Letter of the Week: Airshow Crashes, Media Sensationalism and Improving Safety

After our piece last week on the risky nature of airshow flying and the challenging process of improving safety given all the variables (“Airshow Crashes: The Cost of Doing Business? Going Direct, by Robert Goyer), we received a number of emails from our readers, one of whom is John Cudahy, the president of the International Council of Air Shows, whom we referenced in the blog. Cudahy weighs in with some nuanced views on the subjects that Goyer raised in his blog and sets the bar for safety even higher.

Mr. Goyer:

Thank you very much for the piece you posted on the Flying Magazine website last week. It was refreshing to see such an objective, thoughtful discussion on the nature and frustration of airshow accidents.

As you can imagine, we are in a near-constant search for new methods, new insights and new tools to reduce the accident rate in our business. Following a rash of accidents in 2007, our organization hired a full-time safety officer, began the process of adapting and adopting SMS/risk mitigation philosophies and techniques to the unique challenges of the airshow industry, and generally committed itself to making safety an even more pressing priority.

Though it's always hard to pinpoint the exact reason that accidents don't happen, it does appear that our efforts since the winter of 2008 have had an impact (see above graphic). Despite the horrific crash last Saturday and a spike in accidents during the 2011 season, accidents during the last six years have decreased. Pilots and others in our business are more likely to discuss safety issues with their airshow colleagues. And those that engage in reckless or needlessly risky flying are now more likely to be approached by their peers and quietly counseled about their own safety and the larger implications that kind of flying has for our entire industry.

But, as the Wicker/Schwenker accident last Saturday clearly illustrates, the process of identifying and either eliminating or mitigating risk is never-ending. Since the new safety initiatives were launched in 2007, we have put particular emphasis on avoiding complacency. And those efforts have been largely successful; the tragedy on Saturday will once again increase our focus on the safety challenges that the industry faces.

My purpose in writing was to share two relevant observations that I thought — given the content of your editorial — you and your readers might find interesting.

The first observation relates to the manner in which airshow accidents are covered by the consumer press. Predictably and with the exception of the Dayton-area press, the newspaper articles were short, factual and buried deep in the issue in which they appeared. But, in large part because of the compelling and sensationalistic nature of the video footage, television news shows covered it prominently and constantly for a full 40 hours following the accident. CBS flew its morning show host, Charlie Rose, to Dayton to conduct interviews. All of the cable news channels featured it as one of their top stories each hour throughout Saturday night, all day Sunday and Monday morning. This is a phenomenon I’ve seen throughout my tenure with ICAS. The conclusion I’ve reached is that the print space dedicated to an airshow accident in a newspaper is roughly equivalent to the story’s true news value. The air time provided by television is unrelated to the accident’s newsworthiness. It’s related to something else entirely that, frankly, I don’t completely understand. This is not to minimize the tragedy of the accident or to suggest that we do not have important work to do in reducing the frequency of airshow accidents, but there is also no doubt in my mind that the unique attention provided by the media has exaggerated the frequency of airshow accidents in the minds of the general public.

This seems to be validated by the media’s news coverage of car race accidents. Since 1990, 260 people have been killed in car race accidents in the U.S. An average of 14 drivers each year are killed in car races. (During the same period, the airshow industry had 89 performer fatalities, an average of 3.7 fatalities per year.) When they receive any coverage at all, these racing accidents typically are covered in the sports segment of a television news program, usually in a low-key, non-sensationalistic manner — a stark contrast to air show coverage. From our perspective, the big difference is that, periodically, members of the audience are involved in car race accidents. Since 1990, there have been 29 spectator deaths and 70 serious spectator injuries at car races. As you pointed out in your piece yesterday, that doesn’t happen in the airshow business — which we work very hard to ensure and which we are very proud of. There has not been a spectator fatality at a North American airshow since 1951.

The second observation relates to the end of your article. It got me thinking about general aviation safety and how some of the micro-issues in our business relate to the macro safety issues in general aviation. After years of steady improvement, the GA accident rate seems to have plateaued. Efforts to find continued improvement have proven to be frustrating. Though I am no expert on GA safety, my sense as a pilot and aviation association professional is that, like in the airshow community, further improvements will be much harder to make. The low-hanging fruit has been picked. Continued improvement will take proportionately more effort and will meet proportionately higher resistance as we ask pilots to make changes to the way they fly and the way they think about flying. In the very small world of airshow pilots, we face the same challenge and we know that further improvements will require a fundamental change in the way that our pilots look at safety and efforts to improve safety.

That said, I disagree with your suggestion that, “It’s possible … that the airshow circuit is as safe as it’s going to get.” In our industry, there is room for improvement and a willingness among most airshow professionals to do the hard work required to make those improvements. And I believe that the same can be said for the entire general aviation community.

Very Respectfully,

John Cudahy, President/CEO, International Council of Air Shows

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