On November 12, 2022, six people were killed in a mid-air collision during the Wings Over Dallas air show in the United States. Footage of the two antique planes, a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and a Bell P-63 Kingcobra fighter, colliding subsequently went viral on social media, joining an archive of other shocking videos from air shows around the world.
And similar to other air disasters, the question has been raised as to whether additional safety measures should be enforced during these events. The way air shows and in-air displays are organized has changed over the years, partly based on lessons learned from previous incidents. One of the most significant events was the Ramstein airshow disaster in 1988, when three Frecce Tricolori – the Italian Air Force’s aerobatic team – collided, killing 70 people, including the three pilots aboard the Aermacchi MB-339A jets.
Recommendations after airshow disasters
While some have long called for air shows to be banned because of their inherent risk, these events have been a staple of aviation-focused events for decades. Still, after an unintentional loss of life, changes have been made to at least minimize the risks for everyone attending air shows.
The same airshow disaster in Ramstein, for example, led to air shows being briefly banned in Germany as additional safety measures were considered.
“The events in Ramstein confirm in a really frightening way how dangerous such spectacles are even for civilian observers,” former member of parliament Walter Kolbow was quoted as saying by the Associated Press at the time. Germany was still affected by two previous disasters in the 1980s. The first was when a Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter crashed during an air show in Mannheim, Germany, killing 46 people on board. The second occurred in 1983, when a Canadian Forces CF-104 Starfighter crashed onto a highway near Rhein-Main Airport.
In addition to the ban on air shows in Germany, a report prepared by the Defense Committee of the Bundestag and published on September 29, 1989 stated that flying over spectators and aerial displays who were banned from such actions were prohibited while events, including air shows, were now restricted to aircraft , who demonstrated their flying skills. “Difficult or dangerous flight demonstrations are to be avoided without exception,” says the report. “There must be no way to allow exceptions, and exceptions are strictly forbidden when it comes to performance,” it said.
prosecution after disasters
Almost 14 years after the Ramstein airshow disaster, an even deadlier accident happened in Lviv, Ukraine. While celebrations were underway to memorialize the 60th anniversary of the 14th Air Force Corps of the Ukrainian Air Force, a Su-27 attempted a dangerously low altitude roll maneuver, resulting in the plane flying into a crowd of spectators.
While the two pilots were ejecting, 70 people died in the tragic incident in July 2002. The two were later blamed for the crash as they “did not respect the flight plan and flight maneuvers that were not on the plane’s programme,” the BBC quoted Yevhen Marchuk, the lead investigator into the accident, as saying. Prosecutor General Svyatoslav Piskun added that “negligence” is the reason for the largest single loss of life at an air show, believing it “is already possible to say that this is military negligence, a special category of crimes.” . According to the New York Times, the two pilots who ejected from the runaway jet were sentenced to eight and 14 years in prison in June 2005.
In April 2018, another pilot, Andy Hill, who was at the controls of a Hawker Hunter T7, went on trial for his role in the Shoreham Airshow crash. The accident happened on August 22, 2015 when the fighter jet crashed into a public road near the airport. The Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), which investigates civil aviation accidents and incidents in the United Kingdom (UK) and its territories, concluded that the crash “the aircraft performed a maneuver with both a pitch and a roll component who started from an altitude below the minimum altitude certified by the pilot for aerobatics, at an airspeed below the declared minimum speed and continued with less than maximum thrust.
“This resulted in the aircraft at the peak of the maneuver reaching an altitude less than the minimum required to complete it safely, at a slower-than-normal speed,” the report continued adding that it was still possible to abort the attempt loop: “Apparently the pilot did not realize that the plane was too low to complete the downward half of the maneuver.”
Hill was acquitted in March 2019.
The AAIB provided the UK Civil Aviation Association (CAA) with a total of 33 safety recommendations between 2015 and 2017 to ensure proper maintenance of fighter aircraft, safety at air shows including proper risk assessment, crowd/performance separation and manoeuvres guarantee specifications, among other things to ensure safety at future events. The CAA, whose “purpose is to minimize the risks associated with aviation and our primary concern is the safety of the public, whether in the air or on the ground,” introduced changes almost immediately, including a restriction on aerobatic performance.
