wrong choice.
The management decisions relating to the whole confusion around the airshow also
contributed to my distracted frame of mind as was quite obvious from my preflighting the wrong
aircraft. The British CAA airshow regulations prohibit an airshow director from participating in an
event where more than seven aircraft are involved; it is clear why this regulation exists, why not
learn from other’s mistakes? Why recreate the wheel?
The apparent cause of the engine failure was attributed to a combination of a slipped
supercharger clutch plate and a hardened carburettor diaphragm, the more I opened up the
throttle, the worse the situation became, more fuel, less air, less power ... more fuel.........17
seconds..... the time it takes to read this last paragraph!!
Unfortunately, comprehensive airshow spin and even general aviation spin accidents
statistics and are not readily available. In an attempt to quantify the hazards of the spin accidents,
Pat Veillette launched an investigation into spin accidents, beginning with 1994 ( A Spinning Yarn ,
Pat Veillette, Aviation Safety, May 2002). He chose 1994 as a starting point because the FAA
modified stall- and spin-training requirements in 1993 and he wanted to see if the changes had
made any difference in the accident record. In addition, accident reports from 1994 were fairly
easy to access, while those in the preceding years were more difficult. The conclusions, although
fairly general, are relevant to display and aspirant display pilots primarily because of the
environment in which the spinning accidents occurred, the low-level environment being the same
as for display flying there are, of course, lessons to be learnt.
There were 11,302 general aviation aircraft accidents in the six-year period studied which
resulted in 2,288 fatalities. During this period, there were 394 spin accidents (3.5%) which
resulted in 324 (14%) of the fatalities, illustrating the hazardous environment of low-level spinning.
In this regard, the question of spin training raising its head - substantial questions remain about
just how effective it is. There were more than one hundred pilots in this database who had
extensive spin training, many with outstanding backgrounds but still succumbed to a spin accident.
The ability to recover from a spin is often an academic argument, simply because 90% of the spin
accidents occurred at altitudes that were too low for recovery. This begs the question, so what
about spin training then?
Perhaps predictably, nearly 36% of all spin accidents occurred while the aircraft was in
manoeuvring flight. In fact, eighty-four of the spin accidents (21%) occurred when the pilot was
performing what accident investigators sometimes call “ostentatious displays at low altitude”,
otherwise known as “buzzing”, “hotdogging” or “shoot-ups”. Professional display pilots know and
understand that there is zero safety margin in low-level spins.
Takeoff was the next most common phase of flight for spinning accidents with 32.7% which
in itself, isn’t surprising, but what
was unexpected was that nearly
half of the takeoff spin accidents
were due to the pilot ‘showing-off’
on takeoff and using pitch and bank
attitudes far in excess of safety
margins. Essentially a third of all
spin accidents were the result of
really bad pilot judgment very close
to the ground. Nearly all of these
accidents occurred at less than
about 300 feet AGL, so any spin
recovery technique would have
been useless.
In fact, records
indicated that a disturbing number
of pilots had been spin trained,
even to the point of flying
competitive aerobatics. The only
conclusion that can be reached is
that it is not pilot skill that is in
Statistical breakdown of spin accidents (Aviation Safety,
question, but pilot judgment.
May 2002).
Roughly one-third of the
takeoff stall/spins resulted from engine failures, most occurring within a few hundred feet of the
ground. Twenty-four spin accidents during takeoff were partly caused by a combination of high
density altitude, heavy weights, and adverse winds, all of which led to a failure of the pilot to
maintain sufficient flying airspeed – a deadly combination but pilots keep stumbling on this error
year after year.
Approximately 18% of spin accidents occurred during landing, slightly more than half
occurred during an emergency landing but surprisingly, only one or two of the classic “turning base
to final” scenarios were in the database. Most of the landing spin accidents were officially
attributed to the pilot being distracted or preoccupied with a mechanical failure, followed by the
pilot’s failure to maintain sufficient flying speed. An important point to be made is that display
pilots, outside of the display arena, revert to being just ordinary pilots and are just as susceptible to
the vagaries of flight. The Spitfire crash at Rouen Valley in 2001 highlights this fact. The pilot,
Martin Sargeant lost control of the aircraft on the base leg while jinking onto a runway free from
spectators following engine problems.
Go-around's were the next most common phase of flight involving spin accidents,
representing about 7.1% of accidents, once again, pilots not recognizing that the airspeed had
decayed below an acceptable level. Cruise was the last phase of flight involving spin accidents
(6.3%) mainly occurring in IMC.
In a previous study Veillette did on the altitude lost during an incipient spin and recovery,
he found it took hundreds of feet to recover from an incipient spin using the optimal recovery
technique. Less-than-optimal recovery technique obviously increased the altitude lost significantly.
More than 90% of the spins started at such a low altitude that the spin was unrecoverable and not
even the best spin pilot in the world would have recovered these aircraft prior to ground impact
simply because there was simply not enough height available. This has very important
implications for the stall/spin problem, from both operational and training standpoints. Obviously,
pilots, and particularly display pilots, need to avoid the stall/spin boundary so close to the ground.
In addition, the emphasis in training needs to be on preventing an avoiding the high angles of
attack that can initiate the spin sequence, as well as proper use of rudder and aileron as the
aircraft approaches the stall.
The pilot of an unlimited class YAK-54 stated he was going to demonstrate some aerobatic
manoeuvres to the pilot-rated passenger. Witnesses observed the aircraft enter an inverted right
spin at a lower-than-recommended altitude from which the aircraft did not recover from the spin
and impacted the ground. The pilot-in-command was a general officer in the Air Force and
commander of Alaskan Air Command. The general had flown more than a dozen different
fighters, bombers, tankers, and experimental aircraft, including the F-117 Nighthawk, the B-1B
Lancer, and the X-29. He was a command military pilot with more than 4,100 military flight hours,
in addition to several thousand civilian flight hours. He held waivers from the FAA allowing him to
perform low-altitude aerobatics and had competed in many civilian aerobatic competitions.
In another case, a North American T-6G began a high-g pull-up after a high-speed flyby.
At the apex of the climb, the aircraft suddenly nosed over and began a slight turn left that became
a hard left which developed into a snap roll and a spin to the left. After three to four turns, the
aircraft struck the ground. The aircraft’s POH states that the aircraft will lose 500 feet of altitude
for each full spin rotation. The pilot was an International Council of Air Shows ‘ACE’ and zeroaltitude aerobatics examiner. What the foregoing proves is that knowing how to execute a full spin
recovery is rather irrelevant at such low altitudes and that there is no pilot that is not susceptible to
inadvertent departure during highly dynamic manoeuvring.
Spin accidents are not the sole province of inexperienced pilots. Private pilots were
involved in 46.4% of the spin accidents, and student pilots accounted for 3.8% which implies that
the other half were commercial pilots, ATPs, instructors, not the neophytes one might expect.
Since so many of these accidents involved low-altitude ‘shoot-ups’, it’s obvious that pilot judgment,
rather than experience level, was a primary factor in these accidents.
For many years Veillette had been staunchly ‘pro-spin training’. He had been spin-trained,
both in the civilian and military worlds and believed that it made him a better aviator. He had given
spin training to many pilots over the years, in both powered aircraft and gliders. Fellow spintraining advocates had agreed that spin training makes a pilot more aware of the factors leading
up to a spin, more capable of proficiently handling the aircraft at high angles of attack, less likely to
enter into an inadvertent spin, and more likely to recover. Wrong? Maybe, but one must carefully
consider that unfortunately, statistics are never able to record those spin accidents that were
prevented by awareness programmes and training and thus to make firm conclusions on the exact
contribution to spin prevention, is difficult. There is no doubt that spinning accident statistics, both
in general aviation and also display flying would have looked significantly different without the
training programmes.
That said, Veillette was shocked at the outstanding credentials of many of the spin accident
pilots. The seven-year trend of data certainly cast doubt on the enthusiasm for spin training.
Commercial pilots were involved in 35.5% of the spin accidents and airline transport pilots were
involved in 11.7% of the spin accidents. The credentials of many of these pilots were quite
impressive, some of the accident pilots were highly accomplished military pilots, some were
‘fighter weapons school’ instructors, some were certified by aerobatic associations, some were
accomplished airshow pilots, some held ‘low-altitude aerobatic waivers’ and some were even
aerobatic examiners. Many had graduated from flight training programmes specializing in
unusual-attitude recoveries, spins, and aerobatics. In fact, many were even accomplished
aerobatic or spin instructors and several were even test pilots. Even a highly experienced Reno
air racer with amazing experience and credentials was involved in an unfortunate spin accident.
More than a quarter (29%) of the accidents involved pilots who had documented spin
training. Although some of the spin accidents involved pilots deliberately doing spins, eighty-three
involved spin-trained pilots who failed to recognize and react to an inadvertent spin in a timely
manner. It can therefore be concluded that unfortunately, being spin-trained doesn’t necessarily
mean that the pilot will be immune from a spin accident.
Forty-nine of the accidents (12.4%) involved pilots who had aerobatic training and
certification. Some of these spins occurred while practicing aerobatics, but what is of concern is
that twenty-seven involved aerobatics-trained pilots who failed to recognize and recover from an
inadvertent spin in a timely manner. Many of these victims had attended brand-name aerobatic
schools or emergency manoeuvre training. In theory, they should have been highly capable of
preventing and recovering from an incipient spin. Unfortunately, the data indicates that even being
a spin instructor, doesn’t guarantee the prevention of a fatal spin accident, either deliberate or
In another revealing statistic, twenty-three of the accidents (6.1%) involved military or
former military fixed-wing pilots, this in spite of the fact that the military services having such
comprehensive spin training programmes. Military spin training is supplemented by hours of
classroom instruction and numerous hours are spent studying the spin section in the aircraft
manual. The military programme is usually well designed for the curriculum since the most
obvious spin risk in the training curriculum occurs during aerobatic practice, normally at 8,000 feet
AGL and higher. Inadvertent spin entry from low-level, is a completely different matter.
Unfortunately, this in-depth and rigorous training does not necessarily transfer directly to
the aircraft and spin scenarios typical of display and general aviation flying. Almost one-fifth of the
spin accidents (17.5%) involved a flight instructor and it is thus evident that any pilot, regardless of
experience or spin training, can fall victim to a fatal spin accident. The bottom line is one of
physics. An aircraft that has departed controlled flight is operating at less than the minimum
energy level required for sustained flight. To restore the energy level to sustain flight,
unfortunately requires the conversion of potential energy height and at low altitudes, there is
insufficient height available during low-level displays.
Trends among the aircraft involved in spin accidents are as enlightening as the profiles of
the categories of pilots that crashed. One of the few rigorous scientific studies published by an
independent reputable scientific society found that aircraft design was actually more responsible
for the decline in stall/spin accident rates and that changes in training had little overall effect.
The “systems safety” engineering process has consistently been determined in many
industries to be the most effective method for preventing accidents and injury. The application of
the systems safety concept to spin accidents essentially involves as first step, that risk must be
reduced, the next step is to change the design of the equipment by incorporating safety features
and finally, the last step is to incorporate warning devices. Statistical evidence certainly seems to
emphasise the weakness of the human in that training and procedures have been proven time and
again, to be the least effective methods for preventing accidents.
More disconcerting, however, was that aerobatic aircraft were involved in forty-six spin
accidents (11.7%), another area where the spin accident rate is probably disproportionate to the
aircraft’s use. Most of these aircraft were certified to recover from a fully developed six-turn spin.
Ease of spin entry is one characteristic rather common to most aerobatic aircraft, making spin
recovery training usually one of the first steps in an aerobatic training course. Nearly all of the
aerobatic aircraft spin accidents involved pilots who had some level of spin training.
Spin training obviously teaches the pilot how to recover from spins, but more importantly, it
helps pilots avoid inadvertent spins in the first place. The spin is the result of yaw and roll at a
excessive angles of attack and avoiding the pro-spin yawing moment through proper
rudder/aileron coordination, is an integral part of any attempt to solve the problem of unintentional
spins. Spins that occur during aerobatic training are more realistic and representative of
inadvertent spins that typically occur during actual display flights. Unfortunately, a conventional
training scenario in which the spin is a planned and isolated occurrence, doesn’t have the training
value of a real unexpected spin.
I’ve often wondered about the validity of the “old/bold/pilots” thing. It’s the kind of catchy
sentiment that sounds good, so it becomes ‘fact’ simply because it’s repeated so much. I guess
there is some truth in it, as there is in most sentiments of this kind, but I wouldn’t say it’s in the
area of a constant. Some of the best pilots I know today are old....and they were VERY bold!! The
trick is to be bold at the right time.....and smart ALL of the time!!!!! (Dudley Henriques)
A privately owned L-29 Delphin practices a low-level roll for an upcoming airshow in South Africa during 2003.
(Frans Dely ‘FinalImage’)
He who demands everything that his aircraft can give him is a pilot; he that
demands one iota more, is a fool. (Anon)
Display flying essentially involves manoeuvring the aircraft in view of a group
of spectators and may, or may not, involve aerobatics. Webster’s new 20th-Century
Dictionary of the English Language defines aerobatics as: 1. Spectacular feats done
in flying as loops, rolls, etc . 2. The art of doing such feats in flying
. The legal
definition given by the Federal Aviation Regulations Part 91.303 is: “An intentional
manoeuvre involving an abrupt change in an aircraft’s attitude, an abnormal attitude,
or abnormal acceleration, not necessary for normal flight”.
Whatever the definition, however, watching a pilot die at an airshow during a
crash, the question commonly asked is: “Aircraft are made so very well and pilots so
well trained, why and how does this have to happen?” Reading through accident
investigation reports it is difficult to find a case in which an inexperienced pilot was
involved in a display accident; on average, they all seem to have in excess of 3,000
flying hours, one as many as 24,000 hours, all ‘old-hands’ in flying and in most
cases, ‘old-hands’ in the display world. The airshow world is relatively well regulated
and in most cases, the criteria to qualify as a demonstration pilot, by its very nature,
requires that a pilot has a certain minimum number of flying hours before being
authorised to fly at airshows.
What this does tell us is that display flying, as in all categories of flying, has
no respect for experience, only practiced skill and discipline and even then, there is a
fine line between success and failure. So what goes on in the mind and psyche of
the pilot? What are the stressors that affect reaction times and decision-making?
What does the pilot experience physically and mentally while manoeuvring an aircraft
in a confined volume so close to the ground? What is the pilot workload and stress
level? How important is concentration?
To attempt to answer some of these questions, Dudley A. Henriques,
International Fighter Pilots Fellowship, sums it up neatly. “Let me put you in the
cockpit of a P-51 during a display if I may, and perhaps I can help put these
questions into some kind of perspective. I’ll only take one type of manoeuvre to
illustrate; it could be an inside loop, a half-Cuban, or reverse half-Cuban turnaround.
I’ll use an inside loop as an example. The main thing here is that these manoeuvres
involve a vertical recovery at very low altitude and they have killed many of us who
perform them. The situation I will describe here is for the P-51 Mustang as I used it,
but the basic aspects involved pertain to any pilot and aircraft in this environment.
Only the engine settings and control forces will vary from aircraft to aircraft. I want to
give you some idea of the tasking and concentration involved with this work.
Entering the show site after exiting the last manoeuvre in the sequence, you
line up diving in at METO power [46” and 2700RPM]. You already have the show
centre point and are now concentrating on the show-to-crowd restriction line, which is
displaced 1,500 feet in front and parallel to the crowd on your left. You are using the
runway centreline in this instance for spacing. The entry speed for this manoeuvre,
an inside loop, is exactly 350 mph. This is critical since the ‘g’ profile you will use, a
gradual pull to 4g, must be exactly married to the IAS and the entry altitude to put
you on the top of the loop at your ‘go/no-go’ decision height. This decision point or
‘energy gate’, is also commonly referred to as the ‘commit point’ for the decision to
continue with the pull to the visual sight cue for the second half of the loop and exit.
You reach pull point with all the parameters married and commit the airplane
to the manoeuvre with a smooth pull into a rising ‘g’. From here on it’s ‘feeling’ and
‘listening’ to the airplane. It’s how you mentally assess what the airplane is telling
you that matters here, not the math of aerodynamics, lift, drag, and the rest of it. Oh
it’s all there all right, but you don’t have time to think about it.
Your ‘feel’ of the airplane will determine how the figures end up at the top and
bottom of this manoeuvre. There will only be one chance at the recovery. Wrong is
dead! As the ‘g’ builds, you transfer your visual cue to the left wingtip, feeling the ‘g’,
and ‘adjusting’ it as the aircraft goes vertical. Now is where the torque changes hit
you, you can feel it on the rudder. As the energy bleeds through the ‘g’ profile, that
huge Hamilton propeller up front begins to want to turn the airplane off the vertical
line. It requires more and more right rudder to hold the wingtip on the horizon line.
Now you’re past 90º into the manoeuvre. You shoot a glance at the altimeter and
ASI for profile confirmation and make a slight adjustment to unload the airplane just a
touch because your mind has projected the manoeuvre line below your target altitude
at the top if you don’t ease up on the pull, based on the angle of the tip to the horizon
and the rate of the altimeter needle toward the target at the top. A quick glance at
the slip-ball confirms torque correction is on line. As the aircraft inverts at the top,
you have a major decision to make. There is no book written that will explain it.
Remember, you have split seconds to assess and decide. Right, the
manoeuvre is continued to a beautiful finish at the bottom. Wrong is not a survivable
option past 270º in the recovery. You shoot a lightning glance at the altimeter; make
a slight alignment of the inverted horizon to straighten the wings. You digest the
sight picture, mentally doing the geometry from the horizon line through the amount
of ground showing in the windshield. You make a lightning check of the ASI for
parameters and you DECIDE!!!
You pull to a vertical downline commit based on these visual cues and
experience. You have until you go vertical at 270º to change your mind and initiate a
‘rollout’ save. Once at 270º, the shortest route out is the vertical pull. The real
commit is at that point! You pull the power back a bit and begin the recovery. You
have split seconds to make the final decision between inverted and the 270º point.
At 270º, the sight picture tells you to commit and you do so. You are now either alive
or dead, based on this decision. The only asset you have to play off against
remaining altitude is the remaining radial ‘g’. If you don’t have enough radial ‘g’
between you and the ground, it’s all over but for the tears and sorrow!
A lot of pilots don’t know this, but if the loop is flown correctly, a vertical
recovery like this is actually done by releasing some of the back pressure during the
last twenty degrees of the dive recovery instead of holding in the back pressure you
might be visualizing for a loop recovery. What should happen is that you reach a
point in the recovery at about 340º where you can ‘see’ and ‘feel’ that you have the
height and ‘g’ married correctly and that the airplane has the room to make the
recovery before you will hit the ground. At that point, the ‘good pilot’ will relax the
backpressure, flattening out the dive recovery somewhat, and allow the propeller tips
to ‘trim the tall grass’. This of course precludes you having allowed yourself the room
to do this.
The time to begin worrying is that exact point where you realize you will need
continuing backpressure to complete the manoeuvre.
The amount of that
backpressure will determine whether or not you recover, reach C Lmax, or the ground
first. Only ‘recover’ will save you. The other two have already killed you! The point
of telling you all this is simply to give you some idea of what can happen to a pilot
flying an airshow. You can imagine that mechanical failure is always an option as
well. Even if you’re good, it only takes one second’s lapse of concentration to kill you
in this environment. You practice and practice harder to make yourself better at this.
Even then, it can bite you. It just happens that danger is a part of the show equation,
I loved doing it. I was a fair stick if I may say so, better than some, and not as good
as others I knew and know today. I survived the decision I have described above
many, many times. I’ve watched others who didn’t”.
What is intriguing is that display pilots, by the very nature of the safety
demands enforced by the airshow world, are generally very experienced pilots. The
fear factor in most pilots makes them realise the hazards and they thus elect to enter
this hazardous arena only once they have the experience and confidence. Aviation
accident archives are full of records of inexperienced pilots, military and civilian, that
have killed themselves doing ‘unauthorised’ low-level aerobatics. What is it then that
seduces the mind of the experienced display pilot into making, what in retrospect are
poor ‘commit decisions’ or courses of action that invariably result in the pilot’s own
Frank C. Sanders, a test pilot and a veteran airshow pilot with twenty-four
years experience had been interested in a specific accident of an F/A-18 on 24 April
1988 at the MCAS El Toro (USA) airshow since the day he had watched it broadcast
on TV. He waited for the pilot to recover sufficiently from his injuries to enable him to
assist in researching the physiological aspects of the accident and wrote a research
paper to expand on the finding of “Pilot Error” by the accident board. The finding of
“Pilot Error” is an all too familiar ‘easy out’ for accident board investigations, no
specific details, just the ‘old cliché’, “Pilot Error”. It has to be emphasised that no pilot
willingly causes an accident or gets himself killed during an airshow. Onthe
contrary, the adrenalin charge generated by the body is a result of the pilot’s
obsession to stay alive.
However, the weakness in the physiological make-up of all pilots makes it
impossible for them to guarantee flawless judgement and flying skills. With this in
mind, Sanders quite rightly maintained that: “if we can understand the causal factors
and mechanism of the term ‘Loss of Situational Awareness’, then possibly, we have
taken the first step in educating display pilots to avoid this hazard.” As in most
accidents there is usually more than one contributory cause that leads to the
eventual accident, a similar analogy to the ‘domino principle’. The aim of the
research paper was to shed some light on a complex subject and in the process,
increase safety for all display pilots.
As background it is prudent to consider an article published in the 8 May 1989
issue of Aviation Week on the “Peripheral Vision Display (PVD)” artificial horizon.
This article quoted Richard Malcolm at Canada’s Defence and Civil Institute of
Environmental Medicine: “Of the senses, vision contributes about 90% to human
orientation and balance, and the inner ear only about 10%. The majority (90%)
visual orientation is contributed by peripheral vision.”
This information, added to the research Sanders had done relating to
adrenaline and loss of peripheral vision to the cognitive mind, suggested a new
approach to reviewing the Heads-Up-Display (HUD) tapes of the F/A 18 accident and
comparing it with the two HUD video tapes of Col Jerry Cadick’s two practice flights
prior to the accident.
When Sanders learned that the ‘square loop’ that appeared on TV was not
the planned or practiced manoeuvre, the question of what happened became much
more intriguing. As a point of fact, the desired manoeuvre was the ‘Pitch Rate
Demo’. In airshow terms, a square Immelman with a descending 90º - 270º
horizontal reposition for the next manoeuvre. Why , or even better, how could this
become the square loop that resulted in the accident?
Studying the video taken from the vantage point of the air traffic control tower,
Sanders saw no indication of problems in the first series of manoeuvres. Some
accidents have a gradual deteriorating performance, a transitional regression that is
obvious prior to the accident. But the undercarriage-down Immelman flown by
Colonel Cadick just two manoeuvres previous to and similar to the accident
manoeuvre, was flown with precision and a perfect recovery – a crisp roll to the
repositioning 90º - 270º turnaround.
