Airshow Crashes: The Cost of Doing Business?
What can we do to improve safety? What should we do?
By Robert Goyer / Published: Jun 25, 2013
The recent tragic accident that killed a popular wingwalking team is the latest mishap on the airshow circuit. The duo of pilot Charlie Schwenker and wingwalker Jane Wicker were killed when their Stearman crashed at a Dayton, Ohio, area airshow on Saturday. The crash was witnessed by thousands of horrified showgoers, and the sequence was captured by a number of spectators on video and in haunting still images that show the Stearman going out of control at very low altitude and crashing in the grass and breaking up, almost immediately afterward erupting in flames. The performers appear to have died instantly, and no one on the ground was injured, if there can be any consolation at all in this kind of tragedy.
The accident is the latest in a string of mishaps that have plagued the airshow and air racing circuit over the past couple of years, which include the crash of Jimmy Leeward in the P-51 Galloping Ghost back in 2011 that killed 10 on the ground at the air races, and the deaths of two aerial performers, wingwalker Amanda Franklin in a crash that spared the life of her husband Kyle Franklin and the death of helicopter high-wire performer Todd Green, who fell to his death in a performance gone wrong in Michigan, also in 2011.
The question of what we as an industry do about the loss of life is not a new one. It is, in fact, as old as airshow performing itself. Flying is an activity that has built-in risk factors even when you’re doing it smack dab in the middle of the envelope, cruising along on a sunny sky day. When you’re wringing it out at low level, there is very simply very little room for error. In some cases, there is simply no room for error at all. And because people are human, they will make mistakes. And because airplanes are machines and machines are not perfect either, there will be failures, and those failures, when they occur at low level and with tiny margins, are likely to result in loss of life as well.
The good news, if there can be any such thing, is that spectators in this most recent tragedy are safe. In this case, the chances of getting killed driving to and from the airshow are far greater than being a victim of a mishap at the airshow. That is due to the professional standards and conduct of the industry.
That doesn’t mean the performers are safe. Far from it. When visiting with an aerobatics friend years ago (no names, the conversation was personal and private) following the tragic deaths of two mutual friends, they shared the nearly constant sense of grief that people in the community feel. This is not a recent trend. If you fly airshow routines, your chance of getting killed doing what you do are very high. It is a fact of life that these remarkably smart and skilled people deal with every day of their lives.
The thankless job of explaining what happened, why, and what the industry is going to do about it falls to John Cudahy, who is president of the International Council of Airshows. In this case, when the reporters called, Cudahy explained that despite three recent tragedies, wingwalker shows are among the safer airshow acts. He’s also left to explain that despite the strong culture of safety that exists among airshow performers—not hype, truth—there are on average a couple of such tragedies each year.
What we do about them is an impossible question to answer. It’s possible, in fact, that the airshow circuit is as safe as it’s going to get. What are we going to do about it? Probably nothing. We could raise performance ceilings from right off the ground to a couple of hundred feet, at minimum, but that would detract from the spectator appeal, not to mention the fact that the performers themselves are almost universally against higher-margins performance limits.
Just as is the case with what we do everyday in our light GA universe, the answer is a personal one. Performers need to do everything they can to minimize their risks while accepting that there is a risk that goes along with the many remarkable rewards of what we do.
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