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?