Before Sanders undertook the study, he first had to verify in his own mind
whether the pilot was average or inconsistent or, perhaps, unqualified to do that type
of flight in the F/A-18. The conclusions that he proposed in the research paper were
the result of having satisfied himself that this officer was a superior aviator and was
adequately prepared to fly that airshow. As a matter of information, Sanders had
personally flown with Col Cadick on two occasions, these were Cadick’s first two
flights after the accident and in Sander’s opinion, Cadick was a talented aviator.
Therefore, it was accepted at that point that there was a serviceable aircraft and a
pilot that was competent, practiced and functioning well. He had approximately
1,000 hours on the Hornet and had been an instructor on the F/A-18 for 3 years and
7 months and had flown it every month since September 1982. His only exposure to
aircraft accidents prior to this mishap was a deadstick landing on a T-33 in a cornfield
in Ohio and a deadstick landing of a TA-4F at MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina, both
the result of mechanical failures.
This aviator, as most airshow pilots are, was concerned about the amount of
time taken for the repositioning manoeuvres and an attempt was made to reduce the
turnaround time spent away from the crowd. Entry speed and altitude was relatively
consistent on each of the three days with 275kts the target speed (290 kts/490 ft, 268
kts/520 ft, 275 kts/490 ft) but, unlike previous days, the engines were at
approximately 80% on the day of the accident when the afterburners were selected.
afterburners do not lightup until the engines are at
or greater than 92%. This
would account for why the
burners only lit after the
aircraft had pulled to the
vertical, resulting in less
displayed airspeed and
altitude at the top (111
kts/2800 ft, 92 kts/2380 ft,
57 kts/2180 ft). In each
selection was made at the
same point, but less
airspeed and less altitude
was achieved at the top of
the square Immelman
than the previous time.
To Frank Sanders, the
question was: “How did
pilot error,
or more
Cadick to get the nose so
low, approximately 80º
recognised that from that
situation, the only option
left was to pull through the
vertical and complete the
manoeuvre as a loop? A
manoeuvre that he had
At this point, the first step at better understanding the problem is to know how
the brain works and how the display pilots make the decisions they make. The brain
is incredibly complex, but the reader attention focus should be on the “conscious”
and “subconscious” part of the mind. Scientists recognise thought, feelings and
sensation as the stuff of consciousness, and the chief guardian of consciousness is
located in a cluster of nerve cells known as the reticular formation. The reticular
formation is, in essence, the brain’s chief gatekeeper.
Every second, 100 million messages bombard the brain carrying input from
the body’s senses. A few hundred are permitted through to brain regions above the
brain stem. Of these, the conscious mind heeds fewer still and concentration is
limited to one sensation at a time. Now, the reason we practice any complex task
(typing, bicycling, flying, etc) is that repetition allows the subconscious brain to
assume control of the task; the task that the first time performed, had to all be done
on the conscious (cognitive) level. The subconscious brain can handle multiple tasks
with practiced ease as long as proficiency is maintained; adrenaline seems to have
little effect on this capability of the brain. The limiting factor is the cognitive part of
the brain. In our conscious mind, we can concentrate on only one problem at a time
and we have to time-share if more than one at a time is to be worked. Remember
TIME SHARE! Only two or three items can be time shared by this cognitive brain,
depending on complexity and adrenaline; yes, adrenaline affects the cognitive brain
function. One very dramatic way to cut down on time-sharing is to block our
peripheral vision and only perceive with foveal vision.
Foveal vision is the 3º cone of focussed vision that we read with. This is
pointed out because peripheral and foveal vision is particularly germane in Col
Cadick’s mishap. There may be a unique occasion when the conscious mind, by
virtue of the reticular activating system, perceives at least some of the sensory input
that the subconscious mind looks at all the time. During a sudden emergency or
shocking event, the conscious mind may even perceive the event happening in slow
motion, remembering things later with amazing clarity. This may be the conscious
mind looking to the subconscious for information or monitoring its function without
inhibiting it.
What happened? What cognitive items does the proficient display pilot
concentrate on? A mental rehearsal prior to take-off of the planned show sequence
and known adjustments reduces the amount of cognitive time needed on flying the
sequence. The large time-share items are adjustments for clouds, wind, crowd-line
and energy management (airspeed and altitude). Flying the aircraft (stick and
rudder) is done by the
21 April
22 April
24 April
subconscious. Energy
275 kts/
490 ft
57 kts/
Level Inverted
122 kts
97 kts
91 kts
conditions; the total
energy of the aircraft
Airspeed Error
11 kts
5 kts
34 kts
being the summation
Altitude on Top
2800 ft
2380 ft
2180 ft
of potential energy
Horizon Display
(altitude) and kinetic
Altitude Lost
20 ft
30 ft
30 ft
energy (airspeed). If
Accel Rate (neg g)
10 kt/sec2
10 kt/sec2
10 kt/sec2
130 kts
120 kts
100 kts
the total energy starts
Pitch Rate
to decrease, the pilot
20 kt/sec2
must either add power
Time to Roll
1.0 sec
1.0 sec
No Roll
or reduce drag by
flying a wider show
(less ‘g’ induced drag).
The reason for
Pitch Angle (+1sec)
cognitive attention is
Slice Turn Angle
that the ratio of
energies may change
although the total energy remains constant, and therein lies the hazard. Too fast and
too low at the apex of an over-the-top manoeuvre and the recovery radius is too large
to miss the ground. This energy ratio changes with density altitude and always
requires cognitive attention. According to Sanders: “I did not fully appreciate ‘The
Cobra in the Basket’ when Dave Barnes (Northrop F-20) described his fear of
focussing on a piece of glass, the Heads-Up Display (HUD) eighteen inches in front
of his face and not seeing where his 500 knots jet was going. Dave believed that a
trap existed in not looking around or through the HUD. Coincidentally, in an
unrelated type of accident, Dave Barnes was subsequently killed on 14 May 1985
during a display practice while flying the Northrop F-20 Tigershark at Goose Bay,
Canada. Frank Sanders had a theory that the combination of very high roll rates and
high ‘g’ available in the F-20 could make a pilot particularly susceptible to
disorientation and/or GLOC (g-induced loss of consciousness, not to be confused
with an ordinary g-induced blackout).
For those who have never used a HUD, the HUD is essentially a transparent
collimated glass display through which the pilot, focussing at infinity, has the
essential flight information of airspeed, altitude, navigation and weapons information
displayed. Displaying such essential flight parameters through the HUD, induces the
pilot to fly the aircraft through the HUD picture. Unfortunately reflections from the sun
in the near vertical midday or early morning/late afternoon sun position may cause
the HUD picture to ‘wash-out’ making it impossible for the pilot to see what
symbology is displayed on the HUD.
But the HUD video provided an amazing insight into just what Col Cadick saw
and did not see when the sun ‘washed’ it out on the accident day. Sun glare is
particularly distracting, especially in the earlier generation HUD technology and the
only option available to the pilot is to continue with the manoeuvre knowing that the
phenomenon is transient, normally lasting only a few seconds until the relative
angular relationship with the sun changes. A frame-by-frame analysis of the HUD
video provided a data review page is illustrated in Fig. 1 that sets up comparisons of
critical performance parameters for each practice day and then the airshow. For
clarity, Fig. 2 graphically portrays this information in a side view of the manoeuvre.
On the accident day, the lower altitude at the top of the Immelman (200 ft less than
the previous practice) is not a major concern if you are not going to pull through
vertical, but the dramatically lower airspeed is a problem if you roll. After all, the
aircraft does need adequate airspeed in order to roll without excessive height loss
and control of the pitch attitude.
Analysing the data on the graph reveals a very consistent pilot. For example,
the altitude on top inverted (Point No. 3) and the inverted altitude at the roll (Point No.
4) never varies more than 30 ft on three flights. The duration of the inverted flight
segment was within 0.5 seconds on each day while the airspeed at the end of the
inverted flight segment was within 30 kts on all three days. “As an airshow pilot, I
believe this data indicates enough practice and comfort with the manoeuvres. Why
then is there no roll at the end of the inverted flight on the accident day?” Sanders
questioned. Before answering, it is prudent to note that pilots of computerised flight
control systems pay greater attention to indicated airspeed because there is no
tactile feel, no stick feedback cues as airspeed increases or “wind over the wires” to
provide a feel for energy state. On the accident day, due to the aircraft pointing into
the sun, the HUD symbology ‘washed-out’ and when the airspeed eventually became
visible in the HUD, the initial reading of 65 kts decreased to 57 kts at 10º above the
horizon coming over the top inverted at 48º angle of attack (AOA).
After careful comparison, it can be seen that the aircraft was in actual fact,
only 10 kts slower than the previous day’s practice when the nose came through
level inverted on the horizon. For accident analysis purposes, this 57 kts indicated
airspeed provided an excellent clue as to where the pilot’s attention was focussed at
that point. It took Sanders several days to realise that the 57 KIAS was an error
because the aircraft thereafter accelerated to 91 KIAS in one second while it was
nose-high indicating 48º AOA with the aircraft still climbing. Impossible of course!
Acceleration for the next two seconds was 10 kts/sec 2. How did this, now obviously
incorrect airspeed, come to be displayed? Because of Pitot tube pressure
inaccuracies at AOA greater than 33.1º, the IAS is corrected by the inertial navigation
system. As a result, IAS is sometimes inaccurate, particularly in highly dynamic flight
conditions. At the point the 57 kts was displayed, the actual airspeed must have
been approximately 110 kts - an error in excess of 50 kts!!! As the 91 kts appeared
in the HUD display, the pilot was busy (cognitive time-share) putting the nose level
on the horizon and the decision to extend for airspeed had already been made. But
the next time the airspeed was checked, it was only 10 kts slower than practiced.
This confusion caused more distraction and more time was devoted to the HUD
airspeed indicator.
As the parameters returned to normal, the cognitive brain directed the
practiced subconscious to continue the manoeuvre as practiced. HERE IS THE
INSTANT THAT THE ERROR OCCURRED!! An error of omission that has its roots
in the function of the human brain. Because of the extra filtration of information to the
cognitive mind (remember the gatekeeper) and the delay caused by timesharing, the
conscious mind operates with a slight time lag compared to the practiced
subconscious. The practiced subconscious can handle more input information and
operates much quicker. Naturally, this is a very complex subject, however, Sanders
developed a simple timeline and applied it to the HUD video data to illustrate the
relationship between the two. Note that the Thought Control Time Line represents
Sander’s analysis of the shift in brain focus between the subconscious and the
conscious mind.
In Sander’s opinion, Col Cadick, alarmed at the 57 kts HUD airspeed,
cognitively interrupted the manoeuvre until he was satisfied that he had regained
flying speed. This was a rational and correct technique to adopt given the
information available to the pilot at that particular moment. However, because of the
slight time difference between the conscious and the subconscious, when control
was again passed to the lower line, the practiced subconscious was one step ahead
timewise in the programme – just past the roll, and to the pull 90º horizontal. Thus
there is a pull of approximately 80º nose-down, not horizontal as practiced! The
perceived airspeed error was an unpracticed interruption to the practiced
subconscious skill programme. Note that this was the only flight of the three days
with such a large discrepancy in indicated airspeed. This time base error
experienced was HUD related.
Peripheral vision that is used to orientate or to keep the two levels of the brain
in step with each other, was no longer functioning. Foveal vision was in use.
Peripheral vision that we use to fly with on the subconscious level of the brain, was
overridden by the cognitive mind functioning on foveal vision. Remember that 90%
of our orientation is from peripheral vision. What would cause an extremely
experienced F/A-18 pilot to lock out this vision? Remember Dave Barnes’ Cobra in
the Basket (the HUD) with its beautiful digital airspeed and altitude display that
required foveal vision to read. Call it tunnel vision, target fixation of foveal
vision/cognitive mind information lockout, the result is the same - the pilot does not
get the peripheral vision information needed. This helps understand the error of
omission; when with the proper information, a critical step in the performance was
omitted. Hence “pilot error”. The point that most guarantees that this was an error of
omission, was that the roll was left out of the sequence, is Point No. 4 on the graphic
On all three days the forward pressure on the control stick to fly inverted, is
released to positive ‘g’ and the nose goes 10º below the horizon and pauses in
preparation to roll. If the intended manoeuvre on the accident day had been a
square loop, as some believe, the inverted flight would have gone directly to the
square corner down. It took Sanders several days of frame-by-frame analysis of the
HUD video in order to see this and he firmly believed that the result of this
examination is the proof that his reasoning, as described, explaining why this pilot
pulled vertical instead of horizontal, is correct.
The bottom line is this. Sanders saw a square loop on TV that day, and so
did most pilots. An experienced display pilot who witnessed the accident gave his
opinion as: “The driver got behind his programmed manoeuvre, what looked like a
square loop. He ‘greyed – out’ pulling down for the back side of the box, got his eyes
back, saw he was getting too low, and did the stick in the stomach routine. From the
video footage, he damn near pulled it off, his rate of descent was very low at impact,
but the tail dragged and slapped the nose down.”
However, remember that the 90-270º turn was now erroneously orientated in
the vertical axis. The pull down was unhurried as it was practiced in the horizontal
and the pull rate relaxes, as it should, to roll left for the reverse to the 270º turn. At
this point, the cognitive brain has again looked outside the HUD with peripheral vision
and discovered to its horror that the aircraft was nearing vertical down. At this point,
a hard pull was initiated to minimize the impact, hence hesitation in recovery that
gave the square loop the spectators saw.
The unique aspect about this accident was the availability of the three days of
recorded HUD video information to analyse and to compare the human performance.
Without this information, an understanding of this accident would have been
impossible. The message for the display pilots is: don’t lose peripheral vision in a
high stress situation. More than just losing spatial orientation, range and rate of
motion in depth, peripheral vision keeps areas of the brain indexed in time to perform
complex tasks. The good news is that the cognitive has the authority to command to
see peripheral vision. The bad news is that it requires foveal vision to perceive digital
information. Display pilots must ensure, therefore, that peripheral vision is included
in their scan pattern of airspeed, altitude and attitude.
In summary therefore, the lower engine RPM at the beginning of the
manoeuvre was the beginning of the problem. The ‘domino effect’ produced a lower
airspeed reading on top of the manoeuvre than had been practiced. The pilot had
retrograde amnesia after the accident, but could later recall some portions of the
events leading up to the mishap. Col Cadick remembered that he knew the airspeed
was going to be slow on top because of late afterburner engagement, however, the
57 KIAS was much slower than anticipated and the following chain of events began:
The cognitive decision to extend for airspeed caused an unpracticed
interruption of practiced subconscious programme.
Confusion due to an impossible acceleration rate (57 – 91 kts in 1 second)
required cognitive time to resolve problem airspeed.
Foveal vision concentrating on digital airspeed required cognitive attention
until satisfied with airspeed, and negative ‘g’ relaxed in preparation to roll.
Due to foveal vision, when the cognitive mind returned control to practiced
subconscious with roll yet to come, they were not time synchronised.
The practiced subconscious was one step ahead of the cognitive mind in the
sequence; just beyond roll, therefore, the pull for the 90º-270º turn was
erroneously oriented in the vertical.
As peripheral vision returned, the cognitive mind comprehended the situation
and commanded a hard pull in an effort to minimize impact.
Because this was an unpractised interruption of the subconscious
programme, an error of omission occurred where a critical section of a manoeuvre
was left out, not an intentional square loop that appeared to the uninformed observer.
This airshow accident demonstrated a classic case of some of the reasons
the brain filters out peripheral vision and how deadly important peripheral is to
maintaining situational awareness. If it could happen to a pilot who was experienced,
capable, and practiced, what is the next step? Nobody is going to change the way
GOD designed man to function. Accordingly, Sanders’ recommendation was that:
“we ought to get busy and educate our HUD pilots on the limitation of the interface.
The HUD is good but it is no guarantee in and of itself that situational awareness will
always be maintained. Further, he believed that in the light of this accident, a fresh
look be taken at the ergonomics of future designs of visor-mounted sights and other
space science systems. A better understanding of how we, the human pilot
functions, can influence the design”. (“The Cobra in the Basket: What You Don’t See
Can Kill You” - Frank C. Sanders - SETP)
In what can be described as justification of Sander’s investigative work on
airshow accidents, particularly relevant to the case of Hood’s, the latest HUD
technology has advanced dramatically and the safety recommendations of the past
are incorporated in the Holographic Wide Angle Heads-Up-Displays fitted to fourth
generation fighters.
This example is just one of the many that demonstrates typically why pilots
can be seduced into poor decision-making. Once the decision has been made, it is
irreversible – if the decision is wrong, the pilot is a passenger at an accident unless of
course, there is the availability of a capable ejection seat, but even then, survival is
not guaranteed. The problem is that due to the highly dynamic environment and the
high energy levels associated with manoeuvring aircraft, there is zero error margin.
The human is not a robot but has emotions, an ego, and the desire to
compete, including a fair amount of aggression – that is how we are put together – it
is not something that can be put aside or ignored. But aggression and ego without
fear is a dangerous combination, aggression without understanding one’s personal
capabilities and the limits of the aircraft, is downright dangerous.
What makes a highly experienced display pilot decide to continue a series of
low level aileron rolls once the nose begins to fall? What makes a pilot continue with
a loop, reaching the top ‘out of parameters’, low airspeed or low altitude? What
makes a pilot suddenly decide to increase the airspeed of the manoeuvre by twenty
knots more than that practiced? What makes a pilot ‘press’ the height and speed to
the limit during a flypast? Well, most pilots know the feeling of being able to select
full throttle, feel the acceleration and then try to ‘squeeze’ it as low as possible – it is
a feeling of freedom and power to impress the spectators – but it is also the door to
disaster if such emotions are not channelled. Provide an answer to the foregoing
questions and the hazards of low-level display flying will be better understood and
airshow accidents considerably reduced.
Ironically, experience unfortunately removes many unknowns for the display
pilot, breeds confidence and even over-confidence in some cases. In contrast
however, but even more unfortunate, is that display piloting skills, response and
reaction times, can never be perfectly honed to guarantee ‘zero error’. Competition
then, also often brings out the worst in the human being, the element of winning at all
costs combined with the requirement by airshow spectators for greater entertainment
value from the airshows, provides all the ingredients for an airshow accident unless
all these energies are sensibly channelled.
On a video clip of John Derry’s fatal accident at Farnborough Airshow in
1952, Capt. Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown (world renowned British test pilot), questioningly
expressed an opinion: “John Derry was far from being an irresponsible pilot, but I
know the feeling well.....that when you are at an airshow, there are pressures on you
to be competitive with the other pilots. Its the top people in the business being
thrown into the gladiatorial ring and all wanting to show off their company’s wares to
the best of their abilities, and it is just possible that John pushed it a fraction
more.......that is the difference between success and disaster”. Stated almost fifty
years ago, the question must be asked: “have we learnt any lessons yet or not?
Well, in some cases yes, but in others, not!
So, what is the extent of the problem actually? Well, the definition of the
problem is simple, the solution to the problem is, however, far more complex. In fact,
it is doubtful that it can be completely solved because of the human’s fallibility in
judgement and anticipation under the pressure of dynamic manoeuvring – at best,
accidents can only be alleviated by absolute knowledge, discipline and practice. The
problem that has been acknowledged since man’s first flight is that the low-level
display arena, for a manoeuvring aircraft, is one of the most demanding and
intimidating environments for the pilot to operate in.
Over the years, the improved aerodynamic design, increased mass,
increased performance, increased power and increased agility of aircraft, has
changed the focus on the causal factors of the accidents somewhat. With increased
performance and agility, pilots have designed demonstration sequences that have
attempted to emphasise and demonstrate such dynamic features. However, high
inertial moments, high momentum and then also high closing speeds in excess of
1,200 feet per second, all critically affect the pilot’s reaction and response times. The
tolerance for error has shrunk to extremely small values, the scope for human error is
now considerably small and consequently, the probability for judgement error has, in
most cases, increased.
Modern high performance fighter aircraft are imbued with high thrust-toweight ratios and very good rolling performance, capable of generating in excess of
360º/second in some cases. The handling skills required by a pilot in displaying
rolling manoeuvres in a modern fighter is therefore less than in the older vintage
earlier generation warbirds that can typically generate maximum roll rates of only
120º/second. What this simply means is that for the earlier generation aircraft, lowlevel rolling manoeuvres require greater skill in handling and co-ordination than in a
modern high performance fighter. Add to this the fact that the rolling trajectory of a
modern aircraft more closely approximates the inertial axis of the aircraft, this makes
it easier to display multiple aileron rolls. In the case of early generation aircraft,
however, the aerodynamic axis and the inertial axis are not necessarily so closely
aligned and the straight roll invariably approximates a tight barrel-roll or corkscrew
A factor not to be forgotten when discussing rolling vintage aircraft is the
adverse aileron yaw and engine torque inherent in the vintage aircraft designs which
can significantly reduce roll performance. The approximately 2,400 horsepower
developed by the Hawker Sea-Fury’s engine was a real handful, even for the
experienced operational pilots, current on type – high engine power settings at low
speeds could make ‘your eyes water’ if not flown correctly since the rudder authority
at such low airspeeds is inadequate to prevent a torque roll. The skill required of the
pilot flying such high performance piston aircraft is only acquired through many hours
of practice, practice on the specific type, not a similar type unless the power-toweight and torque values are similar.
One of the problems facing vintage aircraft flying of course, is that the owners
invariably have sufficient finances to purchase such aircraft, but more as a hobby
than a professional occupation. Such owners may not necessarily be sufficiently
experienced or trained to handle the power and its associated roll/yaw moments in
the dynamic flight display arena in which low speeds are common. Any error in
judgement is amplified, further reducing the margin for error in this hostile
The accident that killed airshow pilot Carey Moore on 9 July 2001 when his
Hawker Sea Fury crashed while performing at the Sarnia International Airshow in
Sarnia, Canada, typifies the corner into which a display pilot, irrespective of
experience, can get into. Eyewitnesses reported seeing the aircraft in a steep turn
just before the aircraft pitched nose-down and hit the ground. The aircraft reportedly
entered an incipient spin after doing a climbing turn from a slow, low-level pass.
Other examples of this hazard, more particularly excessive nose-drop below the
horizon due to poor pilot technique or error of judgement are plentiful. In the case of
the early vintage aircraft at airshows, consider the A-20 Havoc at Biggin Hill (UK) in
1980, the Bf-108 ‘Taifun’ at Berlin in 1995, the P-38 Lightning at Duxford (UK) in
1996 and the AT-6 Harvard at Lafayette (USA), in 1996. In all reports, witnesses
described the final 180 degrees of the final roll as a ‘scoop’.
