It was intended to be a celebration, honoring the victors of the Battle of Britain fought 75 years earlier. Unfortunately, horribly, what occurred was too reminiscent of the war’s worst events.
The day was air show perfect with bright blue skies and despite its age, the vintage Hawker Hunter was performing well. However, the pilot began pulling out of a loop at too low an altitude and the old jet continued down until it smashed onto a busy highway, careening into cars and igniting into a fireball. Eleven people were killed. Amazingly, the pilot, a formeraviator, survived, albeit with severe injuries.
Even though no spectators attending a British air show had been killed in more than a half century, and even though they are among the most popular outdoor gatherings among the U.K. citizenry, the repercussions from the crash at the Shoreham Air Show last August appear to be formidable.
According to Tony Osborne, Aviation Week & Space Technology’s London bureau chief, the Civil Aviation Authority has been reviewing its air show directives and plans to strengthen the accreditation of organizers and the certification of air show pilots. It has also proposed doubling the cost of its administration fees.
As a result, several shows have canceled their events this year and others are expected to follow. Moreover, insurance premiums for the events have spiked and there’s real concern that Britain’s air shows will dissipate as has occurred in Germany and Belgium following fatal air show crashes in those countries in 1989 and 1997, respectively.
I think that’s a sad fate for one of the most exciting elements of aviation, an aerial spectacle that demonstrates thrillingly the capability of vessels of the ocean of air when captained by the most skillful of pilots. Yes, sometimes they exceed the limits and pay dearly for that, but those are the notable exceptions.
Not everyone shares my view, I know. Indeed, Larry Rachlin, my former aircraft insurer (former only because I sold the airplane), is my polar opposite on this matter and quite adamant about his position.
“I hate them,” says he regarding air shows. “An air show doesn’t promote flying. It promotes danger.”
A better approach, he believes, is to demonstrate the utility airplanes represent and the ease with which they can be safely flown. He recalls taking families for rides in his aircraft during a weekend event in New Jersey back in 1983. Unfortunately, one afternoon a pilot flying a homebuilt Thorp T-18 overstressed the aircraft during a low pass, causing it to disintegrate, crash and burn in front of 15,000 people. The Thorp pilot was killed and the show was never held again.
“Airplanes are getting bad press” because of such avoidable tragedies, among other things, he maintains.
But as the International Council of Air Shows (ICAS) notes, “Even the sometimes jaded press corps turns out in forces when it’s air show time.” And save for the rare event coverage like that at Shoreham, the videos, stories and photos that follow are usually quite favorable.
And while some spectators, like many at car races, are there to witness calamity, I posit that most are there for the panoply, the excitement, the wonder of it all. By ICAS’s count, there are 350 air shows held annually in North America, and attendance has increased since the great recession of 2008.
Air shows in North America have been among the largest spectator events for the past 100 years and I expect that record will continue. At least I hope it will.
I can’t prove that air shows sell aviation, but I do know that the two sons of mine I took to Oshkosh were riveted by what they saw and heard, and both went on to become military pilots. I’m not for a moment suggesting cause and effect. But those mesmerizing Immelmans, tailslides and vertical rolls toward heaven didn’t hurt.
Last month, I noted that 2016 is AW&ST’s centennial year. It marked the birthday during its Laureate Awards dinner March 3 in Washington, D.C. A souvenir for those attending was a reprint of the first edition of Aviation and Aeronautical Engineering, the magazine’s forebear. While perusing it, my eyes fixed on this short item: “C.V. Cesna [sic], the Hutchinson (Kan.) aviator, was seriously injured by a bad landing caused by engine trouble.”
Now if you’re a man trying to sell airplanes of his own design and manufacture to a skeptical, even fearful, market, that single sentence was the worst publicity possible.
Still, it all worked out in the end since that same evening Scott Donnelly and Scott Ernest were awarded the Business Aviation Laureate for their leadership and reinvigoration ofand Beech under Aviation.
Congratulations to them, and the other nominees, Gulfstream, FlightSafety International and BBA Aviation.