Changing air show landscapes
Much like the post Ramstein airshow changes, the CAA’s adjustments to the way these events are organized have impacted the UK airshow landscape.
Not long after the Shoreham disaster, the Royal Air Force (RAF) aerobatic team, the Red Arrows, canceled their aerobatic display, opting for just one flypast during that year’s Dartmouth Royal Regatta due to the CAA conducting a “comprehensive civil air review”. Displays in the UK’.
“It was determined that the changes required to the height and positioning of the display would have reduced the visual quality of the display to an unacceptable level for the public and as such the Red Arrows will regret not conducting a full display at Dartmouth for the year,” was one Red Arrows spokesman quoted in August 2015 regarding the event being planned shortly after the Shoreham accident.
Notably, the 2016 Farnborough International Airshow also had no Red Arrows aerobatic display, as the aerobatic team performed only one flyby in subsequent iterations of the event.
Eventually, the organizers of the fair announced that it would be a five-day event, with the site open to the public for only a single day. “We know that for many a weekend at the Farnborough International Airshow was a highlight, but after the 2018 show it was clear that this aspect of the show is not commercially viable in the long term,” said Farnborough Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Gareth Rogers International in March 2019.
Whether the recent mid-air collision in Dallas will result in changes from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) remains to be seen. In a briefing with the media, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) board member Michael Graham stated that while they were two aircraft manufactured in the 1940s, they had neither a flight data recorder (FDR) nor a cockpit need Voice Recorder (CVR), “that’s one of the things we’ll look at later” as a possible recommendation.
Still, the FAA put together a document detailing regulations during an air show, including requirements for pilots, their stunts, and even flybys. The government agency set the minimum requirements as well as limitations for various stunts depending on the aircraft. Airports also have specific requirements, including ground operations plan guidelines that describe procedures for aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARF), crowding, and other operations that ensure a safe environment for all attendees at the event.
Psychological aspects of air shows
When dissecting an air show, there are many aspects to why people attend. Whether it’s getting a closer look at the machines at an airfield, being part of a community, or admiring the skills of pilots at aerobatic displays, all three are often present during an air show.
According to a study titled “An Exploratory Study of Extreme Sport Athletes’ Nature Interactions: From Well-Being to Pro-Environmental Behavior” conducted in [date]: “Extreme sports are not viewed simply as outdoor recreational activities where the most likely consequence of a poorly managed error is accident or death, but the experience of approaching danger is an integral part of these sports.”
Examining the reasons why athletes engage in life-threatening activities – created by six researchers and professors and peer-reviewed by two psychology professors – the study concluded that “participation in extreme sports, while inherently risky, has psychological benefits ranging from evoking positive emotions to developing resilience and life-coping skills to cultivating a strong affinity and connection with nature and the natural environment.”
However, extreme sports don’t really compare to a pilot’s job, whether you’d be working for a commercial airline or flying at an air show. Safety is paramount as it still carries some risk. A study prepared by Sarah-Blythe Ballard of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Victor B. Osorio, who worked at Naval Medical Research Unit 6, examined public health data from air shows between 1993 and 2013 and came to the conclusion that “air show crashes were characterized by a high risk of fatal outcomes for pilots in aerobatic displays, but by infrequent mass casualties”. No time trend was observed throughout the data period, yet 59% of air show-related accidents during the period studied were attributable to air show performers.
Although a large number of fatalities was a rare event, the catastrophic incidents at Sknyliv and Ramstein indicate that while they pose a relatively rare threat to spectators, mass casualties are a possible consequence of flight events that should be factored into risk management strategies “, says the study.
“Coordinating with the local health system, conducting mass casualty drills, briefing air show attendees, and providing emergency instructions to air show attendees may be effective methods to mitigate poor outcomes in the event of a mass casualty,” the study concluded.