The aforementioned examples serve in a small way to illustrate the hazards
of low-level display flying. It is evident that to improve safety margins in an
environment that is intolerant of errors, the only way for the pilot to survive is through
continuous practice to overcome the deficiencies in judgement and anticipation that
make the human the weakest link in the display flying safety chain.
Even the most modern fighters are challenging to display safely, perhaps the
biggest challenge for pilots demonstrating the latest fourth generation fighters such
as Gripen, Eurofighter and F-22 is managing the excessive ‘thrust-to-weight’ ratios,
which in most cases, are in excess of 1:1. The relatively slow human response and
reaction time, coupled to the relatively low physiological tolerance of the human, is
incapable of fully utilising the potential performance of the aircraft. The pilot workload
now has to focus on managing not only the display sequence, but also the
‘staggering’ energy levels and consequent accelerations that are capable of being
generated about all three axes.
For example, at Farnborough 2000, after a take-off roll of only 750 metres,
Eurofighter was accelerating at 30 kts/second and at such a high T/W ratio, enabled
the aircraft enter straight into a loop from take-off with the fighter still accelerating
rapidly through the vertical. From the loop after take-off, the aircraft entered a slow
but tight 360º turn at 115 KIAS and exited at 180 KIAS straight into another rapid
acceleration loop. According to the BAE Systems test and demonstration pilot Keith
Hartley: “The major challenge is to control the airspeed while remaining within the
display box”. It helps that the aircraft is now ‘fuelled-up’ and not ‘fuelled down’ being
flown with 60% fuel load instead of the minimum fuel airshow weight”. Never before
in the history of aviation and particularly display flying, has the pilot had the luxury of
‘too much excess power’.
“The Eurofighter routine is easy to fly, the flight control system providing
carefree handling features that won’t let the pilot stall the aircraft or pull too much ‘g’
at varying angles of attack. But that makes speed management even more crucial to
remain within Eurofighter’s display area. For example, even while pulling 7g in a
360º turn steep turn, the aircraft is still accelerating with full aft stick”, Hartley said.
The airshow routine used by Eurofighter is designed to focus the demonstration on
its ability to accelerate, especially in the vertical and to manoeuvre in confined
volumes. The huge incremental step in aircraft performance has of necessity,
transformed the concept of energy management.
However, increased performance and agility is not only a feature of modern
fighters but is now also a design feature of modern sport aircraft. The Edge 540
utilizes a computer optimised steel tube fuselage with a number of unique features
that results in a stronger, lighter fuselage designed to absorb over 15 g’s of sustained
loading. The 327 HP engined Edge-540, at an aerobatic maximum gross weight of
1,550 lbs, also has the highest aerobatic power-to-weight ratio of any competition
aerobatic aircraft currently available and is also capable of generating roll rates
approaching 420º/second.
For the highly manoeuvrable high performance jet, however, the most critical
hazard arises not in the rolling plane, but in the vertical plane. Excessively low or
excessively high total energy levels at the top or approaching the bottom of vertical
manoeuvres can result in impact with the ground if the manoeuvre is continued and
not converted into an escape manoeuvre.
A more recent challenge to display pilots which contributes to the hazards of
display flying is the phenomenon called “G-LOC”, or g-induced loss of
consciousness; a direct spin-off of the increased aerodynamic agility induced through
modern design. Pilots and display pilots of earlier generations of fighter aircraft
would often experience ‘grey-outs’, ‘red-outs’ or even ‘blackouts’. This G-LOC
phenomenon is relatively new to flight physiology and, contrary to the mechanism of
‘blackout’ caused by high g values, has its origin in the ‘rate of g onset’, not maximum
g and poses a serious hazard to displaying highly agile aircraft.
Modern fighters have been designed with negative static margins making the
aircraft essentially unstable, their stability and control being achieved through
computers via fly-by-wire signals from the pilot. The stability system is “artificial” or
apparent and the fly-by-wire system implies that there is no direct mechanical
connection between the control stick and the control surfaces. The onboardcomputers interact with the electronic signals from the stick, offering automatic
levelling, smoother manoeuvres, higher agility, etc. Since the aircraft is essentially
unstable and needs the computer to even stay in the air. In modern fighters, agility
remains a critical survival criterion and design engineers have continuously tried to
maximize this capability. The agility of the latest generation of aircraft is thus
considerably increased over conventionally controlled aircraft but the problem is that
the human physiology has not yet been improved to match and keep pace with
modern flight control system designs.
Loss of consciousness occurs because as positive ‘g’ forces push down on
the pilot’s body, the G-force overcomes the ability of the heart to pump oxygenated
blood upward into the brain. Blood begins to pool in the lower extremities, while
blood circulation to the head is reduced. When blood circulation to the head is
sufficiently reduced, the oxygen supply to the brain is inadequate and loss-ofconsciousness occurs.
Early vintage aircraft were not capable of producing very high g-forces and
were limited to relatively slow onset rates through flight control systems designed to
prevent the pilot from overstressing the aircraft. Aircrew found that loss-ofconsciousness was preceded by a visual warning, a dimming or loss of peripheral
vision referred to as ‘tunnel vision’ or ‘grey-out.’ If the pilot ignored the visual
symptoms of impending ‘black-out’ and continued to pull high ‘g’, consciousness was
lost. Thus, pilots learned to fly up to the point when their vision began to dim, and
then unloaded the G-force on the aircraft before losing consciousness.
Today, however, aircraft can attain high g-forces at onset rates so rapid that
the pilot looses consciousness without passing through the ‘grey-out’ phase. The
supply of oxygen to the pilot’s brain can be stopped so abruptly that the pilot is
moved from a state of consciousness to unconsciousness without warning.
Secondly, due to the increased g-onset rates, the cardiovascular system has less
time to adjust to increasing g-force. Finally, current aircraft are capable of sustained
high-g manoeuvres up to 9g, which can far surpass the endurance of the pilot.
As soon as the g-forces are unloaded, oxygen can once more reach the brain
and consciousness returns, recovery, however, is not instantaneous. While
consciousness can return within about two seconds of off-loading the g-forces, the
control of body functions does not return immediately. There is a period of
incapacitation during which the pilot, although conscious, is unable to take effective
action. Only after this period has elapsed can the pilot begin to become situationally
aware and resume control of the aircraft. Within the geometry of the low altitude and
high speeds flown during display flying, there is almost no recovery time available to
prevent disaster.
G-LOC has been suspected as the primary contributor to several of the
airshow accidents, in particular the BAE Hawk 200 crash at Bratislava, Belgium in
1999 and also the two Northrop F-20 Tigersharks in South Korea (1984) and in
Newfoundland, Canada (1985). Northrop Corp.’s F-20A Tigershark prototype fighter
aircraft was flying a practice demonstration at the Goose Bay Airport, Labrador,
Newfoundland on 14 May 1985, in preparation for performances at the upcoming
Paris airshow. During the final aerobatic manoeuvre of the five-minute flight, the
aircraft deviated from the planned profile and entered a shallow wings-level descent.
The descent continued until the aircraft struck the ground, killing the pilot, David
Barnes. The Canadian Aviation Safety Board determined that the Northrop pilot
became incapacitated during or following the final high-g pull-up maneuver and did
not recover sufficiently to prevent the aircraft from striking the ground.
In another possible G-LOC case, a media report “ Blue Angels October ‘99
Crash Report” dated 11 February 2000, the Pensacola News Journal, Staff Writer
Scott Schonauer wrote that additional speculation had emerged regarding the
accident causal factors. “A prior rib injury may have momentarily impaired a Navy
Blue Angels pilot and caused the crash that killed him and another pilot last October.
An investigation determined three possible causes for the accident, but the rib injury
is ‘the most likely scenario,’ the Navy’s air training chief wrote in a report which found
that Lt. Cmdr. Kieron O’Connor’s injury might have made it difficult for him to tense
his abdominal muscles to avoid blacking out during a high ‘g’ turn; constricting the
abdominal muscles that keeps blood in the brain”.
In supporting the injury theory, Read Adm. Mike Bucchi rejected the
conclusion of the investigating officer who wrote that a bird strike or close pass likely
distracted O’Connor as he made a left hand turn. Bucchi also disagreed with a third
scenario, in which O’Connor may have been briefly distracted and inadvertently
allowed the aircraft to lose altitude. There was no evidence of a mechanical problem.
The report said O’Connor hurt his ribs six days before the accident during a
squadron game in which everyone drops to the ground from their chairs. He
accidentally landed on his side against Colling’s knee. The Navy refused to explain
why the pilots were playing the game and the report gave few details about it. Cmdr.
John Ottery, Blue Angels public affairs officer said: “the report speaks for itself” and
referred all questions to the chief of Naval Air Training. No administrative or punitive
action would be taken against anyone because of the accident.
Shortly after injuring himself, O’Connor notified the flight surgeon about pain.
Although X-rays found no broken ribs, O’Connor winced when pressure was applied
to the injured area. Several airshow pilots did not concur with the findings in the
report. It is difficult to accept that a pilot of O’Connor’s capabilities would pull himself
into a sleep without unloading the aircraft, hook or no hook. He knew how he felt and
he knew what happens at high radial ‘g’. It would have been completely out of
character for him to simply pitch the aircraft into a highly loaded turn, knowing full
well what the consequences could be.
Because O’Connor was flying as low as 400 feet above ground level, losing
his bearings for even a few seconds could lead to a crash, the report indicated.
Before flying, O’Connor told his commanders and colleagues that he had fully
recovered from the rib injury receive a week earlier. On the day of the crash,
O’Connor apparently violated Navy regulations by taking the over-the-counter
painkiller Ibuprofen, found in Advil and Motrin, without consulting the squadron’s
medical officer. “There are a great number of medications that are thought to be
harmless, and I would put aspirin and Motrin in that category,” said Capt. Fanancy
Anzalone, director of academics at the Naval Operational Medical Institute in
Pensacola. “What I would be concerned with is the reason they’re taking the
medication. The rule against self-medication is occasionally broken by pilots to treat
headaches or minor muscle pain with Ibuprofen”, Anzalone said, “but only if they are
certain that the injury will not affect performance”.
“The bigger issue is that if he had a problem in that area, he should have
stepped up to the plate and said, ‘I shouldn’t be doing this,’” said Lonny McClung, a
retired Navy captain and president of the Tailhook Association, a military-affiliated
group of Navy pilots. The ill-fated flight was O’Connor’s second that day in
preparation for an airshow at Moody Air Force Base near Valdosta, and he had
shown no problems with high-g aerobatics in the first flight. But if the painkiller began
to wear off during the second flight, it could have made the hook manoeuvre painful
and difficult to maintain. The technique requires taking a very deep breath, and
tightening all the muscles of the lower body. “You bear down like you’re trying to
have a real hard bowel movement,” Anzalone said. “Pilots learn how to control the
hook very well.”
Colleagues told investigators that O’Connor was a conservative pilot, and
said the risk associated with flying while injured would be out of character for the 35year-old. “O’Connor would not be the type to go flying if he was not well enough,”
testified Cmdr. Patrick Driscoll, commander of the Pensacola-based
Blue Angels .
“We don’t want to put other pilots at risk by pushing the limits,” he said.
The original report, written by Cmdr. Brian Toon, presented the blackout
theory, but suggested that O’Connor was more likely trying to avoid hitting a bird.
“While there is no evidence of a bird impact through the canopy, a close pass with a
large bird is likely,” Toon wrote. “This is the most likely scenario.” Most of the
eyewitnesses, including other pilots and ground crew, reported seeing large birds in
the area, but none saw one hit O’Connor’s Hornet. In a letter attached to the final
report, the admiral in charge of naval air training said the bird theory was “not
sufficiently substantiated by the findings of facts.
While the available information
does not conclusively point to a single cause for the mishap, the blackout theory is
the most likely scenario,” wrote Rear Adm. Toney Bucchi.
Squadron members disagreed in their testimony, evidenced by Lt. Cmdr.
David Silkey, a fellow Blue Angels pilot and O’Connor’s closest friend on the team. “I
know in my heart that mishap wasn’t caused by the ‘g’s,” Silkey said. O’Connor’s
father said the conclusions of the report were not important to the family. “Nothing
that’s in that report makes a bit of difference because it’s not going to bring him
back,” David O’Connor said. “I don’t think things will ever get back to normal for this
family.” (Matthew I. Pinzur, Morris News Service)
Military experience has concluded that an anti-G suit can provide about 1 g
additional protection and a properly performed straining manoeuvre can provide
about 2 g of protection. In combination, and without any further tolerance
enhancement, an experienced pilot could tolerate about 7.5g before beginning to
loose visual acuity. The factors that may affect the pilot’s ability to tolerate high g are
individual differences in physiological responses, physical fitness, dehydration
(lowers g tolerance), nutrition (missing meals reduces g tolerance), recency of g
exposure (tolerance declines rapidly if exposure to g is infrequent) and most illnesses
reduce g tolerance.
So, as the physical demands on the display pilot have increased enormously,
the increased performance and aircraft agility have induced a requirement from the
pilot for physical endurance to handle high g-loads, high g-onset rates, very
disorientating roll rates and high acceleration rates about all three axes. The
criticality of pilot anticipation, reaction and response times in the face of such high
performance, has added to the hazards facing the display pilot.
Besides the hazards posed by the close proximity of the ground that display
pilots must be aware of, there is the question of the pilot’s skills level, experience and
continuation training. Analysis of airshow accident reports indicates that the major
percentage of airshow accidents involve high time pilots, certainly in terms of total
flying hours and years in the cockpit, but not necessarily on type. Sadly, in many
cases, they are veterans of the airshow world having spent years practicing and
displaying aircraft. Airshow pilot Carey Moore was killed in the Hawker Sea Fury
crash while performing at the Sarnia International Airshow in Sarnia, Canada in July
2001; he reportedly entered an incipient spin after doing a climbing turn from a slow,
low-level pass. The aircraft dived from a low height of approximately 500 feet above
ground level, impacting at such a steep angle that the aircraft was nearly vertical,
according to the Transportation Safety Board. Moore’s aircraft had performed had
performed impressively during the previous month at the Hamilton airshow, said
veteran pilot Bill Randall.
Creating a crater more than a metre deep and two metres wide, investigators
concluded that the aircraft’s airspeed was at least 240 km/h at impact. Witnesses
said the aircraft banked over the farm, dropped and landed like a folded accordion on
the ground. Lloyd Blondin of Sarnia said the left wing on the aircraft was high as it
turned. “It just looked like it rolled over,” he said. “The last thing I saw was the blue
belly of the aircraft before it went down into the trees.” The only other evidence of
the crash beyond the wreckage, was a snapped hydro-line leading to the farmhouse.
The force of the impact was clear from the damage, most of the aircraft was
unrecognisable, however, the tail’s rudder was still intact, as was one of the five
propeller blades that stuck out of the ground. (Free Press Reporter & Special to The
Free Press Sarnia)
The pilot had a lot of time on T-28’s and similar category aircraft but
reportedly only had about 20 hours on the Sea Fury. The question that begged
asking was: “is 20 hours on type sufficient to be putting on a public display at lowlevel?” The pilot of the Kingcobra crash at Biggin Hill in 2001, according to the AAIB
accident investigation report, had flown it in displays on at least ten occasions since
1998 and was known to have enjoyed flying the aircraft. As a holder of an Airline
Transport Pilot’s Licence, the 43-year old pilot had a total of 7,730 flying hours of
which only 13 were on type. He had flown 143 hours during the last 90 days and 56
hours during the last 28 days and held a current Display Authorisation (DA) for a
Category C aircraft. The pilot of the F-86 Sabre that crashed at El Toro MCAS in
May 1993 pulling out of a loop reportedly had 47 hours on type; unfortunately the
percentage of the 47 hours actually flying low-level aerobatics was unknown.
The 69-year-old pilot of the De Havilland Venom that did an inadvertent
wheels-up at the Biggin Hill Airfair 2001, was highly experienced with a total of 5,574
hours of which 242 were on type but he had only flown 10 hours in the last 90 days
and 6 hours in the last 28-day period. Although the pilot had over 200 hours flying
experience on type, this was only his second flight on type in eight years and only his
second flight in this specific aircraft, G-GONE. Even the most experienced pilot in
the world is fully capable of doing an inadvertent wheels up, but using a pilot that has
flown only two flights on type in the last eight years at an airshow, even if it is only for
flypasts, raises several questions regarding display flying qualifications and
The official US Navy report on the QF-4S accident at the Pt Mugu airshow in
2002, assigned ‘Pilot Error’ as the primary cause and ruled out mechanical failure,
birdstrikes or faulty maintenance as causes of the crash. The report blamed the
pilot’s handling of the jet of the run-in break manoeuvre and the veteran pilot’s
relative inexperience with F-4 aircraft. Although the pilot, Cmdr Norman, had racked
up more than 3,300 hours of flying time in military jets during his sixteen-year career,
he had logged just seventy-nine hours flying the QF-4S, an experience level that was
considered “below average,” by the Board.
Investigators concluded that besides aggressive handling, the pilot did not
account for the increased weight of the aircraft, which was about 4,000 pounds more
than the aircraft was carrying during a practice run three days earlier. Although an
experienced aviator would normally allow for the different fuel condition and adjust as
needed to fly the aircraft, more awareness about the inexperience of the pilot with
regard to the heavy landing condition should have resulted in calls before the break
such as, “QF-4s, we’re heavy, watch the pull,” the report stated.
The investigation’s findings prompted Navy officials to increase minimum
experience criteria for pilots in Point Mugu’s QF-4 programme. Only pilots with a
minimum of 200 flight hours on F-4s of all types and 600 to 800 hours of tactical jet
experience such as flying in formation would in future be assigned to fly the QF-4S.
Under the new standards, Norman would not have been allowed to fly in the airshow.
To answer the earlier question therefore, there are definitely two distinct
groups of differing opinion offered, the one a 'qualified yes', the other, a definitive,
'no'! The real answer is, however, more complex. If the pilot was in the air force
flying a particular aircraft type, the military authorities would certainly not permit the
pilot to publicly display the aircraft with only twenty hours on type. Regulations exist
within the military that specifies the minimum requirements before a pilot may be
allowed to demonstrate the aircraft publicly at low-level. The regulatory control of air
force aircraft is definitely more rigidly enforced whereas private owners of aircraft and
non-legislative airshow bodies serve in a guidance capacity only, leaving the owners,
without the oversight of a ‘guardian angel’.
It is normal practice for a military pilot to first successfully complete a type
conversion then an operational conversion as an absolute minimum before being
considered for low-level aerobatic display flying. Thereafter it is the prerogative of
the Squadron commander to nominate a suitably experienced candidate for
consideration; this could imply that the candidate would have at least approximately
100 hours on type, be flying current on type and in low-level aerobatic displays. In
reality, the pilot would have had to work his way up through the hierarchy within the
squadron and would inevitably be a fairly senior member and probably with a few
hundred hours on type.
In theory, however, a highly experienced display pilot with similar type
airshow experience could display the aircraft in public at low-level. The secret here
however, is to understand the shortcomings in the particular pilot’s experience on
type and to design an airshow sequence that would display the aircraft to the public
without endangering the pilot or the spectators. More particularly, the sequence
would be designed to match the pilot’s experience. It would certainly not be ‘edge of
the envelope stuff’ but would provide the spectators with the opportunity to get a
‘taste of nostalgia’ or of whatever performance the aircraft was potentially capable of
What is evident is that departure type accidents of vintage warbirds have
certainly taken their toll. Some vintage high performance aircraft were, and are still,
the most ‘powerful propeller driven beasts’ yet designed, their engine output
exceeding 2,000 hp in many cases. Such aircraft are capable of generating
immense torque (power) values which when coupled with the marginal static stability
characteristics of some vintage designs, high wing loading and early generation
aerodynamics, produces an aircraft susceptible to departure with deceptive spin
characteristics. The bottom line is that even the most experienced pilots can get into
trouble with the aerodynamics and performance of the earlier vintage aircraft that
they entrust their lives with, especially if they have insufficient experience on type.
It is a fact that the aircraft of that era were not as forgiving as the more
modern designs, stall and departure warning characteristics were deceptive and not
easily distinguishable. Departure recognition was one of the most important survival
tools of that vintage of pilots. Although low-level display flying is a “seat of the pants”
type flying, the “energy gates” must still be passed through safely with the aircraft
fully under control. Pilots with experience gained in operating the aircraft to its limits
in combat, would have learnt to ‘feel’ the aircraft.
Within the analysis of 118 accidents covered in Chapter 3, a total of 24 Lossof-Control accidents contributed to approximately 20% of the airshow accidents. The
relatively high percentage of accidents of this type also highlights the requirement for
above average handling and flying capabilities by the display pilot, especially critical
in the realm of demonstration flying. Loss of control accidents included the Russian
Tu-144 steep pitch-up which consequently led to loss of control and catastrophic
structural failure at the 1973 Paris Airshow, the entry into a spin from a wingover by
the De Havilland Mosquito at an airshow at Barton, UK in 1996 and the departure
and spin of the P-63 Kingcobra at Biggin Hill Air Fair in 2001. Also included under
loss of control are the two Hawker Sea-Fury accidents, the first on the ground during
the landing roll-out where the pilot was killed when the aircraft flipped onto its back at
the EAA Sun ‘n Fun 1996 and the second, Casey Moore’s loss of control from a
climbing turn at Sarnia, Canada in 2001.
Casey Moore had relatively very little experience flying single-engine fighters
when he bought the Hawker Sea Fury that January. It was a gorgeous beast that he
put together, an aircraft that travelled faster than any other single engine fighter in
history. Moore had flown lighter trainer aircraft that are easier to manoeuvre and as
of the previous month, had flown the Sea Fury fifteen times. “It’s not an easy aircraft
to fly,” said Jim Harris of the Transportation Safety Board, which investigated the
Those who have flown similar fighters say the description of the Sarnia crash
by eyewitnesses left one likely conclusion, Moore made a mistake and stalled the
aircraft. In a light trainer aircraft, such mistakes can be corrected, but in a heavy
fighter, such an error, at low altitudes, is usually fatal. Pilots call it the manhole cover
syndrome - it’s so big and heavy, it falls like a manhole cover - stall below 3,000 feet
and you’re in a world of hurt.
The Washington Museum was able to buy the aircraft in 1998 after its owner,
Jack Rogers of Illinois, was killed as he piloted another fighter, Reynolds said. The
museum, faced with budget constraints, sold the Hawker Sea Fury since it was its
only fighter that was not American and it drew less interest from museum patrons.
