How airshows hurt aviation

It’s airshow season, and (unfortunately but predictably) the fatalities have begun, with three pilots dead and one missing in two separate incidents over the weekend: a midair collision at an airshow, and a midair collision practicing for an airshow. It’s a sad start to the season, and like everyone reading this blog, I feel for the families and friends of the dead and respect the skill and dedication they brought to their jobs. That said, there will probably be more deaths before airshow season ends, as there are every year: all that I dare hope is that this doesn’t end up being one of those years when airshow spectators die as well.

After World War I, itinerant airshows travelled across Canada, featuring former military fliers who would perform breathtaking stunts at fairs and other public gatherings, and, of course, frequently crash and die. At the same time, however, other fliers were trying to build aviation as an industry, working hard to convince the public that flying was a safe and reliable way to move people and goods. Unfortunately, the fact that the public kept seeing stunt pilots die in fiery crashes worked directly against that goal, and in the end, it was the aviation industry itself that begged for government regulation (similar to that of marine or rail travel) to reassure the public, and got it only after years of intense lobbying. That’s a strange thought now, as we cuss and groan about Transport Canada up here, or the FAA down in the U.S.

Often, the aviation media refers to airshow performers as aviation’s ambassadors to the public — if so, they’re just about the worst ambassadors we could pick, not because they’re bad people (I imagine I’d value most of them as friends, and they’re far more skilled and dedicated than I can ever dream of being) but because they’re doing the wrong thing. If we want to reassure the public about aviation, the last thing we want to show them is people flying close to other planes and the ground, in dangerous attitudes, near built-up areas and in front of large crowds. How are we going to convince the people of downtown Toronto (for example) that small planes landing at City Centre pose no danger when they see airshow crashes — which almost always happen on camera — played over and over on the TV news?

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About David Megginson

Scholar, tech guy, Canuck, open-source/data/information zealot, urban pedestrian, language geek, tea drinker, pater familias, red tory, amateur musician, private pilot.
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6 Responses to How airshows hurt aviation

  1. Jared says:

    While I’m not a fan.. I live in the heart of NASCAR country here in Charlotte, NC… I would place air shows in the same category as professional racing. People ‘should’ recognize the difference between what happens at these events and how it relates to the everyday activities of aviation. I suppose it’s somewhat different just because so few people actually know what’s involved in flying GA aircraft… but I think the premise still holds… just look at how many people die in racing every year.. and that’s movement in only two dimensions. =]

  2. david says:

    I thought of car racing when I was making my posting, but I think that Jared nailed the difference — everybody drives, a lot, so they know the difference between NASCAR and driving a car to the mall (at least, most of them do). The public has very little exposure to small aircraft, so do we want their first (and main) impression to be what they see at airshows, especially when they’re deciding whether to keep the local GA airport open and let small planes fly low over their houses on approach and departure?

    An exception, of course, is people who live in communities that rely on general aviation for their day-to-day existence, like most far northern Canadian communities past the end of the roads. For them, flying in a small plane is probably about as exciting as taking the bus (actually, a bus would be much more exciting, since it’s unusual).

  3. Ken says:

    You obviously haven’t done your research. Don’t be an idiot in front of millions of viewers.
    Makes yourself look bad.

  4. david says:

    Thanks for the comment Ken. I’m flattered that you think I have millions of readers (‘dozens’ would be more accurate), but I’ll still welcome any corrections or alternative viewpoints you’d like to post here.

  5. Daryl says:

    To each their own, and you have unwittingly expressed yours.

    Do air shows hurt general aviation… absolutely not. How many general aviation pilots fostered the urge to learn to fly at a young age after watching an air show? How many of our fine military pilots fostered their urge to ‘join up’ after veiwing the snowbirds at a young age? (I could go on)

    Yes… people have died in our industry and yes, that has had negative impact; but that negetive impact has been far outweighed by posetive. Having performed shows for the past several years I have had the opportunity of speaking with many of our spectators. The general consensus is that performing is dangerous, and the public is fully aware of that. If a pilot is to ‘thunder in’ at an air show, the public uderstands that that pilot was there, intentionally putting himself/herself at risk. News reports of the Caravan 208 that crashes carrying 6 passengers has a far greater negative impact to GA than an accident at an air show.

    As for your opinion of air show safety….
    Not only am I a performer, but an occupational health and safety inspector in the upstream petroleum industries. The cockpit of my aircraft during any flight (performance or otherwise) is my workplace. With that, the principles of workplace safety apply.

    As in any workplace, In order to fly I must understand my equipment, understand my SOP’s, and understand my emergency preparedness. Can I say that I perform a safe routine… absolutely not! Safety is defined as absence of risk… and by simple definition, absence of risk is impossible.

    The key then, as any other workplace is risk management. As you’ve illustrated in your opening paragraph, mistakes and/or bad decisions can and have been made with disasterous consequences.

    Years ago (post WWII) the concept of safety and risk management was unheard of. As a result, regulations were put in place to enhance public safety. These regulations have grown over the years and further enhanced the safety of air shows (see CAR’s Special Aviation Events). Furthermore, the industry itself has enhanced safety through the current ACE (AirShow Competency Evaluation) program. (in order to perform, a pilot must hold an ACE card) Every accident is evaluated by the industry ACE committee and further safety requirements are put in place.

    Can accidental death in the air show industry be irradicated completely… Sadly, no; but it can be minimized.

    Yes, there have been deaths. But to address the general message of your post; the public are still flying in record numbers and the public are still attending air shows. As what you call a GA ambassador, the only venue I have available to promote aviation as a whole is at an air show. The same as Al Pietsch did for me when I was 11.

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