The selling price was about $300,000, less than the typical cost of a Sea Fury
because it had an original engine for which it was difficult to find spare parts. The
death in a Hawker Sea Fury was the second in a two-month period. On 12 May
2001, a pilot was killed in the UK when his Sea Fury flipped while landing at an
airport north of London. (Jonathan Sher, and Allan Woods, Free Press Reporters)
Returning to the original argument, regarding display pilot experience and
continuation training, unfortunately vintage warbirds are not readily available for
modern day pilots to really get to know the aircraft as well as the actual wartime
pilots, yet feel obliged to operate the aircraft on the edge of the envelope and this is
possibly where the problem lies with not only flying vintage warbirds, but displaying
them in an aerobatic sequence without the pilot having the necessary experience.
In a discussion with an Inspector of Air Accidents with the AAIB in the UK
during 2002, he admitted that he had some fairly strong views on the way that display
flying had been regulated in the UK in recent years, although they were clearly not
those of the AAIB. “It seems to me we have forgotten some of the real basics with
regard to aviation in an area where the margins for error are necessarily reduced.
Currency is a major issue but we see individuals with precious few hours on type or
on solo display being given clearances to display down to, or even below, heights
that we see the professional teams”.
“Of course as soon as vintage types enter into the equation, there are
immediate difficulties balancing the preservation of fatigue life with pilots retaining
display currency. I also believe that there is an element of improvisation in some
display routines that I know in the past has led to difficulties. I think that any display
work-up should be a controlled graduated work up with carefully defined currency
requirements. I suspect that the CAA regulators would claim that their current
system does just that, but I have my doubts. Enough of these rantings!”
But there is more to pilot vulnerability than meets the eye and to this end it is
necessary to consider the philosophy of display flying training and try to correlate this
with display pilot decision-making. Highly experienced Boeing McDonnell Douglas F18 demonstration pilot, Ricardo Traven, has some profound and possibly
controversial views on display flying training. “It is my very strong impression that a
pilot’s critical thinking paths that have been programmed over a career of safe and
professional flight conduct, are altered by the manner in which pilot’s train for an
airshow. For example, throughout my career as a fighter pilot and test pilot, I have
needed to learn new manoeuvres and then demonstrate my ability to perform them
before moving on to the next level of learning. Airshow flying is very different in that
pilots practice a routine at a safe altitude then continue to fly the exact same routine
over and over again at lower altitudes until the final show altitude is reached.
However, even after the final altitude is reached, the same routine is practiced over
and over again in an attempt to achieve perfection. This constant practice and flying
the same routine results in a change in the way critical thinking occurs”.
“Allow me to explain. In the same way that a dog is trained to sit or to retrieve
an object, the training of a pet does not conclude on the first time that the desired
response is achieved, but continues over and over again until it becomes second
nature, the result of repetition. Consequently, the training for an airshow has, in my
opinion, many similarities with how one trains an animal. This raises a very
interesting concept regarding judgement that I wish to use an analogy. The family
pet will not normally run across a busy intersection, however, if a ball is thrown
across that same street and the dog is told to ‘fetch’, it would be expected that the
dog would run across the street with no regard for personal safety or truly
understanding the danger in the situation. I contend that a pilot’s ‘airshow
judgement’ can become distorted in the same way by the training. After training for a
specific task for weeks and months the expectation to perform on airshow-day is
similar to tossing the ball across a busy street. The desire by the airshow pilot to
perform, like the dog, is based on an eagerness to please. As a result, the same
pilot does not inherently view the situation with the same criticality as he or she would
when flying elsewhere or doing a different task not practiced ‘ad infinitum’. It has
been said of display pilots killed at airshows that they were so professional and so
mature that it seems impossible to think that they would have made such silly errors
in judgement on airshow-day”.
“Based on my own experience, I have tried to understand why a show pilot
will do something the same pilot would not do under different circumstances. I flew
an airshow in weather that I knew was below limits before take-off. After that event, I
concluded that I did not fly the show as a result of over-confidence or cockiness,
something I would readily admit to now. On the contrary, the motivation to fly was
based on a very strong desire to please - when the control tower said: “cleared takeoff” on that day, they might as well have said, “go-fetch”. My own judgement had
been compromised. Looking back I have become acutely aware that my motivation
to fly and my desire to please, that run very strong when preparing for an airshow,
directly conflict with my judgement to stop or discontinue a programme under
adverse conditions. Train like a dog and you will soon think like one!”
Traven’s theory certainly seems to hold good in several accidents in which
the display pilot’s behaviour was irrational, could not be adequately explained. All
these accidents in which the accident investigators cannot find a rational explanation
for the pilot’s decision – well, the ‘go-fetch’ syndrome could be applicable. Finally,
the actual flying of any aircraft is generally not that difficult, but the skills required to
demonstrate an aircraft optimally, is a special skill that not only requires experience,
but intensive training on the specific type and intensive training on the specific
routine, failure to recognise this fact will continue to result in many more accidents
Bearing in mind the very low probability of surviving a low altitude spin, the
question of spin training remains moot. For spin training to be effective, however,
realism is essential and it has to go far beyond a simple one-turn spin, it has to look
at the permutations of manoeuvres and handling scenarios that can lead up to the
spin and give pilots the confidence and skills to fly properly in those regimes. Is spin
training a waste of time? In the final analysis, no, not if it’s done correctly - but even
then, it still won’t protect a display pilot from extreme lapses of judgement. Once
again it is pilot judgement rather than stick and rudder skills that appears to be a
primary factor in the error chain.
The bottom line is that avoiding high angles of attack in manoeuvres close to
the ground is vitally important. Since 90% of spin accidents are caused by a
departure that occurs at too low an altitude for a safe spin recovery, it really becomes
a debatable point whether knowing how to perform a spin recovery, would make
much difference. Preventing the stall is therefore far more important in the typical
spin accident error chain. For aspirant display pilots, the question of spinning is often
approached with trepidation and the common question is: “What is the value and the
advantages of spin training for display pilots?” Well, the first bit of advice is
understanding that spin recovery is not some ‘black art’; it is not some mysterious
tryst that should be regarded with trepidation. Provided of course that a thorough
understanding of the theory exists and adequate practice is flown, the risks are
manageable. After all has been written to this point, it is logical that the aspirant
aerobatic display pilot must fly a thorough spin and stall programme BEFORE
commencing with aerobatics. But why?
An aerobatic pilot can certainly end up in a spin from just about any aerobatic
manoeuvre if it is ‘screwed-up’ badly enough and many novices are unsure about the
departure possibilities in an ‘overcooked’ manoeuvre. As an example, a common
concern is entering a spin, either erect or inverted, from a mishandled manoeuvre such
as a loop. However, if the pilot is flying coordinated at the top of a loop and the
aircraft stalls, well, just reducing the angle of attack by a slight reduction in elevator
pull force will prevent the aircraft from penetrating the lift boundary. Continuing to
let the aircraft fall-through without adverse yaw inputs from the rudder, aileron,
engine torque or any other form of sideslip, the aircraft should fall through under the
effect of gravity and accelerate out of the stall – the amount of height required for this
type of recovery pull out, would of course, be significant.
So, how susceptible is an aircraft to departure and spin? Disregarding engine
torque, for an aircraft to enter a spin, either erect or inverted, the aircraft must first
pass through the stall regime, depart and then enter the spin. The critical path for
successful spin recovery is the pilot’s early recognition of the characteristics but this
could be complicated by the inconsistency or lack of adequate warning of departure
in some aircraft. To enter a spin usually requires some form of aggressive input,
either through mishandling by the pilot or through engine torque.
In the worst-case scenario of a spin, the aircraft could even crossover from upright to
an inverted spin or if aileron and power are added during the spin, the aircraft could
even enter a flat spin. Departure and spin are, therefore, typically things that could
happen if the aircraft is ‘poked in the ear’ or grossly mishandled by the pilot. The
exact contribution of engine torque is an unknown variable, however, what is certain
is that the higher the engine torque, the higher the destabilizing pro-spin yawing
moments and slipstream effects.
While the display pilot might inadvertently stall or even spin if the vertical is really
manhandled by pulling way too hard on the backside of the loop, the stall and the
subsequent spin, will all likelihood be an erect spin. The only way to get into an
inverted spin would be to stall and depart from a negative angle of attack by pushing
forward on the stick or using engine torque or adverse aileron yaw to generate the
negative angles of attack through gyroscopic precession. There can be no inverted
spin without the aircraft first passing through an inverted stall and for that, a negative
angle of attack must be generated.
In Duane Cole’s books “Roll Around a Point” and “Conquest of Lines and
Symmetry”, he expressed the opinion that pilots rarely get into inverted spins,
although they think they did. An inverted spin implies a stall on the underside of the
wing, an ‘inverted stall’, not just an inverted attitude. (ie ‘inverted’ implying negative
G, not an inverted attitude) To prove this point, even if a snap roll is ‘bungled’ while
inverted at the top of a loop and the aircraft departs, it will still converge into an erect
spin, not an inverted one, as long as no forward stick pressure is applied to induce a
negative angle of attack. Some aircraft used for ‘soft’ aerobatics such as the Cessna
152 Aerobat, simply will not easily enter an inverted spin, the aircraft is too ‘noseheavy’ (insufficient pitch authority to drive the angle of attack negative) and just
doesn’t have enough rudder authority (insufficient rudder power to generate the
required pro-spin yawing moment). With the right combination of engine torque,
however, it is feasible to find the right combination of torque, rudder and aileron input
to produce an inverted spin, but not without good piloting skills.
Taking this principle one step further, and by way of example, consider the
‘avalanche’ - stall the aircraft by pulling hard while the aircraft is in an inverted
attitude and then enter a spin by giving full rudder. The aircraft will tumble a bit but
the aircraft will end up in an erect spin and recover in the usual way, even though the
aircraft entered the spin from an inverted attitude. Basically, in terms of spinning
options, the aircraft can enter a normal upright spin from an inverted attitude by
pulling back or conversely, enter an inverted spin from upright by pushing forward.
Although concern for the inverted spin is quite well founded amongst novices,
the real threats of entering an inverted spin from aerobatics will more than likely
originate from a poorly performed hammerhead (stall-turn), ‘tailslide’ or Immelman
(roll off the top), rather than the loop. These are possibly greater hazards to the
novice display pilot as they’re likely to underestimate the spin potential which is why it
is not a good idea to do any of these manoeuvres without some form of training in
erect and inverted spin recovery.
Not that an inverted spin is difficult to recover from, but even experienced
pilots have great difficulty in determining the inverted spin direction, especially on
entering an inadvertent inverted spin. In an erect spin, the roll and yaw are in the
same direction but in an inverted spin, the roll and yaw are in opposite directions and
to the pilot suddenly caught unawares by an inadvertent inverted spin, it is possible
for the inexperienced pilot to misinterpret the direction of the spin. If the pilot does
not know the direction of spin, kicking the correct anti-spin rudder is not possible – it’s
as simple as that.
Besides the physiological aspects of hanging from the seat straps, feet flailing
off the rudders from the negative ‘g’ or the pilot’s perception of the horizon, it is this
disorientation of spin direction that is the main challenge to the pilot. In an erect spin,
the aircraft is usually pitched nose-down at approximately 45º but in an inverted spin,
the nose is just below the horizon and the earth appears above the pilot and the sky
beneath – so the display pilot must understand the problem of spatial orientation.
By way of an example, consider the UK Air Accident Investigation Board
(AAIB) report of a spin accident in a Pitts S-1C during 1997 (AAIB Bulletin No: 8/97
Ref: EW/G97/04/03) which provides a real world example of the hazards. The highly
experienced (10,036 flying hours) competition pilot had completed two aerobatics
sequences in preparation for a forthcoming competition. The weather was excellent
at the pilot’s operating height between 2,500 feet to 4,000 feet above mean sea-level
The aerobatics sequence went as planned until the top of a stall turn. The
airspeed was slightly low as the pilot applied full left rudder in attempting to complete
the manoeuvre on a specific heading and he could remember advancing the throttle
slightly and applying full forward control column. Almost immediately, the aircraft
flicked into an inverted spin. The pilot was so surprised at the high rate of descent
that he could not recall his precise recovery actions. He could however, remember
that the throttle was fully retarded and that he brought the control column fully back
with the ailerons central.
With full left rudder still applied, the aircraft was not recovering and the pilot
thought that he may then have relaxed the rudder application or even applied some
right rudder; he did not check the turn direction from the ‘Turn and Slip’ indicator.
However, he noted the altimeter indicating 2,000 feet amsl and as this was his selfbriefed abandonment height, he immediately went for his harness release and bailed
out of the aircraft. He was aware of being thrown forcibly out of the cockpit as he
released his harness and the parachute descent was uneventful, the pilot landed a
few hundred yards from where the Pitts had crashed.
The pilot had made weight and balance calculations prior to flight and
subsequent to the accident, he rechecked the figures and confirmed that the weight
and centre of gravity of the aircraft were within the correct limits. He also stated that
the aircraft had been fully serviceable during the flight and acknowledged that it was
a mishandled stall turn that caused the loss of control. With the short time between
this loss of control and his decision to bail-out, the pilot was not certain of his
recovery actions; he considered that he may have used some incorrect actions. He
had reasonable experience in aerobatics and had completed training in both upright
and inverted spinning but was surprised at just how quickly the aircraft entered the
spin and the extent of his disorientation. He did however acknowledge the value of
his habit of wearing a parachute during aerobatics flights and of his pre-planned
abandonment height.
So what is it that makes the vertical manoeuvres susceptible to inverted
spins? It is necessary to consider the dynamics remembering that for an inverted
spin to occur, the aircraft must first reach the negative stalling angle of attack before
it can enter the inverted spin and then of course, as in the erect spin case, pro-spin
sideslip must be generated. Pulling up into the vertical for the hammerhead stall, the
attitude is very near to the vertical as it is required to be for the stall turn and the pilot
is required to keep the forward stick pressure to prevent the aircraft from coming over
on its back – if the push force is excessive, negative angles of attack can easily be
The application of full rudder to get the nose to yaw in the direction of the
stall-turn also causes the ‘outer wing to lift’ which in turn requires the pilot to hold off
the outside wing with aileron or else the aircraft does not pivot about the normal axis
at its apex as it should in the stall turn. Instead, it falls over onto its back – not a
pretty sight for the connoisseur, flying, or watching. The control dynamics in this
posture are therefore, slight forward stick introducing a negative angle of attack,
rudder yawing the aircraft about an imaginary point and the opposite aileron keeping
the aircraft from coming over on its back. These control positions can provide the
necessary aerodynamic moments to generate the negative angle of attack and
sideslip to drive the motion to departure and consequent inverted spin.
The ‘tailslide’ in particular, by its very nature and definition in which ‘the
aircraft stalls going straight up and the falls straight back flipping top side down to a
vertical down line, is another manoeuvre increasing the susceptibility to inverted
spins. When not performed correctly, this trajectory can generate high values of
negative angle of attack as the aircraft whips downwards through the bottom of the
hammerhead. It is during the ‘flip-over’ itself, when the nose whips through, that
large values of negative angle of attack can be generated. The application of any
rudder, aileron or engine torque can provide the necessary pro-spin yawing moments
required to drive the inverted spin.
Similar control position dynamics exist for the Immelman. Coming up over
the top of the half-loop, the pilot is required to apply forward stick to check the nose
on the horizon before doing the aileron half-roll to erect. Because of the relatively
low aerodynamic power of the rudder and aileron usually existing at the low speed on
top of the loop, co-ordinated, relatively large applications of rudder and aileron are
required in the direction of the roll. Now, in this particular manoeuvre, contrary to the
hammerhead stall and the tailslide, the engine will not be throttled back and can be
generating high torque values, so the destabilising torque and also the slipstream
contribution will be high and mishandled or uncoordinated control response, could
lead to an inverted spin.
Considering the foregoing discussion, one really important point though,
occasionally pilots intentionally spin non-spin approved aircraft and because they’re
able to recover, they conclude that the aircraft is really safe to spin after all. Some
pilots incorrectly suggest that spin restrictions are based only on liability issues and
come from the manufacturer’s lawyers! NEVER spin an aircraft not approved for
The fact that it can be done and the ‘spin’ recovered from, is a trap. That one
turn ‘spin’ is really not a spin at all, but only an incipient spin, which is really only an
aggravated stall. The real spin develops as a progression of the incipient phase, the
dynamics of which are very different from the incipient spin. Many non-approved
aircraft can quickly enter a flat spin mode after the first or second turn and that spin
could be non-recoverable!
Spins involve an aerodynamic region that features angles of attack
occasionally exceeding 45º and even the best computational fluid dynamic analyses
have a hard time accurately modelling such extraordinary angles of attack. In the
case of an experimental aircraft, there is no assurance that a homebuilt can recover
from an incipient spin. The variables involved in spin recovery are complex, including
tail size, blanking of the empennage surfaces at high angles of attack, propeller
slipstream effects and aircraft weight distribution. There is no assurance that the socalled standard spin recovery technique will work on any given experimental. Older
generation tail-draggers like the J-3 Cub, Taylorcraft, PA-18’s, etc readily spin, and
most do not have stall-warning devices.
Normal Category single-engine aircraft and Utility Category aircraft that are
placarded against intentional spins have usually only demonstrated recovery from a
one turn incipient, and that test is done only to check the aircraft’s controllability
during aggravated stalls, nothing more. Beyond that, all bets are off since there are
no guarantees on what the aircraft will do in that regime. The placarding in some
instances is there to indicate that the aircraft will not spontaneously recover from a
spin, but in other aircraft, it may indicate that a spin cannot be recovered at all, or in
some cases, it is non-recoverable after a certain number of revolutions.
When an aircraft is certified as “spins prohibited” it simply means that the
manufacturer did not demonstrate to the FAA or any other certification authority, the
necessary items required to certify it for spins. Pilots are left to their own in trying to
guess why the manufacturer did not seek spin approval. Many times it may be
because its too hazardous, other times it may be the complexity of the approval
process, other times it may be a liability issue and other times the costs of the test
programme, especially on the smaller general aviation types. If an aircraft is “not
approved for spinning”, then it goes without saying that aerobatics should not be
performed in that aircraft. The bottom line is that if any aspirant display pilot is going
to enter an aerobatics training regimen, a stall and erect spin programme is essential
while an inverted spin programme is considered highly desirable, if not in practice,
than at least in the theory.
So, what does an aspirant display pilot need in terms of a spin training
programme? Well, to start with, preferably a spin endorsement prior to performing
solo spinning or aerobatics while inverted spinning is the subject of a separate
endorsement. The ground school should cover the basic theory of spinning,
instrument indications, aircraft limitations and specific spin characteristics of the
aircraft type used for training. This ground school syllabus should include the effect
of loading and control actions, explanations of different spin and recovery
characteristics for different types of spins and competition spins.
The basic spin flight course should include a revision of stalls and incipient
spins, spiral dive recovery, spinning with recovery technique per Flight Manual of the
aircraft used in training and recoveries from unintentional spins. Of course, there is
more to spinning than a basic course – each pilot’s own training programme will
depend on the specific individual’s objectives and the type of aircraft. FAA Advisory
Circular AC No: 61-67B explains the stall and spin awareness training required under
Part 61 of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) and offers guidance to flight
instructors who provide that training.
Since the early days of flying, both stalling and spinning have been significant
causes of display accidents and an economic design solution to the problem of
spinning has not yet been found. There’s always been a lot of hype about spin
training but it’s difficult to get too enthusiastic for spin training reading the accident
narratives involving accomplished aerobatic pilots who fell into the spin trap. There
are, however, many proactive decisions that display pilots can make that will
substantially lower their chances of a spin accident - an intimate knowledge of
specific aircraft’s departure characteristics, good judgement, common sense and
discipline - something a pilot cannot buy or be taught. Improving pilot judgement and
basic airmanship would go a long way in complementing spin training programmes
thereby making inadvertent spin accidents far fewer.
The three pillars of the display pilot’s survival structure are skill, judgement
and decision-making. For the unsuspecting display pilot in the hostile environment of
the display arena, there are many threats lurking; mostly well disguised; it takes a
well-disciplined display pilot to recognise and then to counter such threats. Typical
examples are distraction, whether it be in the form of cockpit workload or
ergonomics, administrative overload caused by having ‘too many fingers in the show
organisation pie’ or even ejection decision making, the threats are ever present in
their various disguises. The display pilot must know that they exist and be able to
recognise them.
Particularly important is for the display pilot to be aware of personal
shortcomings and that no matter how good a pilot is or how much practice has taken
place, the pilot is only human and human error is the highest risk factor in general
aviation but specifically display flying. And then there is Man’s dubious ability to
make decisions under life-threatening conditions which can best be typified by
considering the ejection decision. But what about Man’s other survival tool –
judgement, our supposed judicious, rational, wise decision making capabilities?
Based on an analysis of the random sample of 118 airshow accidents in Chapter 3, it
is clear that Man’s staggering 78% contribution to airshow accidents makes him the
weakest link in the safety chain. Considering the hostile environment of the low-level
display arena and the human’s physiological shortcomings, not surprising. How alert
is Man to the various threats to display flying survival?
Man’s weaknesses are accentuated in the categories of accidents
represented by the cumulative total of Flight-Into-Terrain (32%), Mid-Air Collisions
(25%), Loss-of-Control (19%) and Wheels-Up-Landings (3%). It can be concluded
that some of the main ‘killers’ of the display pilot are lack of concentration,
overconfidence and lack of current practice. There are, however, several additional
factors that can bring a display to a prematurely disastrous end such as distractions
during the demonstration, the mental and physical fitness of the pilot, loss of spatial
awareness, the use of the pressure altimeter and in the more modern aircraft, the
use of the Heads-Up Display (HUD). The display pilot must be mentally and
physically prepared for all manner of distractions during the display routine,
especially at critical periods, be it an unexpected reduction or increase in display time
or any other distraction, an insect in the cockpit, a system going off-line, an intruding
aircraft in the display area or an ambiguous radio message.
One possible explanation for the display pilot’s inability to make continuous
rational decisions under duress, may relate to the way the human brain processes
information. The right hemisphere of the brain processes logic and analytical
thought, and the left, the emotions. Right hemisphere, intense concentration during a
demanding routine is relatively easy for the well-practiced display pilot under calm
unstressed conditions in which collected and structured thought patterns prevail.
However, when emotions are aroused, judgement is clouded. Such emotional
arousal typically originates from fear, panic, distraction, mechanical failure or even
physical pain.
Considering the Aeroflot Tupolev TU-144 crash at the Paris Airshow in March
1973, the official cause of the accident was reportedly that after a very steep climb,
the aircraft was observed to level off very abruptly and then begin a dive. It is
interesting to note that conspiracy theories speculated that the pilot, possibly startled
by a close encounter with a Mirage III photographing the TU-144, overreacted
causing a compressor stall. The aircraft then went into a dive and broke apart after
the aircraft’s design load-limit was exceeded.
What it boils down to is that when the display pilot operates mainly using one
hemisphere of the brain at a time, there is no problem. But, operating on both
hemispheres simultaneously seems to create the neurological equivalent of a ‘mag
drop’ and information processing is adversely affected with a resulting error in
judgement. This analogy is applicable at all levels requiring high performance from
the human being and is particularly evident amongst sportsmen and it is really only
the world champions that are able to rise above such pressures, but even then, not
always. Tiger Woods (golfer), John McEnroe (tennis) hardly ever allowed their
emotions to influence their performance. A possibly contentious method to reduce
airshow risk would be to limit the age group of display pilots to the lowest risk
category, screening out all but the highest time pilots for whom such activities would
be ‘old hat’. This would however, only be feasible in an ideal world, which it is not of
course – and as has been seen, experience is no guarantee of avoiding a low-level
manoeuvring accident, the variables remain complex.
The weekend of 1 to 4 June
2002 was a particularly ‘black week’
for display flying in the UK. With all
the adverse publicity generated by
the fatal accidents at the airshows,
little media attention was paid to the
third accident of the de Havilland
collection on show that day, the
Venom’s wheels-up landing. On
The arrival of the Venom at Biggin Hill
arrival at Biggin Hill in the early
Airshow required an extensive effort by the
morning, the three-ship Vixen,
crash and rescue services to clear the
Vampire and Venom formation on
active runway of the obstruction to enable
initial broke overhead the airfield to
to the show to continue.(AAIB)
join downwind to land. The Vixen
and Vampire landed without incident but the Venom did an inadvertent wheels-up
landing, blocking the active runway for the next three hours as the rescue services
worked to remove the obstruction from the runway.
Wheels-up landings will always remain a threat to aircraft operations and the
pilot’s ego, even more so for the display pilot who does the wheels-up landing in full
view of the spectators. The wheels-up landing by one of the SU-27 Russian Knights
aerobatic team in full view of thousands of spectators at SIAD 97, Bratislava in
Slovakia and the SAAF C-160 Transall during a short-field landing demonstration
practice at AFB Waterkloof in 1983, serve as a small reminder of the fallibility of the
pilot in the safety loop.
Also at the Paris Airshow in 1981 two C-160D Transall’s dropped parachutists
and then carried out a two-ship display. At the end of the display, the first aircraft
landed followed by the other. The latter, bearing German colours of MBB, attempted
to execute a shorter landing with a tighter approach. In the rush, the landing gear
was apparently lowered but not locked. The undercarriage obviously retracted on
touchdown and the aircraft carried out a belly landing. The aircraft suffered only
minor damage and the crew, safe and sound, continued by having an argument on
the edge of the runway. The pressure on the display pilot during a demonstration
flight is higher than for normal flying; the pilot cannot afford to relax concentration
until, as the old hands say; “the paper work is signed off”.
In most cases, landing without undercarriage should not result in fatalities,
provided the aircraft patch is straight down the runway and that there is sufficient
runway length available. There are however other insidious killers stalking the
display pilot; traps that pilots can get suckered into by ignoring standard operating
procedures and aircraft limitations imposed by the Manufacturer. Just one such case
occurred on 30 May 1988 at the Coventry airport Air Pageant. The sequence flown
by a vintage jet fighter, a Meteor T7, followed the normal sequence for about three
minutes until a wingover to the right which was intended to bring the aircraft back
along the display line with undercarriage and flaps extended. However, although the
manoeuvres up to this point seemed normal, the Meteor had been flown throughout
the sequence with the airbrake extended, contrary to recommended practice.
As the pilot commenced the wingover, flaps were at about a quarter and
airbrakes were extended. The undercarriage appeared to lower normally as the
Meteor climbed to the apex of the wingover to the right. As the aircraft began the
descending turn back to the airfield, the roll rate appeared faster than on previous
occasions, the bank increased to 45º and the nose dropped. The aircraft turned
rapidly through 90 deg to the right and settled into a wings level 45º dive. Shortly
before impact, a roll to the right developed and the aircraft continued down as is
crashed into an area of open ground close to the airfield. The Meteor was not fitted
with ejection seats and there was insufficient height or time for a successful
abandonment. The pilot died instantaneously on impact.
Video recording and photographs of the Meteor showed that most of the
display had been flown with the airbrakes extended and examination of the wreckage
confirmed that the airbrakes were extended on impact. The Meteor T7 Pilot’s Notes
include the following caution: “If the aircraft is yawed at an airspeed below 170 kts
with the airbrakes extended, the nose may drop suddenly and the elevators become
ineffective until the yaw is removed or the airbrakes retracted. The tendency is
aggravated if the ventral tank is fitted. Airbrakes should not be used at airspeeds
below 170 kts at circuit height and should be in before the undercarriage is lowered”.
This phenomenon, colloquially known as ‘Phantom Dive’ was due to the
airflow disturbance at high angle of attack caused by turbulence from the airbrakes
and such effects would be amplified in the presence of sideslip. Because of the
increased size of the nose and canopy, the directional stability of the two seater
Meteor was degraded, especially when the nosewheel was extended and a ventral
tank carried. Any sideslip at conditions of marginal directional stability would
increase this effect and result in loss of elevator and rudder effectiveness and a
nose-down pitching moment. When the Meteor T7 began to roll right into its final
dive, the aircraft was at its lowest speed in the display, probably around 150 kts and
had its undercarriage down with the airbrakes extended. The investigation
considered that all of the criteria required for a ‘Phantom Dive’ were present and that
the aircraft entered an uncommanded dive due to airbrake extension at low speed.
(David Oliver)
Then there are also several recorded cases in which examples of display pilot
‘administration overload’ was found to be a contributory cause to display accidents.
In the case of the SAAF Museum’s Spitfire crash at Zwartkops Air Base (South
Africa) in 2000, the Officer Commanding the Museum’s tasks included Airshow
Director (with a brand new safety officer), display pilot and the Airshow Co-ordinator
for all the aspects pertaining to the airshow; he was also the VIP host. To quote the
pilot: “my mind was not where it should have been in the days leading up to the
airshow. The external pressure from the funeral arrangements, sudden changes in
crew allocation and the cancellation of my solo display practice put far too much
unnecessary pressure on me. There were a number of key point decisions that were
made by others and myself that could have prevented the accident”.
In another case in New Zealand, the Air Force Court of Inquiry found that
there were no technical or mechanical problems with the Skyhawk that killed
Squadron Leader Murray Neilson, aged 37, Commanding Officer No 2 Squadron,
RNZAF. It furthermore concluded that Squadron Leader Neilson was suffering from
chronic fatigue and was distracted in flight, leading him to perform a barrel roll from
too low a height. In mitigation, it also found that he was trying to do too much with
too few resources at squadron level – sound familiar?
The pilot killed in the P-38 crash at the Duxford ‘Flying Legends’ airshow in
1996 was also the Airshow Display Co-ordinator responsible for the planning of the
display items and the choreography of the show finale, which also involved leading a
mass flypast of some forty historic aircraft. He gave the daily display briefing to the
participating pilots and undertook some in-show re-planning on the Sunday afternoon
when the planned show sequence was interrupted by the arrival of a significant
display item almost an hour ahead of the planned schedule. This undoubtedly added
to the pilot’s workload for the afternoon. Shortly after this, the pilot participated in the
show in the lead aircraft of a pair of DH89A Dragon Rapides. After landing from this,
there was then some twelve minutes before he then taxied out in the P-38 for the
start of that display item. When is ‘administration overload’ a threat to the display
pilot? How does the display pilot recognise that the focus has been diverted from the
display task to ‘life-threatening trivia’? When does the display pilot “knock it off”?
How many display pilots, recognizing the existence of ‘trivia overload’ even have the
‘guts’ to inform show organisers of the overload threat? Not many!
Further evidence of the vulnerability of the display pilot comes with the
ejection decision. In truth, at such low heights above ground level, display pilots are
like a loaded gun, adrenaline maintaining all senses acutely armed, knowing that at
such low-level, if anything goes wrong, particularly a collision, the natural response is
to eject. There is no time for considered decision making, it’s a clear-cut, preplanned, GO/NO GO decision that a pilot must make. In fact, the decision is already
made before take-off since any hesitation, even the slightest few milliseconds, could
mean the difference between life and death.
One of the strongest emotions in a pilot is the fear of failure, the fear of failing
a ‘peer review’. Peer pressure amongst pilots is certainly unique, especially
considering the ‘supposed’ maturity of pilots – there is a continuous, subconscious
comparison of performance between pilots whether it be in aerobatics, landings, or
any aspect of flying; this is a reality amongst the flying fraternity. No pilot wants to
fail; no pilot wants to be involved in an incident or accident in which the term ‘human
error’ is used to apportion blame, but the pilot’s ego remains a formidable threat to
his own survival – it’s a pilot’s thing that non-pilots may not understand.
But it is also the pilot’s worst enemy, pilots may associate ejection with failure
and as a result, tend to ‘stay too long’ in impending catastrophic conditions, trying to
resolve the problem they got themselves into. Besides the fear of dying, there is a
strong tendency among pilots to hang onto a disastrous situation, a situation in which
the aircraft is beyond recovery with the pilot holding on in the self-belief that the
situation can be saved. It is one of the overriding contributory factors to pilot’s
avoiding or delaying the ejection decision.
Never was the understandable fickleness of the airshow spectator, in fact of
most of the human race, so exposed as during the in the world’s worst airshow
disaster when the Ukrainian Air Force’s Su-27 ploughed into the crowds along the
show-line. Heading straight at the spectator enclosures, both aircrew stayed with the
aircraft right up until initial impact before ejecting, both surviving with fractured
vertebrae. Several commentators, angry at the carnage caused by the accident,
questioned the pilot’s decision to eject, implying instead that the aircrew did not
deserve to get out of the aircraft alive but this crazy emotional outburst cannot be
condoned since it is an extremely negative response. What point is there in adding
another two fatalities to the tragedy? Unless one has personally flown display flights,
one will not fully comprehend that in this case, the pilots would have been fighting to
save the aircraft all the way down. However, irrespective of the events leading up to
the crash, there comes a ‘point of no return’ and the secret to survival remains to
know where that point is – get it wrong and you’re dead. In most cases, the human’s
ability to make such decisions leaves much to be desired, hence the large
percentage of pilots that have died trying to save the aircraft or supposedly trying to
prevent the aircraft from crashing into built-up areas.
One of the most difficult and controversial decisions facing the pilot prior to
making the ejection decision is also somewhat of an emotional dilemma. The case of
the pilot delaying the ejection decision while trying to steer the aircraft away from the
spectators or public property, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the pilot
delaying the ejection decision, looses valuable milliseconds to possibly, and then
only possibly, save the lives of the spectators or public property while on the other
hand, the pilot puts his own life in jeopardy – a questionable decision. However, a
proper understanding of the physics of momentum could lead the pilot to selecting a
completely different course of action.
The split seconds fighting the aircraft to steer it away from the crowd or
private property, may not even achieve the aim of steering the aircraft way from the
crowd and in the process jeopardise the possibility of survival for all parties – a lose,
lose situation. Despite the emotive issues, each pilot will ultimately take the decision
based on the prevailing circumstances, which in most cases, will see the pilot firstly
fighting for his own survival – it is just like that, that is the way the human is designed
and programmed. In most cases, only once the pilot has reached a stage in which
he has satisfied his own requirement for survival, will he then try to steer the aircraft
into a safe area.
In a media interview, Vladimir Toponar the pilot of the Ukrainian Su-27,
openly admitted that he had struggled all the way down attempting to regain control
of the aircraft. If he did not have control of the aircraft, which he did not, he would not
have been able to steer the aircraft away. Only once he had the aircraft under
control would he have been able to shift the focus to avoiding the spectator
enclosure. In this case, however, the aircraft was on the ragged edge of a highspeed stall, there was no aerodynamic potential available to overcome the aircraft’s
momentum and enable him to steer away from the spectators. The decision to eject
was, under the conditions of impending catastrophe, the correct one.
The human’s instinct for survival is a very strong emotion that controls
behaviour and response, it is not something the human actually has control of, this so
called ‘survival instinct’. Until one has personally experienced this emotion, it is
difficult to comprehend – there are many examples of airshow crashes in which the
media reports stated that the pilot tried to steer the aircraft away from the crowds, but
this is mere journalistic speculation in most cases.
A case in question is the MiG-29 crash at 1989 Paris Airshow when an engine
failed during a very vulnerable point in the sequence. Although there was
speculation afterwards that the pilot had skilfully pointed the aircraft at the ‘infield’
after the failure, this was questionable. The MiG-29 was performing a ‘high alpha
pass’, a slow airspeed pass when it suffered a previously unencountered type of
engine stall. At that slow speed with one afterburner lit at that altitude, the inevitable
occurred, an uncontrolled yaw/roll moment caused by asymmetric thrust (rolling and
yawing into the dead engine), rolled the aircraft away from the spectators.
Yeager’s autobiography states unequivocally that 99.9% of the time the pilot
has only one concern on his mind, and that is to save his butt. “In an emergency
situation, a pilot thinks only about one thing, survival. You battle to survive right
down to the ground; you think about nothing else. Your concentration is riveted on
what to try next. You don’t say anything on the radio, and you aren’t even aware a
schoolyard exists. That’s exactly how it is!” (“Yeager”; 1985 Bantam Books, page
119} For the pilot flying an ejection seat equipped aircraft, the decision to eject is
available and provides the pilot with an option for survival provided the decisionmaking capability is not jeopardised. But, in an aircraft without an ejection seat and
below the minimum bailout attitude, the pilot is forced to remain with the aircraft. The
amount of control and steering options available to the pilot obviously being a
function of the aircraft’s residual total energy level.
Quite understandably, there is also a difference between ejection survival
rates in operational service and those of airshows. The airshow arena, believe it or
not, is in most cases, more critical than the operational arena in terms of ejection
seat envelope limitations. This is borne out by the worldwide average of 82%
successful ejections in military in-Service flying versus the sample analysis of 69%.
The question that arises is: “Why is the ejection rate at airshows lower than under
operational conditions”. Since no official statistical analysis exists for airshow
accident ejections, it is intuitive to consider operational air forces statistics for
comparative purposes, which also reveal that one in five ejections (20%) is a delayed
Accident analyses have concluded that the majority of the ejection fatalities
were not due to mechanical malfunctions of the seat, but rather to delayed ejection
decisions. If the assumption is made that every aircrew member who decided to
eject was trying to save his or her life, another question arises: Why did one out of
every five crewmembers wait too long? Since out of envelope ejections usually
result in fatalities, accident investigation boards can only speculate as to what the
deceased pilots perceived during the last few seconds of their lives.
Further consideration of the question in Chapter 3 as to why only 36% of the
display aircrew who had the opportunity to eject, did, and why the remaining 64%, did
not, is necessary. Why the significantly large disparity of 36:64 between ejecting and
not ejecting? As noted earlier, the answer most certainly lies in the dynamics of high
closure rates versus the human’s questionable decision-making and relatively slow
reaction times which contribute strongly to this phenomenon, but is there more?
The single major explanation that has emerged is attributable to ‘loss of
situational awareness’, a general term that can partially explain what happened, but
not why. So, why do so many professionally trained pilots lose situational awareness
in critical emergencies? To understand at least part of the pilot’s behaviour, it is
necessary to understand the display pilot’s response under high stress, particularly
stress brought on by impending catastrophe or death. This should not be confused
with the long term work or domestic related stress that is usually associated with high
blood pressure, ulcers, and heart-attacks, but rather the involuntary alarm or panic
reaction to conditions of immediate acute stress. Stress typically associated with the
realisation that the aircraft is out of control and that there is insufficient height to
achieve a recovery pull-out or control the excessive nose-drop during a low-level
aileron roll.
When the brain perceives the threat, it reacts by exciting the hypothalamus,
which in turn, stimulates the pituitary glands to inject Adrenocortiotrophic Hormone
(ACTH) into the blood. ACTH immediately signals adrenaline to secrete two
substances, cortisone and adrenalin. Cortisone’s effects are generally of a long-term
nature while adrenalin has immediate effects. The emergency discharge of the
stimulant adrenalin increases the pulse rate, the blood pressure and perspiration,
while the sugar levels of the blood are raised to provide additional energy. A tiny
muscle in the ear, the tympanic tensor, tightens the eardrum to increase the ability to
hear, muscles tighten in preparation for immediate use, physical strength is
increased, and the threshold of pain is raised. The body is now prepared to fight for
The discharge of hormones also triggers the entire nervous system which becomes
alarmed in preparation for survival. One interesting effect of this remarkable defence
mechanism is the little discussed phenomenon of temporal distortion , a temporary
false perception that changes the apparent passage of time. In other words,
temporal distortion is the apparent slowing down of the rate of the passage of time
and occurs under conditions of acute stress. When a pilot experiences a temporal
distortion, time sometimes seems to expand and events appear to happen in slow
motion. It seems that the brain instantly becomes intensely alert, increases its
efficiency and begins to process information at an accelerated rate and, to the pilot,
time effectively appears to slow down.
According to physiologists, the increase and sudden burst of adrenaline, blood sugar,
cholesterol and cortisone into the blood allows the brain to operate at a rate of 14
to17 bits of information per second, while normal ‘thinking ‘ is carried out at only 7 to
9 bits per second. Because of the heightened awareness, the brain already operates
at a faster rate. The display pilot may not be aware of this at the time, but during the
recall of the event, he/she states that things slowed down. In essence, this is the
same process used in making a slow motion scene in a movie. The actual event is
filmed at a higher rate of frames per second and then shown at the normal rate. The
effect is a slow motion scene.
During a traumatic event where the body prepares itself for survival, the same
process occurs. In the recall of the event, most individuals having experienced a
traumatic event, will state that during the event, things seemed to slow down. The
heightened awareness factor and slowing down of events, will only occur if the
individual is not over-stressed at the time. If the individual is stressed and is already
operating at the heightened level through the increasing stress level, there is no
further increased information processing since the mind is already starting to close
down as a defence against an overload of information – it is this state in which the
pilot does not seem to react as his capacity to process shuts down. This is merely
the body’s defence mechanism in aiding an individual to deal with the emergency
flight situation. The process is not false or a perception, but does occur in reality.
Unfortunately, this survival characteristic, which has proved to be so successful in
our natural environment, may be the principal cause of delayed decisions, not only in
manoeuvring aircraft out of dangerous positions and attitudes, but also making
ejection decisions. Pilot’s will have been lulled into a false sense of security since
this phenomenon is anxiety reducing and the sense of urgency is lost because
everything seems to occur in slow motion. The pilot’s sense of fear seems to be
damped, leading to the pilot believing that the problem can be rectified, that he has
the skills required to solve the impending catastrophe.
A USAF survey into temporal distortion found that 86% of aircrew ejectees
had experienced the phenomenon during accident sequences.
80% of the
respondents reported a slowing down of time while the remaining 20% reported an
acceleration in the passage of time. Interestingly, those who reported a slowing
down, estimated that the perceived changes ranged from 2:1 to 5:1, a change of 2:1
being the most common.
To overcome the effects of temporal distortion it is obviously necessary for
the pilot to understand the existence of the phenomenon and be able to recognise it.
This phenomenon is particularly insidious because the sense of urgency is lost and
although understanding the phenomenon is one thing, actually making the ejection
decision is not. It is imperative that in the airshow sequence planning, besides the
‘energy gates’, the ejection decision must be made and pre-planned on the ground.
A set of criteria must be established for each manoeuvre that defines the boundary of
GO/NO GO, to continue or to eject.
There is no time during a low-level display to go into a decision making loop
to decide whether to eject or not, to hold on just a few milliseconds to see if the
situation doesn’t improve. It is during this decision-making process that the aircraft is
covering valuable airspace on a collision course with the earth. The pilot cannot and
must not wait until faced with the ‘last ditch’ decision. The course of action must be
well planned in advance, during training; there must be no surprises in the low-level
display environment. It’s a lot easier and faster to simply execute a well thought out
decision rather than to have to make a plan and then execute it under acute stress.
Accident investigations should be completed independently by specialists,
emotionally uninvolved in the conclusions that are reached. Accident investigations
should not be subjected to change by immediate seniors holding agendas that are
not in the best interests in aviation safety, no matter the ‘big picture’ or any
alternative strategic agendas that may exist. Senior management should obviously
be in the information loop, but by interfering in the investigation or by rejecting the
conclusions of specialists on the accident investigation team, a disservice to aviation
safety could result in subsequent fatalities. Senior management ‘throwing back’ the
initial findings in fact, by forcing changes to the conclusions and recommendations,
prevents the implementation of appropriate corrective actions, thus defeating the
primary objectives of accident investigations. Was the case of the Thunderbirds fouraircraft crash from a line-abreast loop a case of senior management interference?
Four members of the USAF Thunderbirds team were killed in a training
accident on 18 January 1982, when four T-38 Talons crashed at Indian Springs AFB,
Nevada. The four T-38s were seen to impact the desert from a line-abreast loop.
The Thunderbirds
lost the
formation team, all
when Lead’s stick
apparently jammed as he came down out of a loop and couldn’t pull up.
entry and exit heights for the loop were 100 ft.
Formation leader was Major Norman Lowrey, aged 37, who had taken over
as team leader in October ‘81 following the death of previous leader, Lt Col David
Smith in an accident at Cleveland Airport, Ohio; a birdstrike on takeoff departing
Cleveland, he ejected at a very low altitude but his chute malfunctioned which killed
him. Number 2 was Capt Willie Mays, 32 and Number 3 was Capt Joseph Peterson,
32, who had both been on the team for two years. Number 4 was Capt Mark
Melancon, 31, who had joined the team in October as ‘slot man’. The Thunderbirds
had been under pressure following two fatal crashes in the previous season
(including 9 May 1981 at Hill AFB in which one of the team crashed inverted just
outside the airfield.)
All in line abreast, the four aircraft impacted within 0.4 seconds of each other
in a slightly nose-up attitude when they hit - nothing wrong with any aircraft. The first
accident report implied ‘pilot error’ but the USAF command told the accident team to
go back and try again and next time, they came back with the actuator theory, which
was published in Flight International , 30 January 1982. The report that came out of
the crash investigation found that an actuator rod on one of the control services had
bent when the pilot pulled the stick harder coming out of a loop. He felt that he was
giving it more input, but all it was doing was bending.
In a summary of the accident report that was published in AvLeak of 17 May
‘82, it was reported that that Maj. Lowrey was vastly experienced in fighter operations
and as Thunderbirds lead, had flown over five hundred loops without previous
incident. The throttles of the lead aircraft were reduced well below the settings
normally used in a loop, while the engineering analysis of the videotape indicated
that the stabilizer angle essentially did not change on the backside until very late and
then only by a small amount, far less than the stabilizer design limits. The load relief
cylinder in the No. 1 aircraft reportedly showed several indications of failure under
tension overload and that Maj. Lowrey was pulling on the stick with both hands at the
time of impact.
The accident loop backside conditions were closely duplicated by fixing the
stabilizer angle at the 180º point for the remainder of the loop. No absolutely
conclusive evidence existed to establish beyond doubt the exact nature and cause of
the control difficulties which caused the accident. However, from the weight of
available wreckage evidence, the accident loop parameters on the backside and the
unusual and inadequate lead aircraft reaction to an increasingly dangerous lifethreatening situation, it was concluded that the cause of the crash was technical and
not pilot error. Regarding the question as to why the leader had not informed the
remainder of the formation on radio as to the impending danger, it was theorised that
he had both hands on the control stick during the pull-out. It must be borne in mind
that activating the radio on the T-38 would have required taking a hand off the stick
because the press-to-talk pushbutton was on the throttle.
For the unenlightened formation aerobatics enthusiasts, the question asked
was: “why the remainder of the formation followed the leader into the ground?” Well,
quite simply, the other pilots concentrate on the lead aircraft extensively, they
probably didn’t even see the ground rising up to meet them until it was too late. This
is not surprising since if the lead decides to fly into the ground for whatever reason,
of course the rest are going to follow him. This is a fact appreciated by all formation
aerobatic pilots, faith in the leader is unquestionable. Good formation pilots can’t just
decide to split up when they start to get close to the ground. The whole principle of
formation flying is to always watch the leader and trust him implicitly to know what he
is doing and keep the formation out of the dirt.
The report concluded with the observation that between 1953 and January
1982, 18 Thunderbirds pilots had been killed (8 in F-100s, 1 in F-105, 2 in F-4s and 7
in T-38s). By comparison, the Red Arrows had lost six pilots and eight aircraft (7x
Gnats and a Hawk) in the 1965-82 period. The Thunderbirds
subsequently took a
season off, reconstituted and premiered the F-16 in the next season.
The original report being bounced back from HQ to the Board of Inquiry, from
political masters to a board of specialists, generally does not bode well for aviation
and airshow safety. The overriding of specialist findings by management in any
organisation always tends to alert the inquisitive to dig a bit deeper, not necessarily
understanding the strategic vision of such strong-handed political decisions. In fact,
it is then that the proverbial ‘can of worms’ is opened and a whole new range of
questions are asked.
The accident report stated that power was much reduced, the presumption
being that Lead did not want to go beyond manoeuvring airspeed. It is prudent to
note that the T-38 is aerodynamically very slick and that the aircraft were in Line
Abreast at impact. The theory mooted was that Lead was in such a hurry to pull his
power back to put both hands on the stick that he didn’t have time to radio his
The first question raised by very experienced formation aerobatic team pilots
was: “What happens when a leader reduces the power without informing the
wingmen? Suddenly you have three new leaders, exactly!. But they weren’t in
fingertip, echelon or trail, but were already right alongside Lead in Line Abreast.
Now, if they were ahead of Lead and pulling even further ahead because of the
power advantage, the only way back to the line was to pop the airbrakes. But they
didn’t do that. So how far over the shoulder does a team member watch Lead until
he says: “screw it, I’m outta here! Burner and yank!
Interestingly enough, the film footage doesn’t show the wingmen pulling
ahead, it shows a normal loop. How does Lead pull the throttle back because of a
perceived emergency in a Line Abreast Loop without a radio call and have his guys
hang in T-38s at low power settings without boards out? Either Lead made a call or
he did not. The Board concluded that he did not. This particular phase of the
accident does not seem to have been adequately addressed by the inquiry and left
more questions than answers.
It is necessary to consider all the parameters and all the sight pictures. If the
flight controls did fault as reported, what else would have happened? If Lead pulled
back his throttles because of faulty flight controls, why didn’t he make a radio call? If
he pulled them back too quickly to make a call, how could the wingmen have stayed
in position? If he entered the backside of the loop at too low a power setting, how
was it the aircraft’s fault? How do you come off the top of a loop (at what-100
knots?) with a “much lower than normal power setting” without one of the wingies
calling for Lead to “push it up” as they came down the backside?
There is only one thing that makes any sense - it is not improbable that Lead
flew them into the ground. Why is that so difficult to accept? Many solo pilots have
been killed performing vertical manoeuvres which in theory, is more difficult to do
than when in formation – the formation leader is always aware of his wingmen and
with the reduced manoeuvrability of a formation, will not have the liberty of just
‘snatching a handful of elevator’ to save an ‘overcooked’ vertical recovery.
Another theory advanced by some high time formation aerobatic pilots that
had flown the T-38 was that Lead accidentally pulled into slab stall at the top,
inverted at an altitude below target, and as a result, didn’t realize he wasn’t
generating positive nose rate until it was too late. “I never liked the ‘38 as the choice
for a low altitude aerobatic team, especially in the vertical plane. It’s just too fuselage
loaded to avoid the mush associated with this type of mass distribution. At the top
inverted, it’s VERY easy to put just a tad too much AOA on the slab tail and cause
just enough increase in the drag curve for the tail to go neutral or a bit negative on
the nose rate”.
In the analysis of 118 airshow accidents in Chapter 3, Man’s contribution was
a staggering 78%, but considering the unforgiving and hostile environment of the
display arena, not unsurprising. Of the 38 FIT accidents, 27 accidents (71%) were in
the vertical and 6 (16%) were associated with low-level rolling manoeuvres while the
remaining 13% typically resulted from inverted flypasts, flight control systems failures
and turning manoeuvres. Makes one think, doesn’t it.
Comments by a former Thunderbirds pilot addresses some relevant questions
that may not have been adequately considered by the Board of Inquiry. “Often, the
facts get mixed up with emotions, cover-ups, embellishments and outright stupidity.
My experience, I flew the left-wing position for two years in the F-100 and was the
Commander/Leader for two years in the T-38. Having said that, I will tell you what I
believe and know about the accident in question. When I first heard of the accident
and was finally convinced that four aircraft had gone in, I made two predictions. First,
it had to be the line abreast loop and second, that the leader hit last. I was correct on
both counts. The line abreast loop is the only formation where the other pilots are
looking back over their shoulder to maintain the proper sight picture/position.
Therefore, they are not able to see anything forward of the flight path, even by
scanning forward only with the eyes; with the practice area in the middle of a bowl
with irregular terrain all around, even looking through the leader at the horizon gave
no clue to the pilots where the bottom was”.
“In all the other formation positions, the other pilots can scan the entire
instrument panel (check fuel status, airspeed, power setting, etc.) and peep forward
to see the ground coming up. It’s not that you don’t trust the leader, it is just that you
become so proficient at what you do, you have the luxury of being able to “peek” on
occasion, if you choose to do so. I got to where I could determine the approximate
power setting just by the pitch of the engine sound at the upper levels”.
“And why did the leader hit last? Because he is the only one who knew they
were not going to make it and he made one last attempt to avoid ground impact. It is
as simple as all that. Keep in mind that when you are on the back side of a loop at
400 to 425 KIAS, aiming for a 50 to 100 foot bottom, keeping it round while trying to
be smooth for the guys in your formation, the only difference between a perfect
bottom and a catastrophic one is the snap of a finger in elapsed time”.
“It is said that Maj. Lowery was a highly experienced fighter pilot, had many
practice loops under his belt, had complete and total situational awareness about him
and had all the attributes/qualities of a great leader. All that is true. It is also said by
the official report that at the top of the loop, in the float at about 0.5g, a foreign object
lodged itself in the artificial feel system, thereby giving Lowery the appropriate feel
when he pulled on the stick, but not the stabilator travel commensurate with the feel
of the pull. It was so insidious, they say, that Maj. Lowery was not aware of the
developing hazard until it was too late to recover. In addition, he hit last because
with the impending crash ahead, the rush of adrenaline allowed him to break the
stabilator loose and fly a few more feet before impact”.
“I could buy that theory if we lived and flew in a one-cue world only. We do
not. When you pull back on the stick, a number of clues tell you all is well, or not.
The feel of the pressure on the stick, the compressing of your butt in the seat, the
nose increasing its track along the ground, the g-meter indicating increased g, the
airspeed not increasing too quickly, and so on”.
“Can the powers that be have it both ways? On one hand Maj. Lowery was
reportedly highly experienced, had complete situational awareness with good
leadership skills. On the other, he allowed only one cue to develop into a tragic
accident. And why did they all follow? Because even though there may have been
some concern with one of the new pilots having a position problem, all else in the
manoeuvre was basically assumed to be normal by the other pilots, just prior to
impact. I also find it strange, possible, but still strange that the audio of the VCR was
inoperative that day. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt”.
“The worst scenario I can imagine is that Maj. Lowery would call for the
formation to ‘go exploded’, the term to be used by any pilot in case an emergency
develops, where now everyone flies their own airplane and stays clear of the others.
He would then eject. At best, the same call would be made, he would recover his
aircraft, the mission would be aborted and all would land safely. If the leader loses
his radios (a UHF and a VHF) or if there is no transmission from him at the expected
times, the No. 2 pilot calls exploded and the show is terminated”.
“We did things with the T-38 it was not designed to do. I jokingly tell everyone
it was not big, it was not loud, but it was really pretty. It gave us an occasional
problem but it never let us down. If I were a wealthy man, I would be flying one today
and performing airshows with it. Again, this is my opinion and what I believe really
happened. There but for the grace of God go I”.
Surviving the airshow circuit is really not that difficult. The display pilot must
know the aircraft’s capabilities as well as his own. The display pilot must be familiar
with the terrain, the winds, temperatures and pressure altitudes. All the numbers
required with each manoeuvre: airspeed, altitude, power setting, G’s, especially at
the tops must be intimately known. If the numbers are not there, the manoeuvre
must be aborted – ‘all else is rubbish’, or so says the Baron. Interpolating can be
hazardous to your health.
Understandably, air forces the world over place great pride in their
ambassadorial display flying teams; in theory, display teams epitomise the flying
skills of that particular air force. However, the pilots are, believe it or not, only human
and are subject to making the same mistakes or judgement errors as other pilots. It
is just that they spend a high proportion of their time working on ironing out their
weaknesses – they use a ‘build-up’ process – slowly working out the optimum
methodology and techniques to fly a given profile and then hours of practice. It is as
simple as that. The rejection of the findings of an accident investigation takes a very
‘brave’ man, especially if such a person has himself never flown as a member of a
formation aerobatic team. Worst of all, it becomes impossible to introduce
rectification procedures to prevent the occurrence of another accident – the very
reason for the existence of accident investigation teams in the first place.
Diverting slightly off topic to a not totally unrelated but interesting aspect, is
that of the spectator as ‘eyewitnesses’ to an accident. This topic is relevant since the
airshow accident is one aviation event that usually has the highest number of visual
witnesses and then of course in modern times, more than adequate video coverage.
It is the visual witnessing that is most interesting, if for nothing else because of the
unreliability of accounts of accidents. Accident investigations place a high premium
on witnesses and video coverage but the credibility of witnesses to airshow
accidents, mainly because they happen so quickly and because witnesses are so
overwhelmed seeing the catastrophic end of an aircraft, is not high.
At a meeting held by the Flight Standard District Office (FSDO) in Dallas
years back to discuss a local V mc stall/spin accident, there was a discussion by the
FAA and NTSB regarding accident investigations and the role of spectators as
witnesses. It was reportedly stated that pilots make poor eyewitnesses since they
tend to have pre-conceived notions of what caused the accident and are not
completely objective in what they saw. They said the best eyewitnesses are children,
typically between 8-10 years old since it seems they are not yet old enough to have
developed biases that affect perception.
The accident investigation into John Derry’s fatal accident at Farnborough on
6 September 1952 in the de Havilland DH-110, seems to support this theory.
Following his first high-speed pass in which the crowd heard two distinct booms, on
his next pass, when Derry arrived over the field, the aircraft disintegrated during an
entry into what could at best be described as a climbing roll. The wingtips failed,
causing a violent pitch-up that overstressed the airframe; the booms and tail broke
away and the aircraft plunged into the spectators. Test pilot, John Derry, his
observer Tony Richards and twenty-eight spectators were killed and sixty-three
“He approached the aerodrome again, over Cove Radio Station, and headed
directly towards the masses of people on Cove Hill. Over 100,000 pairs of eyes
witnessed the disintegration of the aircraft and so it was concluded that the story of
the disaster must emerge readily. Each evening, after a day with the wreckage, I
read through page after page of witnesses’ statements in the hope that some clue
might emerge of value to me. These studies would go on until one or two o’clock in
the morning. I recollect looking through at least twelve hundred statements and
hundreds of photographs, all supported by letters in which witnesses felt certain that
they were providing the vital evidence. In the event, when my sequencing was finally
completed, it transpired that fewer than a dozen witnesses had told stories that
coincided with the now known facts of the disintegration. They all described correctly
what they had seen but, by a quirk of circumstance, all those thousands of people
saw the accident ‘only after it had started’ and the few who did get it right, were over
near to Cove Radio Station, and nearly under, or to the starboard side of the aircraft
as it approached the aerodrome.”
“What we had was 100,000 people watching an aircraft that had just made a
low pass down the runway and was turning to make another. Most were aware of
where he was coming from and were watching for him if they hadn’t kept him in sight
throughout. The aircraft suddenly disintegrated right in front of them and fewer than
twelve people out of 1,200 were to describe the event accurately from the beginning.
That’s less than 1% of those who submitted statements, and 0.012% of the total that
witnessed the accident”. (“Air Crash - The Clues In The Wreckage” by Fred Jones ISBN 0 86379 094 1)
Another accident, not necessarily airshow related, does however, serve to
verify the weakness of the spectator as a reliable witness to an airshow accident.
The NTSB released the following information on its investigation into the 12
November 2001 crash of American Airlines Flight 587, an Airbus A300-600, in Belle
Harbour, New York. The crash resulted in the deaths of all 260 persons aboard and
five persons on the ground. The Witness Group received 349 accounts from
eyewitnesses, either through direct interviews or through written statements.
An initial summary of those statements follows. “52% specifically reported
seeing a fire while the aircraft was in the air, with the fuselage being the most often
cited location (22%). Other areas cited as a fire location were the left engine, the
right engine or an unspecified engine, and the left wing, the right wing or an
unspecified wing. 8% specifically reported seeing an explosion, 20% specifically
reported seeing no fire at all; 22% reported observing smoke; 20% reported no
smoke. 18% reported observing the aircraft in a right turn; another 18% reported
observing the airplane in a left turn. 13% observed the airplane ‘wobbling,’ ‘dipping’
or in ‘side-to-side’ motion. 74% observed the airplane descend. 57% reported
seeing ‘something’ separate from the airplane; 13% reported observing the right
wing, left wing or an undefined wing separate while 9% specifically reported
observing no parts separate”. In the final analysis, it is obvious that the ability of the
human to provide accurate recall of airshow accident details, should be treated with
During accident investigations, medical examinations occasionally find cases
of pilots flying with medical conditions that although not conclusively proven, are
reported as possible contributions to the accident through in-flight incapacitation. As
an example, a fatal crash occurred on 26 June 1993 at the Concord (NH)
International Air Festival. The third afternoon performance was to be a wing walking
stunt flight by Ron Shelly and his daughter Karen Shelly from Midland, Virginia. They
were flying a PT-17 Stearman bi-plane with pilot Ron in the back seat. The initial
portion of the performance was according to script, consisting of a take-off, snap roll,
vertical hammerhead and low pass at about 100 ft agl. Both Ron and Karen were
seated at this point and Karen was scheduled to climb up on top of the upper wing for
a ‘wing-walk’ later in the show. After completing a left barrel roll, the airplane entered
a roll from which it did not recover prior to impacting the terrain.
Mr. Wayne T. Smith, Aviation Safety Inspector (Operations) for the Federal
Aviation Administration, was the Inspector-In-Charge for this airshow and he
witnessed the accident. In his report, Mr. Smith stated: “I observed the acrobatic
performance and accident from the airshow command platform located at the show
centre. After the aircraft completed a left slow roll, it entered a left snap roll. I saw
the aircraft lose approximately 50 to 75 feet after completing three quarters of the roll.
I could see by the acrobatic smoke that the aircraft was skidding to the right. The
aircraft continued its left roll as its wings came level about 25 feet above the ground.
The nose then came up sharply while the aircraft continued its roll to the left. I could
still hear the aircraft engine and it sounded normal to me. The nose of the aircraft
continued smoothly in its arc while the wings continued to roll to the left. The nose
came down through the horizon striking the ground at about a 60º attitude. The left
wing struck the ground almost at the same time and almost immediately thereafter,
the aircraft erupted in flames”.
The aircraft did not skid from where it impacted but both wings were torn off
and the tail portion remained in the impact attitude; the engine was ripped off on
impact and twisted back across the cockpit area, now mostly inverted; fire rapidly
consumed the forward two-thirds of the aircraft. The fire engine reached the aircraft
within a minute but it took several minutes to extinguish enough of the fire to get
close to the occupants. Initially spectators thought the airshow would continue after
securing the accident, but one by one the acts were cancelled and the airshow was
eventually terminated for the day. The airshow on Sunday was repeated and
dedicated to the memories of Ron and Karen. The pilot had reportedly told the
airshow manager that he wasn’t feeling well and was planning to cut short his part of
the airshow. This was reported in the Washington Post, which ran it for local interest
since the performers were Washington area residents.
Mr. Smith’s report also stated: “Earlier that morning, Mr. Ronald G. Shelly,
the pilot of N58212, had informed the airshow director, that he did not feel “Up to
snuff” and wanted to skip his morning solo acrobatic routine. The airshow director
informed me after the accident that Ron Shelly had been complaining about having
flu like symptoms four or five days before the accident. On the morning of the
accident, I spoke with Mr. Shelly and his daughter during a routine ramp check and
spent about fifteen minutes with Ron. During that time he gave no indications of
illness nor did he discuss with me the flu like symptoms he had experienced earlier
that week.
Mr. Shelly held a Commercial Pilot Certificate, with single and multi-engine,
land airplane and instrument ratings. He also held a Second Class Airman Medical
Certificate that was issued on February 2, 1993. He possessed a current FAA Form
8710-7, Statement of Aerobatic Competency, dated February 23, 1993. This form
was issued after an Airshow Certification Evaluator from the International Council of
Airshows, conducted an aerobatic evaluation of Mr. Shelly on February 12, 1993.
Mr. Shelly was approved for a Level 1, which involved “No Restrictions” on his
performance, including solo acrobatics and his daughter’s wing walking. In his
application for these ratings, Mr. Shelly reported that he had performed in eight
airshows in 1992. His applications for the previous two years also show eight
airshow performances. In the “Ground Evaluation Notes” written by the most recent
evaluator, it stated: “I’ve observed Ron at several airshows in the past year and have
observed the same safe operations I have consistently seen over the past seven
years we’ve worked together.” The National Transportation Safety Board determined
the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows. “Loss Of Airplane Control As The
Result Of Incapacitation”.
Dr. Charles S. Springate II, Chief Deputy Medical Examiner for the Armed
Forces Institute of Pathology, submitted a consultation report, in which he stated:
“We received the autopsy protocol, preliminary NTSB investigative information, a
videotape of the crash and a copy of his outpatient record from the National Naval
Medical Center. Comment: “This man’s heart disease was certainly severe enough
to cause sudden incapacitation at any time. However, there is no way to determine
from examination of the heart whether such incapacitation did, in fact, occur”. Dr.
Charles A. DeJohn, Medical Officer for the Federal Aviation Administration Aircraft
Accident Research Section, conducted an Aerospace Medical Consultation for this
accident. The report stated: “It appears that a heart attack may be the most likely
explanation for this accident. The pilot had a history of a previous myocardial
infarction (MI) as well as severe coronary artery disease (CAD)”.
“During the week prior to the airshow he was suffering from fatigue and ‘flulike’ symptoms, both of which can be symptomatic of heart disease. The abrupt
rolling pull-up into unbalanced and eventually uncontrolled flight during the show is
consistent with agonal reaction of an individual experiencing the sudden, severe pain
of a heart attack. In addition, it appears that for a short period of time during the final
phase of flight, the aircraft was wings level long enough for an experienced aerobatic
pilot to have salvaged an unintentional manoeuvre and recovered, or at least crash
straight ahead to minimize the severity of damage. It does not appear, however, that
there was any attempt on the part of the pilot to recover and the aircraft continued its
final left spiral into the ground. This suggests that the pilot may have been
incapacitated and unable to effect a recovery at the time”.
His report continued: “The principal symptoms of heart disease include
dyspnea (difficulty breathing) chest pain or discomfort, cough and excess fatigue.
The chest pain is often confused with gastrointestinal causes and denial on the part
of the patient frequently leads to the conclusion that the constellation of symptoms is
due to indigestion, musculo-skeletal aches and pains, or the ‘flu’. Evidence suggests
the possibility that the in-flight incapacitation of the pilot may have been responsible
for the accident. Although the cause of the incapacitation cannot be determined for
certain, there are aspects of the history and the videotape that might explain the
events: Myocardial infarction, kidney stone, ‘flu’ symptoms and fatigue. The pilot
complained of ‘flu-like’ symptoms and fatigue for a week prior to the accident. While
minor illness, coupled with fatigue have been known to be contributing factors in
other airshow accidents, they are usually associated with additional causes such as a
stressful schedule causing accumulated loss of sleep (especially the night before),
increased alcohol consumption, etc. These elements appear to be lacking here”.
He concluded the report with the following: “In view of the variety of data
available, a MI appears to be the most likely explanation for the accident but
unfortunately, definitive post mortem diagnosis of heart attacks is still only
experimental. The ‘markers’ used in making the determination are not normally
obtained at autopsy and the methods are as yet, not well understood. No such
information was available in this case and therefore, the conclusions reached must
be arrived at by reviewing the medical, pathological, toxicological, video, and
accident investigation information”.
Gene Littlefield, Chairman of the Safety Standards Steering Committee of the
International Council of Airshows, reviewed the accident videotape and consulted
with other airshow performers. In his report he stated: “The video coverage seemed
to show a poorly executed left snap roll descending to the ground while continuing to
turn left. This happened following a nearly perfectly executed left slow roll. In
examining the ‘stop action’ video, the rudder is clearly visible throughout the
manoeuvre but it did not deflect to the left at the onset of the manoeuvre as it must,
to be a left snap roll. As a matter of fact, the rudder does not deflect in either
direction at the onset of the manoeuvre, it stays absolutely neutral”.
Mr. Littlefield’s report continued: “The rudder is operational in the left
direction, however, as the video shows, the aircraft rotates to the left, most likely from
“P” factor and torque, then continues rotating left and upon reaching right knife-edge,
left rudder comes into play at full deflection. The video shows a number of
interesting items for discussion. A very high pitch angle for a snap roll which was
most probably attributable to zero rudder input that presented the bottom of the
aircraft to the flight path, virtually stopping the forward momentum. The aircraft will
eventually rotate left due to ‘P-factor’ and torque when the lift is accelerated in this
manner. The aircraft at this point did a high lift ‘half snap’ roll to the left and had
nearly no forward speed at this point. My aircraft is nearly identical to the aircraft in
this accident including four ailerons etc., so I went to a reasonable altitude and tried
to duplicate this manoeuvre. I did six repetitions and in every case, if you did make a
rudder input, the aircraft would pitch upward to a 70º to 80º angle and then rotate to
the left. I tried various speeds from 90 mph to 110 mph and the result was basically
the same. I was not able to control the aircraft until I had descended to obtain flying
speed. The loss of altitude varied from 200 to 300 feet”.
Mr. Littlefield addressed the subject of possible mechanical failure as follows.
“I do not believe that this manoeuvre was intended to have been a snap roll in either
direction but I believe that the aircraft was pitched upward inadvertently by one of the
occupants. Not putting in a rudder upon execution of a snap roll could be compared
to leaving the throttle at cruise power on landing. It would not happen; this is
instinctive at this experience level. Possible wingwalker entanglement in the controls
after the slow roll or possible momentary physical problem with the pilot”.
Questions in the media following an airshow accident often home in on the
age of the display pilot. As an example consider newspaper and aviation magazines
that open up with: “The 66-year old former British Deputy Chief of Defence Staff, Sir
Kenneth Hayr was killed on Saturday 22 June 2002 when the Vampire he was flying
at the Biggin Hill Air Fair crashed”. Or, “The former Red Arrows pilot, 62-year old
Ted Girdler from Kent died on 18 August 2000 when his L-29 Delfin jet plunged into
the sea of Eastbourne at the annual Airbourne Airshow”. Still more disconcerting to
read is: “The civilian “French Connection Airshows” team of husband and wife Daniel
Heligoin (68-years) and Montaine Mallet (52-years) were both tragically killed as a
result of a mid-air collision between their two Mudry CAP 10 aircraft”.
On the issue of advancing age versus aerobatic demonstration flying, one has
to discuss this issue based on a single premise that this line of work involves a
specific level of mental and physical performance capability and that this capability
absolutely demands an extremely high survival bench mark index. Also, one must
consider that this benchmark must not only be maintained, but even increased as
aircraft performance and or personal performance parameter limits change with time.
This increasing factor has become an even greater part of the equation as
advancements in aerobatic aircraft have made manoeuvres possible that were
impossible before, such as gyroscopic coupling, etc.
The bottom line is that the subject must be considered against the aerobatic
pilot’s ability to maintain these extremely high personal benchmarks as a function not
of age specifically, but rather as a pilot’s individual ability to maintain the high levels
of physical and mental aptitude required. In other words, to safely perform in this
environment, the display pilot must begin and maintain a physical and mental
programme specifically designed to keep within the required parameters demanded
by the task...PERIOD! The manner by which a pilot achieves this is a whole subject
in itself, involving conditioning and maintaining that conditioning, but as the issue
relates to ageing, the approach should be to take age itself out of the equation and
instead replace age with an ongoing evaluation that CONSTANTLY CONFIRMS the
ability to perform the work involved. This is in fact the basic premise from which all
aviation standards are derived.
There are two angles from which to view this subject; the pilot’s personal
perspective and an outside imposed limits, perspective. The outside perspective, or
cut off limit by regulation or other “official” means, is beyond the scope of the book,
but from the pilot’s perspective, survival in the airshow display environment isn’t
directly related to age, but is rather directly and unequivocally bonded to the
individual pilot’s continued ability to perform what’s required. This demands a
constant ongoing programme of physical and mental fitness absolutely imperative to
fly and survive in this profession. Each pilot must be capable of making a completely
objective self evaluation of his/her ability to continue with this work based on self
imposed NOW physical and mental conditioning parameters. The ‘limit’ point when
safety will become an issue is reached not at a specific age, but rather when this
constant self-evaluation tells the pilot that safe parameters can no longer be
maintained…..for whatever reason!!!
By making performance instead of age the defining limit of safety, the
purpose of safety is better served since it is performance, not age that kills display
pilots in this business. That being said, this philosophy is only applicable to those
pilots willing to accept these self-imposed parameters. Most who are in this
business, or have any experience in this business, are already on such a programme
anyway. For those who aren’t on such a programme, this brings back the issue of a
legal limit based on age, which, is beyond the scope of this book and which, is
geared only toward those who wish to fly and survive the display environment.
At the Geneseo, NY airshow in 2002, Oscar Boesch, 80-years old, held an
unrestricted (Level One - Surface) ICAS card. He was apparently an ace both ways
in WWII, and was still flying airshows. He put on an excellent display and spectators,
unaware of his age, would never have guessed that the pilot ‘yanking’ the aircraft
about the sky, was 80-years old. In the final analysis, too little experience and poor
pilot judgement, not too much experience, is usually the culprit.
Unfortunately, display pilot experience is NOT transferable. Typical would be
a well-heeled airline or military transport pilot with 10,000 hours that jumps into a hot
little single-engine aircraft. His 10,000 hours don’t count for much, because watching
a autopilot fly a 400,000 lb aircraft has little to do with the rapidly-changing visuals,
high G and stick-and-rudder flying of low-level aerobatics in a high-performance
single. Similarly, you may have someone with decades of experience at flying
surface-level aerobatics in a J-3 Cub. If the pilot jumped into an L-39, well, the
speeds and manoeuvres radius are much greater, so not all of these hours would
transfer, either. In the L-39, the pilot’s still very much a beginner and a higher risk
until past the crucial initial stage – it is for this reason that ICAS developed the
categorized “Level” system, which starts inexperienced airshow pilots at higher
altitudes and, as they gain more experience, their minimum altitudes decrease. It’s
not a perfect system, but for lack of any other scientific mechanism or filtering
process, it’s the best there currently is at this time.
It’s a given that if one considers just the age factor alone without a physical
and mental conditioning programme in low-level aerobatics as a linear parameter
with a limit that defines the safety cut-off point, that point will be reached at X point in
time. One can of course try and determine this point from various source data and
perhaps come up with a limit parameter using just the age factor that will serve the
interest of safety in general. But, this leaves a wide gap for error that translated into
individual’s instead of a general overlay, will allow many pilots to slip through the
cracks and become victims of accidents that might have been avoided by using a
strict ongoing performance self-evaluation along with a physical and mental
conditioning programme designed to maintain the extremely high and demanding
preconditions required in this work.
By using the performance parameter instead of the age parameter, extends
the length of the age linear line for this work. This will maintain a generally safer
environment throughout the career of the display pilot doing low-level aerobatics in
the demonstration scenario and most importantly, create a safety cut-off limit that
could actually save lives.
There is no statistical or scientific evidence to suggest that age should be a
limiting factor. As long as a display pilot can demonstrate safety and proficiency with
the mental, physical and psychomotor skills required, the pilot should be allowed to
do whatever he wants for as long as he wants. However, it needs to be controlled on
an individual basis. Comments from one of the pilots of the USAF Heritage Flight: “I
know too many older pilots who are doing a hell of a job flying aircraft in every aspect
of aviation, including me, I’ll be 68 soon and I just spent three days flying with Frank
Borman and Bill Anders, both a bit older than me, with their P-51’s. A four-ship
diamond formation with a ‘51 as lead, an F-16 on the left wing, an F-15 on the right
wing and a ‘51 in the slot. Also with the jets leading and the props on the wing.
There is an A-10 alternating in there as well. It’s called “Heritage Flight” sponsored
by the USAF. Twelve civilian pilots with their Warbirds, 51’s, F-86, P-47, P-38, train
with the Air Force and participate in the program. It is very impressive to watch or fly
with. They put on about a fifteen-minute routine at airshows (no aerobatics) and they
wow the crowds. So I feel very comfortable with that.”
A career as a pilot is certainly high up on the ‘wish-list’ of most youngsters,
hundreds of thousands annually watching airshows the world over; but only a
insignificant percentage of those will achieve their ambitions and dreams – even less
will make it at becoming professional display pilots. Within the airshow world, the
breed of display pilots flying the aircraft extend from professional display pilots whose
job is to display aircraft at airshows for a living, test pilots, military operational pilots,
airline pilots, ex-military pilots and aviation enthusiasts with sufficient financing
available to afford their own aerobatic or vintage warbird aircraft.
Airshow spectators have watched the display pilots cavorting through the
skies, each manoeuvre appearing to be a private torture chamber for the pilots as
they pull high positive and negative ‘g’ loads during their manoeuvres. They seem to
blissfully take their aircraft through gut-twisting manoeuvres that amaze the nonaviators and skilled pilots alike. Though most people probably wouldn’t admit it, they
often experience esoteric thrills as they watch the aircraft and pilots seemingly defy
the laws of physics, or when they feel the rumble and raw power of an afterburner
cutting the air apart.
So what’s it like to be a professional show pilot? What type of lifestyle is it?
Is it possible to make a living from such a career and what training is required? To
answer that question it is appropriate to consider a case of just such a pilot that flies
aerobatics for a living. Michael Mancusso, one of the top rung airshow performers in
the United States does just that, display flying as a career. Michael was a member of
the Northern Lights Aerobatics Team for a number of seasons but turned to solo
flying an Extra 300L sponsored by Klein Tools. The Extra 300L is an unlimited
aerobatic, high-performance, mid-wing, 300 horsepower, tandem seat aircraft.
Possessing a roll rate in excess of 340°/second, a climb rate of approximately 3,200
feet per minute and a certified load factor of +/-10 Gs, the Extra 300L has the
potential to demonstrate a spectacular range of aerobatic manoeuvres. The visibility
is superb; it’s like you’re sitting on top of the plane, so the combination of high
performance and excellent handling qualities makes it an exciting job to provide the
maximum aesthetic appeal to the spectators.
A typical show for display pilot Michael, in this case at a military base, starts
with an arrival at the Base on Wednesday. He conducts sponsor, media and practice
flights on Thursday, and then tries to get in some additional aerobatic practice. On
Fridays, he flies a closed show for school groups, military families, VIPs, etc., and
then the open show on Saturday and Sunday for the general public. Each day starts
with a compulsory 8.00 am briefing - you’re not allowed to fly unless you have
attended that briefing. He’ll try to fly a minimum of one practice session each day
whenever he can get a low altitude waiver box. Usually he gets to practice in the
airshow area at least three to five times before the weekend. Mixed in with all the
flying, is the need to keep the aircraft operating in top shape, plus various interviews,
autograph sessions and airshow social events, making show days pretty long at
In between the different shows, he has to ferry his aircraft and equipment to
the next show where he starts the routine all over again. Some pilots let their crew
chief ferry the aircraft to the next show, while they take a commercial airline. How
the aircraft, equipment and crews get from show to show is primarily based on how
far away the next show is and how much time they have between shows. In
Michael’s case, his crew chief and personal assistant is a savvy and very pretty lady
named Holly Ropp. One of the ways they cut expenses is to put all of their
equipment in the front seat of his aircraft, which he ferries to the next show, while
Holly flies commercially. This works for them because Holly also happens to be a
commercial flight attendant. She has a very flexible schedule in which she flies ten
days a month and then spends the rest of the time crewing for Michael. While some
crews carry technicians with them, whenever the need arises, Michael just uses the
local aviation mechanics wherever he is located.
In case you’re wondering, airshow flying isn’t entirely stress free. If you’re
going to do it, you’ll need to be willing to endure the stress of flying several high ‘6g’
airshow routines per week, plus give several sponsor and media rides, make public
speeches (which, for some, is more stressful than aerobatic flying), sign autographs,
attend aviation socials until late in the evening, and then get up early and start all
over again. You’ve also got to live in a circumspect way so that you don’t do or say
anything that might embarrass your Sponsor.
Somewhere in-between all that, you have to take care of the bills,
administration, communicate with future event coordinators, schedule maintenance
and a myriad of other logistical things like ferrying your aircraft to the next
destination. Remember, you’re going to be ‘on the road’ most of that time - days off
may not occur unless you’re intermittently booked or fairly close to your next show
location. You also need to be willing to work out to stay in shape, discipline your diet
to keep your weight down, and live out of your suitcase for about nine months (March
– November, the airshow season in the northern Hemisphere) each year. But the
performers say they love it! And if you’re doing what you love, it isn’t a burden or a
chore, it’s always a joy. Besides, if you can’t sing, where else can you go to work for
yourself, be applauded by thousands of people, be written about in magazines,
appear on television, travel and see the country, sign autographs, have your own fan
club, all the while doing what you enjoy? During the off-season (December –
February), Michael manages the family business, the Mid Island Flying School, and
teaches in his aerobatic school, Gyroscopic Obsessions, both located in Long Island,
So how does one become an airshow pilot? Well, if one has not passed
through a military flying training programme, after obtaining a private pilots license
and building up hours (a necessary step on the road to airshow flying), you can get
started in aerobatics by going through a step process of training. A good way to
begin that training is to join an aerobatics club such as the International Aerobatics
Club (IAC: http://www.iac.org). Under their guidance and tuition, you can learn about
everything from recreational aerobatics to competition aerobatics. When you start
your training, the levels of training you will proceed through are Basic, Sportsman,
Intermediate, Advanced and Unlimited.
The first three levels are relatively
inexpensive to learn but the higher categories are more expensive because it takes a
special aircraft and a much more experienced pilot to instruct you.
If all you are interested in is recreational aerobatics, you only need to
progress through the first three categories. But if you are already an experienced
aerobatic pilot and you’re interested in competition aerobatics, it is recommended
that one also talk to some of the top rate airshow performers since many of them
provide personal instruction as a sideline. To become one of the best, why not learn
from someone who is already walking in those shoes? Just find one that is based
near you and contact him/her during their off-season.
Once you become proficient and somewhat experienced in aerobatic flying,
the advanced instructor can help you become an unlimited airshow pilot and show
you how to put together an airshow routine. You’ll need to put together at least two
routines: one that lasts about six minutes (added attraction), and another one that
lasts about twelve minutes (main attraction). An instructor will also help you develop
the ability to fly safely at minimum altitudes. It’s not as easy as it looks but you don’t
get to make any mistakes when flying inverted, ten feet off the ground.
Simultaneously with starting your advanced aerobatic training, you’ll also
want to join the International Council Of Airshows (ICAS: http://www.airshows.org ).
These people know everything you’ll ever want to know about being a professional
airshow pilot (and probably some things you don’t want to know). How do you afford
the aircraft? Don’t start with an Unlimited Category aircraft like the Extra, rather start
with something practical like an aerobatic certified Cessna 150. Then move up in
aircraft capability as your proficiency increases. That way, if you decide that being
an airshow pilot isn’t really your cup of tea, you’re not stuck with an aircraft that has a
limited market. Having your own ‘g’ capable aircraft is the least expensive way to
develop your skills. If you don’t have a primary source of funding that will allow you
to make step purchases of used aircraft in the $30,000 to $200,000 range, then it is
suggested that one forms a partnership with two or three other people. Talk to an
attorney and tax advisor and look into the possibility of forming a limited liability
business partnership with equal shares of stock. Owning a share of an aerobatic act
with occasional crewing responsibilities, might be very attractive to some people.
How do you enter the Airshow Arena? Firstly, start out by doing local
airshows, flying within your capabilities and certification. Don’t be afraid to fly for
‘free’ until you get enough shows under your belt to create a small résumé. Continue
your training so that you can fly at increasingly lower altitudes and with greater
expertise. As you move further away from your home base, seek out regional
sponsors. That way, some, or all of your airshow expenses will be covered. If you
live in the USA in California, Texas or Florida, you may be able to make a decent
living by just flying the numerous airshows within your own region. Your goal must
be to gain sufficient experience in aerobatic contests and small airshows to make the
leap into the professional airshow industry on a full-time basis. The fact that you will
have developed a “sponsorship history” will be useful when you start looking for a
national sponsor. Once you become certified and gain some experience in the
unlimited category, you may be ready to branch out nationally.
Can you make a decent living at it? Being a professional airshow pilot is a lot
like being a professional golfer. You must earn enough money during the nine-month
golf season to support yourself for all twelve months. But, one is not prevented from
doing something else to earn additional income during those slack three months.
Expense-wise, things start to get a little easier once you start performing at airshows.
Traditionally, the airshow host is responsible for providing accommodation for the
crew, personal transportation for the team, hangarage and service facilities at the
airport, servicing and maintenance assistance, petroleum, oil, lubrication and smoke
oil for the show aircraft. After expenses, you should be able to earn at least $30,000
per year.
Some actually earn over $100,000 a year. It obviously depends on how much
crowd appeal or attraction the display is, and whether you’re one of the main acts or
not. It also depends on whether you have a main sponsor. Do you have additional
small sponsors on top of that? Do you have
merchandise for sale (pictures, books, hats,
t-shirts, cups, etc). Is your act so impressive
that people will drive 30 miles across town
and stand in the hot sun to watch your
show? The money is in the theatre you
provide. [David Juwell, Michael Mancuso
The key to a successful sponsor
request is to focus on the benefits for the
sponsors, not to tell the company what you
Try to get a local company to become your
main sponsor and add several small
sponsors too. (Michael Mancuso)
need, but what they will gain from working with you. Before you approach a
company do your own homework. Learn to know your own product, either airshow or
aircraft, and know what it represents. Not a single company is interested in idle
promises or wrong figures. Check your project with these questions:
How big is your audience; what is their professional breakdown, what are
their ages, revenue, male, female, and children. What is your media return?
What return can you guarantee to your sponsor. Brochures, posters,
advertising, written press, magazines, TV and radio, website, media
partnership for the event or aircraft. Any reports announcing your event,
venue or aircraft. Articles in the press, reports in TV-journals etc?
How original are you and what are those values associated with your project?
Are you a one of a kind? The best? Are you the only airshow in the vicinity?
Is there someone within your project who is closely involved in a major company,
a board member, a director? Can they help with the introductions? It is always best
to work from a recommendation! If you don’t have any, show yourself! Make
yourself known together with your potential prospects. If you know your project well,
make a list of all the things you have to offer. BE CREATIVE! You have a lot more
to offer than the traditional ‘return of investment’. The sponsor’s name associated
with the event, VIP tent + VIP passes and VIP parking, Logo’s on the posters,
There are many other ways: from the entrance ticket to the trash boxes, toilet and
event signs. Try an interactive offer with a competitive element, where your audience
can participate. Try the angle of the ‘business incentive’, the corporate ‘day-out’.
Many companies still spend small fortunes on incentive days. Combine it with good
food, a ride in a sports plane at the end of the show, an informal meeting with the
pilots, etc. Other mass-events have been doing this for a long time, just think about
the business seats in a football stadium…
Once you know your product well, you can determine your realistic market
price and pricing policy but just remember that display flying is not Formula 1, so we
will not get Formula 1 budgets. Just like in any other industry you have to be
competitive, innovative and seductive. Don’t forget that the target of your sponsor
hunt is to increase their prospect of sales so help develop their business.
NEVER approach your potential sponsors without first doing your own proper
homework. Don’t kill a good opportunity due to a lack of professionalism. Hunting
for sponsors is very similar to a war game: You need your intelligence to build a
successful strategy! Now that you know your own product, you have to learn the
same things about the products of your prospective sponsor.
Who are their typical
customers, are they similar to your audience? Are they planning to launch a new
product? What are the revenues of the company but keep your proposal in
WHO has the power? – remember that most people in a company have the
power to say no, only few have the authority to say YES. When you have been
through all these steps, you are ready to approach your prospective sponsor. How?
Anything can work; if you mail, phone and send in paperwork, make sure you have a
sparkling presentation ready. Vibrant, easy to read, visual, to the point!
What works best is to generate your own invitation by recommendation from
someone within the company, so make yourself known to the company! The worst
thing that can happen is that the person you have to negotiate with has never heard
about you or your projects. Always be positive and enthusiastic; if you cannot
‘breath’ your project you will not be able to give the sponsor the same spark!
(Jacques Bothelin - Director, Apache Aviation and Leader of the Khalifa Jet Team.
Jacques is an active display pilot and currently operates the biggest sponsor budget
in aerobatic operations.
Tom Poberezny voiced some concerns about the next generation of airshow
pilots and the increasingly competitive environment they will fly in. “The better pilots
are those who can execute professionally with the highest level of precision and still
be entertaining,” he said. “They don’t have to fly the lowest or on the edge all the
time, because they’re more creative.... Today we live in a marketing society, and it
seems that people who depend on the public spotlight have to be controversial or
flashy to make an impact or just to stay where they are. I have the feeling that the
airshow business is going more that way. A lot of people are trying to get in and
make as big an impact as possible, and they’re not going to wait 15 or 20 years they just go buy an airplane and want to be a top professional quick.”
Eurofighter take-off at ILA Berlin 2002. (Reproduced with kind permission of Mr Geoffrey Lee,
“The display pilot must know the overall design capability of the
aircraft and recognise his own limitations and avoid exceeding
either”. (Bob Hoover – Test Pilot and International Airshow Display
Any display involves a pilot on the one hand and an aircraft on the other, each with its
own set of capabilities and limitations. For a safe and successful performance, the display
must be conducted within each one’s limitations. The professional display pilot must know
and understand not only his own limitations but must also understand the limitations of the
aircraft and the effect of environmental factors on the performance of the aircraft. Most
importantly, the display pilot must understand the dynamics involved in manoeuvring an
aircraft in close proximity to the ground and to other aircraft.
From the analysis in Chapter 3, it was concluded that approximately 79% of airshow
accident’s causal factors could be attributed to MAN; the remaining 21% being constituted by
MACHINE (17%) and MEDIUM (4%). In most cases, the pilot has no direct control over
mechanical failures or over Medium’s environmental effects such as density altitude, cloud
base, visibility, crosswinds, etc. In theory, therefore, the term ‘Pilot Error’ cannot be ascribed
to the accident categories of MACHINE. But even if the pilot has no direct control over the
elements, it remains prudent to convert the display to a bad weather sequence or even
cancel the flight if the weather conditions are not optimal for the designed sequence.
In considering MEDIUM, although it may not be semantically correct to assign the
term ‘Pilot Error’, MAN can certainly can be held indirectly responsible in cases in which the
pilot elects to conduct and continue manoeuvring under conditions of adverse weather in
which the probability of an accident or judgement error is increased.
The decision to change from the good weather display sequence to the bad weather
sequence is a pilot’s decision, not the Airshow Organiser’s or the Display Safety
Committee’s. The criteria for changing the display from good to bad weather routines, from
the vertical to the horizontal, looping to rolling or even cancellation, must be defined prior to
Graphic representation of the relationship between MAN and MACHINE causal factors.
(USAF Flying Safety Magazine, “The Slow Speed Demon” by Dr A. F. Zeller)
the airshow. However, should the Display Safety Committee call for the move from good
weather to bad weather sequence, the professional display pilot should adhere to the call.
Most airshow organisers will try to continue the airshow in the face of adverse weather, the
concern being mainly economic of course.
MAN’s inherent physiological deficiencies are directly responsible for the 79%
contribution and are manifested by the categories of Flight-Into-Terrain (31%), Mid-Air
Collisions (25%), Loss-of-Control (20%) and Wheels-Up-Landings (3%). MAN cannot
escape the responsibility for loss-of-control accident causal factors which are typically
attributable to poor aircraft handling techniques, poor anticipation, poor situational
awareness, poor judgement and slow pilot response or reaction times. Of the thirty-eight FIT
accidents identified in the analysis, twenty-seven accidents (71%) were in the vertical and six
(16%) were associated with low-level rolling manoeuvres while the remaining 13% typically
resulted from inverted flypasts, flight control systems failures and turning manoeuvres.
Knowing and understanding the overall capabilities and limitations of the aircraft
should begin with a thorough analysis of the aircraft’s performance and handling qualities.
Knowledge of take-off and landing performance, both low and high speed manoeuvring
limitations, energy management under the prevailing density altitude conditions, roll
performance in the various configurations, turn radius and time to turn for various airspeeds,
closing speeds and recovery pullout heights for various dive angles, is typically the essential
information required prior to compiling the show routine. What factors control these
dynamics and how do they affect the manoeuvres? Where are the traps and what should a
pilot understand regarding these factors?
Within the realm of low-level display flying, there are certain specific dynamics that
are particular to safety of flight and which have bearing on the human physiology and the
physics involved in display flying. Factors include closing speed, energy management,
display volume, inertia and momentum, pitot/statics, density altitude, mass and centre of
gravity, turn performance, roll coupling, structural loads, departure and spinning
considerations and emergency abandonment amongst many others – all readily tangible.
The intangibles on the other hand are two critically important unknown variables, the state of
mind of the pilot, which may vary from minute to minute, and the associated decision-making
processes of the mind.
At the expense of melodrama, cemeteries the world over contain the graves or
memorials to pilots that have been killed doing low-level aerobatics. Of course there are
those that have been fortunate enough to escape death, but not necessarily injury. The most
classic and well-known example must surely be Battle of Britain ace Douglas Bader, who
crashed in 1931 doing a low-level ‘slow roll’ overhead the airfield in a Bristol Bulldog - and as
the saying goes, the rest is history.
This might have been placed in the don’t
do it again category, except for the fact that many
other pilots have before then, and since then, had
similar experiences but, in most cases, managed
to complete the low-level roll or recover from the
low-level vertical manoeuvre with a few feet to
spare – a few feet less and the results could have
been disastrous. The fact that they did not impact
the ground being rather more by divine
intervention than any ‘superb piloting skills’.
High closing speeds in excess of 1,000
With the aim of the pilot being to level-off
feet per second are not uncommon
from a specific vertical manoeuvre at heights of
between 100 ft to 200 ft, display pilots could do
manoeuvres which place a premium on
well to consider dive angles, descent rates and
the pilot’s reaction time, anticipation and
closing speed toward the ground during each of
situational awareness. The multiple
the manoeuvres. They would be very surprised to
formation permutation being particularly
find out that in some cases in a high speed military
jet for instance, on passing through the 270° difficult to get to the crossover point
position in the loop or in a vertical dive, the aircraft simultaneously. (Reproduced by kind
could have an instantaneous rate of descent in permission of Robert Stetter www.robertexcess of 500 feet per second (30,000 ft/min). In stetter.de)
theory, if the pull-out was delayed by as little as
0.02 seconds (1/50th secs) or more, well…let the math do the rest.
There is no doubt that pilots aggressively attempt to complete the manoeuvre
perfectly and not to write themselves off or generate mass hysteria amongst the spectators
or the Display Safety Committee members. Inadvertent near misses would be reduced if
pilots realised the criticality of two particular factors, both of which every display pilot must
know, understand and ultimately, respect. These two factors are first the terrific, almost
unreal rate of closing speeds in any vertically descending manoeuvre, and secondly, the
built-in limitations of man’s reactions which are appallingly slow when pitted against the
rapidity of events that may be encountered in high-speed, head-on, opposition or closing
High closing speeds are something rather new to the human physiology. To previous
generations it never meant much more than an occasional collision between two cars,
crumpled bumpers and a ruffled disposition was the price to pay. To a driver of the modern
car, however, we have begun to learn more about closing speeds and to develop a respect
for it. The relative ease with which man has learnt to compensate for this new challenge is
somewhat of a tribute to his ingenuity and our ability to learn to compensate within a dynamic
environment. Within a very few years we have learned to glance at oncoming traffic and
decide with a certain degree of accuracy, to safely overtake the vehicle in front.
Subconsciously we have developed a third dimension gauge of this relatively new
phenomenon although some of the more unsuccessful cases of failed compensation
regularly fill the obituary columns of newspapers.
Yet, in spite of our experience on the highways, when we fly an aircraft, we encounter
closing speeds for which there is no terrestrial comparison. The lack of peripheral cues in
flight against which to assess airspeed, makes it extremely difficult for the pilot’s brain to
assess rate information. While driving a car, the road, ambient noise level, passing trees,
hills and other surrounding features makes it possible for the driver to perceive and process
relative speed. In flight, we have as yet, not been able to fully comprehend and estimate the
phenomenon of high closing speeds at a glance with any accuracy. It is necessary therefore,
to take a look at the geometry and the dynamics involved in closing-speed as one of the
primary survival cornerstones of low-level display flying.
By way of an example, consider the backside of a loop as characterising other
vertical manoeuvres such as the hammerhead-stall and tailslide - we need to understand the
time-space geometry of the downline vertical manoeuvre. There are just three factors in it,
dive-angle, airspeed and recovery height. The first factor, angle, is a simple concept in a
vertical manoeuvre such as a loop in that once the aircraft has passed the apex of the of the
vertical manoeuvre inverted, and is pointed 45º below the horizon, it is committed.
The second factor is airspeed, another simple concept, but the higher the airspeed,
the more critical the contribution of the airspeed factor in affecting a safe recovery pull-out.
Now the combination of these two factors, angle and airspeed, if not in the correct
relationship, could result in catastrophe. The correct balance is vital because basically, if the
angle is down and the aircraft has airspeed, a collision with the ground is inevitable if no
effort is made to change the angle.
Therefore, in any profile where speed toward
the earth is established, there must be an
consideration, time.
Not knowing the
minimum length of time that the airspeed and
angle may be maintained before change is
essential, is equivalent to ‘not knowing that
the gun was loaded’. There are several
charts that illustrate how long it takes to lose
height in various dive angles versus
Dive time versus altitude chart. (USAF
Flying Safety Magazine “Short Seconds”
A simple example is illustrated in the
by Col H.G. Moseley.)
accompanying chart. In this profile, to start
from 10,000 ft and pull out from the dive at
1,000 ft requires 9,000 ft for the descent. As can be seen from the chart, at 450 knots, it will
take 17 seconds to descend the 9,000 feet in a 45º dive. However, if the dive is maintained
for exactly 17 seconds, one more unforgivable error will be committed – that is the error of
allowing insufficient time for the recovery pullout.
Recovery is the last major factor in the relatively simple geometry of a dive.
However, take a long careful look at this aspect because the recovery pullout from a vertical
manoeuvre brings into sharp focus the most critical hazard of closing speed. Scientists have
produced long dissertations concerning acceleration, G-force and other physical laws of time,
motion and space that are involved in changing the airspeed and direction of flight. But the
factor that directly confronts us in recovering from the dive, is Momentum. One of the
peculiarities of nature is that when an object is moving, it keeps right on moving in a straight
line until it meets some form of resistance. The heavier the object and the faster the speed,
the more resistance it takes to slow it, turn it, or stop it.
This tendency to keep on going is due to the object’s momentum, derived from its
mass and velocity. A baseball, after being pitched, continues in the direction it is thrown due
to its momentum, and it is stopped by the resistance of the batter, the catcher, the solid earth
or the friction of the air. If a rock the size of a basketball is thrown with any force, neither the
bat nor the catcher can stop it effectively and it will take considerable friction to overcome its
This tendency to resist change in the state of motion is described as ‘Inertia’ which is
essentially the resistance an object has to a change in its state of motion. ‘Moment of Inertia’
is the term given to describe rotational inertia, particularly relevant in aircraft manoeuvres
involving rolling, pitching or yawing and then of course angular accelerations about each
aircraft’s axis. Fortunately, momentum is a direct and linear function of Mass and Velocity.
One can only begin to imagine the effect of momentum on display flying if velocity was a
square or cubed function. Mathematically, therefore, momentum ‘p’ is:
p = mv
In the case of an aircraft, several streamlined tons of
machinery at high speed creates an awesome amount of
momentum that requires an equally awesome amount of
resistance to change. Consider an aircraft in a 45º dive, the
only form of resistance available, albeit relatively insignificant, is the friction of air. With this
drag, the aircraft must be decelerated and the pilot must change the direction of the aircraft
by at least 45º. A speed of 450 knots is considerable, and a jet aircraft, even with airbrakes
extended, does not offer much surface for effective air resistance. Therefore, the aircraft
requires both time and distance to overcome speed.
In fact, so much time and distance is required to slow down a dive that a reduction of
speed is only of minor significance in the problem of recovery. What is of paramount
importance is a change of direction, the toughest challenge of all. It is something that every
display pilot is constantly confronted with and it is also closely tied to the fundamental laws of
nature and must be given the
greatest respect if display flying is
to be safe and successful.
Because momentum tends
to keep an object going at the same
speed and in the same direction
until it meets resistance, when the
aircraft’s nose is pulled up to
change the dive angle, G-forces
are created. The more rapidly the
direction is changed, the greater
Height lost during 4g Pull-out at 450 kts.
the physical force exerted on the
pilot and the aircraft. If excessive
force is applied by the pilot, unconsciousness or catastrophic structural failure may occur.
m = mass
v = velocity
The two charts illustrate the height lost in pull-outs at different dive angles from
10,000 ft at 4g and 6g. It is instructive to consider the height lost to pull out of a 45º dive at
450 knots at 4g and 6g; 3,800 feet versus 2,200 feet, respectively.
As an extreme example, in a 90° dive at 400 knots,
the height lost in the recovery
pull-out at 4g is 8,000 feet reducing to 5,300 feet at 6g. However, the amount of ‘g’ that can
be used effectively on the aircraft and the time required to recover at a particular speed for
each specific manoeuvre, must be known by the display pilot well in advance. If insufficient
time is allowed at too low an
altitude before recovery is initiated,
momentum and inertia, following
the inexorable laws of nature, will
take over and commit the aircraft to
structural disintegration in the air or
collision with the earth, no matter
what physical effort the pilot
applies. With approximately 71%
of the Flight-into-Terrain airshow
accidents occurring in the vertical,
Height lost during 6g Pull-out at 450 kts. (USAF Flying Safety
Magazine “Short Seconds” by Col H.G. Moseley.)
the criticality of momentum versus
height in vertical manoeuvres is
The amount of height needed for the recovery dive from all manoeuvres must be
carefully computed and actually measured during the in-flight build-up training because it is
least subject to compromise. This altitude must then be added to the height above the
surface at which level flight or the recovery pullout height is required. Besides pulling-out at
a safe height, the display pilot will continuously be making gross manoeuvres and finer
corrections to maintain the showline.
Unfortunately, input cues for the display pilot to control the recovery dive are few, the
pressure altimeter and pilot’s peripheral vision are the main sources of absolute altitude and
rate information. Use of the altimeter only, is not reliable since the ground and the altimeter
cannot both simultaneously be monitored and at high rates of descent and steep recovery
pullouts, the altimeter is subject to ‘lag errors’ placing the aircraft many hundreds of feet
nearer the ground than is indicated on the instrument. The pilot thus uses a compromise of
altimeter and vision, understanding the shortcomings of the pressure altimeter under highly
dynamic manoeuvring conditions. Although more accurate, a radio altimeter is usually not
fitted to warbirds or aerobatic aircraft but equip most military aircraft. However, the radio
altimeter is unreliable and not useable with any confidence at pitch/roll attitudes greater than
30º due to ‘break-lock’ of the radio signal. For those who wonder why vision alone is not a
good substitute for controlling the dive and recovery, it is well to consider the physiological
limitations of man and his reaction time.
There are other limitations of the visual system which are of importance to the display
pilot. For example, when the pilot looks into the cockpit, looks outside and then refocuses
his sight on the instrument panel, it takes approximately one second. Scanning of the
instrument panel is also time-consuming – a lateral movement of the eye of 20º will take
approximately five-hundredths of a second – even parts of a second are critical at rates of
descent of 200 to 500 feet per second.
Consider the intriguing case of the USAF Thunderbirds T-38 Talons four-ship
formation crash in the Nevada Desert in 1982. At the time that the Leader of the formation
recognized that he was not going to be able to complete the recovery from the loop, the
formation had entered an inverted attitude from which safe recovery was impossible. What
that means is that once a specific nose-down pitch attitude is obtained, a required minimum
altitude is necessary to achieve a safe recovery pull out. In theory, for a single aircraft with
high manoeuvrability, the angle is 45º but, but for a less manoeuvrable four-ship formation,
this angle is estimated to be closer to 40º.
A call for ‘breakout’ anytime after about 40º nose-low, inverted in the formation loop,
would not have helped. With that said, it must be realized that in all probability, the Leader
didn’t realize he had lost it until he was at, or past, the ninety-degrees down point. If lead
was having trouble pulling out of the loop as the official accident investigation report
concluded, couldn’t he then call for the rest of the aircraft to break out of formation and save
Well, the leader was presented with an insidious situation. He apparently did call to
his wingmen; at 270º, he realised he was a bit low and fast and called for “a little more pull,
and back on the throttle”. He was reportedly still well within the envelope to pull the team out
but there was no response due to a flight control problem. At this point he was less than six
seconds from impact and would have begun pulling the stick with both hands and at about
310º he apparently got some response, but not enough. There were no more radio calls and
actually, at that point, even if maximum response was achieved, the formation would still
have crashed.
It is only natural that in a life-threatening situation, survival becomes the pilot’s only
focus, mentally saturated making continuous estimations of the height versus airspeed
versus pitch attitude. The pilot’s mind is continuously transferring the geometrical analysis
through to the control stick, and verging on the edge of panic! That’s how it is!
Airshow accident examples of high closure rate are many. It is relevant to recall the
Frecce Tricolori mid-air collision at Ramstein in 1988, the head-on collision between the Red
Arrows synchro-pair in 1971 while performing a ‘Carousel’, and the two Blue Angels
that collided head-on during an opposition roll in 1985 are some of the better documented
examples. Did the pilots realise exactly what the odds were that were stacked up against
them when they set-up for the crossing-passes? What were the causal factors?
In the case of the Italian Air Force singleton pilot, he was certainly aware of the timing
criticality and the risks involved – in fact, he was reportedly having problems during the
practice session getting the timing right. Consider the difficulty of getting two formations, one
of five and one of four aircraft opposing each with a closing speed of at least 1,000 ft/second,
crossed over the by singleton, all at the same time and abeam of show centre – no easy coordination task. The Red Arrows synchro-pair pilots would certainly have known that headon passes create formidable closing speeds; for example, if both aircraft were flying at an
average airspeed of 350 KTAS, this would produce a 700 KTAS (1182 feet/360 meters per
second) closing speed. The rest is a story of human reaction time.
In considering man’s reactions when confronted with such high closing speeds, the
first problem is one of visibility or vision, or better yet, the ability to visually acquire the
approaching aircraft at low-level as early as possible. Even on a perfectly clear day, it is
difficult to see an approaching aircraft until it is quite close. The greatest distance at which a
large aircraft can be seen approaching directly head-on is approximately seven nautical
miles but for a generic type fighter, this reduces to a little over five nautical miles. The
probability of seeing an aircraft at greater distances is not high and it is for this reason that
many formations use ‘smoke-on’ at an early stage of the head-on run-in to enable earlier
visual identification.
As an example, assuming that both pilots closing head-on under excellent ambient
visibility conditions had a ‘tally’ on each other at five nautical miles and were completely
aware of each other’s position, they would effectively each be two and a half nautical miles
(15,190 ft) away from the crossover point. The more probable ‘real world’ scenario with haze
and smoke would in all likelihood cut this ‘tally’ distance down to between three and four
However, for the sake of the argument, closing at approximately 1,182 feet per
second, each pilot would then have 12.9 seconds in which to align the aircraft before the
crossover. This may sound like a relatively long time, but if for whatever reason there is any
decision making that must occur due to uncertainty of being on the correct side of the runway
for the pass, or a delayed visual identification due to residual smoke in the show-arena, then
the seconds are what can at best be described as ‘short seconds’. It is here that an
uncompromising factor called ‘time lag’ becomes the ‘killer’.
So what does ‘time lag’ imply? For the sake of the argument, it takes approximately
0.1 seconds for the nerves to carry what the eye sees to the brain and for a well practiced
display pilot, approximately 1 second for the brain to recognise and process what it sees .
To make a multiple–choice decision, it then takes approximately three seconds for the brain
to decide whether to turn the aircraft left or right and/or to push up or down. Approximately
0.4 seconds is required for the nervous system to transfer that decision to the muscles and
command them to move.
In a conventionally designed flight control system, not a fly-by-wire, reduced static
stability aircraft, it then takes another approximately 1.0 second for the aircraft to displace
Schematic diagram illustrating closing speed and the MAN-MACHINE perception response sequence for two
aircraft head-on at 521 KTAS (600 mph). (USAF Flying Safety Magazine, “The Slow Speed Demon” by Dr A. F.
itself from its trajectory because time is required for the controls to move, the airflow to
deflect, and most critically, it takes time to change the tons of aircraft momentum from its
course. By way of example of the effects of momentum, if an aircraft were accelerated at a
rate of 1g per 0.1 second for 0.5 seconds, 5g would be generated on the aircraft. During this
time, the aircraft would have deviated less than 10 feet from its trajectory. Therefore, in the
example under consideration, a total period of approximately 5.5 seconds is typically
required to introduce gross manoeuvring changes.
What does this time lag mean to the two display pilots in real terms? It means that
118 feet is covered in the 0.1 second for sight to reach the brain. It means that 1,182 feet
are covered in the one second for recognition to take place plus 3,546 feet in the three
seconds for the pilot to decide how to make the gross and fine corrections of the line-up. It
means 473 feet is covered in the 0.4 seconds for the pilot to react and another 1182 feet for
the aircraft trajectory to begin to change. All in all, 6,437 feet is required from the time of
visual acquisition, to the time the aircraft are lined up coarsely, leaving only 7.4 seconds
(approximately 0.72 nautical miles) under ideal conditions to make finer tracking corrections
if required. Unfortunately, parallax error over long distances does not allow even the wellpracticed pilot to always get it right first time and in the real world, there is usually always a
requirement for a further set of smaller corrections.
In the case of the Frecce Tricolori singleton and the Red Arrow’s
and Blue Angel’s
synchro-pairs, time ran out for decision making; set-up conditions were far less than ideal,
less than perfect alignment or delayed visual acquisition by only a few seconds, increasing
the probability of a head-on collision. These cases serve to emphasise the dynamics of the
problem, the severity of which increases dramatically with increase in closing speed. The
human physiology is not yet adept at estimating closing speeds or closure rates, whether
they are between two aircraft on a head-on pass or an aircraft in a dive.
Appreciation of the fallibility of the human and the criticality of high-speed head-on
closures was certainly appreciated by the leader of the Blue Angels . In 1995, Cmdr. Donnie
Cochran, 41, decided to take his team back into intensive training after lining up above the
wrong runway during a high-speed, low-level manoeuvre at Oceana Naval Air Station in
Virginia Beach, VA. The Navy’s Blue Angels suspended their display programme because
the team’s leader was concerned about his own flying performance and did not want to
threaten the safety of the other pilots.
“He made some mental mistakes in the show, mistakes which alarmed him and which
caused him to terminate the rest of the performance”, said a spokesman for the Blue Angels .
Each Blue Angels manoeuvre involves a series of procedures that have to be performed in
precise sequence and with split-second timing. At each show the pilots choose local
landmarks as ‘marks’ from which to stage their manoeuvres. In pilot terminology, Cochran
had trouble “hitting his marks”.
At Oceana, one of the spectacular manoeuvres in front of a crowd of 150,000
required four aircraft to cross over a single point simultaneously from different directions,
using two runways as their ‘marks’. Cochran approached the point over the wrong runway
but the other pilots saw that he had made that mistake and adjusted to it. The question can
be asked: “In that particular manoeuvre, was safety impaired?” Well, it could have been, but
wasn’t necessarily. However, considering that a total of 22 Blue Angels pilots had been
killed while training or performing since the unit was formed after WWII, Cochran’s
appreciation of risk and risk management led him to the only possible conclusion, suspend
the display.
The kind of self-evaluation leading to making such a public decision is pretty rare
these days when the pressure is to ‘do at all cost’ and represents its own special brand of
courage. It certainly appeared to be a gutsy decision made by a mature leader; leadership of
the best sort and in the finest tradition of military service from a display pilot understanding
the hazards inherent in high closing speeds. The suspension of their public programme was
their second that year and the response of the aviation world was refreshingly surprising.
Even considering that the ‘ Angels’ had already had their programme suspended once during
that year: “Good for him! A rational response to the situation. “Better a few missed
programmes than an injured or dead pilot or spectator”, were typical responses. No doubt
some will see this as a sign of individual weakness, but Cmdr. Cochran’s decision was the
right one and the public statement of the reasons was also correct.
Another classical case of poor judgement of closure rate can be attributed to one of
the most spectacular airshow crashes, the Sukhoi SU-30 MKI that crashed at the 1996 Paris
Airshow. The twin-seat Sukhoi Su-30MKI attempted to pull out of a descent that included
three ‘high alpha’ downline rolls using vectored thrust. The pilot, short of the proverbial ‘50 ft
extra’ tried to recover by using full power and thrust vectoring, but the aircraft jet pipe clipped
the ground. In a Reuters report on 13 June 99, the pilot of the Sukhoi-30 MKI apologised,
saying that he accepted the blame after attempting an ambitious aerial manoeuvre. “Sorry, I
did one too many revolutions in a flat corkscrew and I couldn’t pull her out. I didn’t have the
altitude to get the plane out of the manoeuvre,” he said.
And what about the Indian Air Force Mirage 2000 di