Why do we organize and watch airshows? Ostensibly, because we like to watch airplanes fly, but also to promote aviation to people who don't know much about it in the hopes that some may become pilots. But what happens when an airshow audience witnesses a bad crash? Are they indelibly scarred? Does aviation suffer a net loss? Or do they, like us, try to tune out the tragedy and move on?
So we thought it would be a good idea to ask. Twenty-year-old Chloe Barkdoll, attending her first airshow at Martinsburg, West Virginia last weekend, witnessed the fatal crash of a T-28 Trojan aerobatic team aircraft. Here are her observations:
I went to the Martinsburg Air Show with my Dad last Saturday not really knowing what to expect. I had heard about the stunt flying from my Dad, but I didn't know there would be airplanes to see on the ground, too. That was a nice surprise.
There were hundreds of people looking at the antique and military airplanes. Seeing so many military personnel made me realize how many people and their families sacrifice for our country. You don't think about that much until you actually see them in person. As the airshow began, I was thinking about how nauseating it would feel to be in an airplane doing tricks like that. As a non-aviation person, I knew that the pilots were very skilled and the announcer said that many of them had been flying for several decades.
A big part of the show was the group of aircraft called the Trojan Horses. As they started their final demonstration for the day, flying directly towards one another, my heart skipped a beat as I imagined what would happen if they misjudged or made a mistake. Evidently, one did.
The next thing I knew, I was watching one of the airplanes head straight for the ground. I knew what was going to happen before it happened. Your eye sees something that maybe your mind cannot accept. It was the worst feeling. He didn't have enough altitude to pull the airplane back up and when he hit the ground, there was an enormous fireball. My heart went into my throat. I had just witnessed something that I never thought I would see in my life: An airplane crash that was obviously fatal.
After watching ambulances dispatch, knowing the fireball I just witnessed would leave no survivor, we decided to head towards the exit. The effect on the crowd was noticeable. We passed people crying, hugging, praying, hypothesizing--just trying to deal with what they had just seen. Being a non-aviation person, my first thoughts were to wonder if the pilot flying that airplane had a sense that things could go this way. People who don't fly airplanes probably don't understand or accept risks in the same way as people who do fly. The sense of risk isn't the same.It made me angry that someone would do something so dangerous for fun, knowing how many things could go wrong. But maybe that's what separates pilots from non-pilots.
Airshows like this are supposed to promote aviation and cast it in a good light. But for me personally, I had to keep thoughts such as, "I'm never going to get on an airplane again" from seizing me because I knew they would be toxic. Maybe pilots do this too, but I had to tell myself repeatedly that this was a maneuver gone wrong. It doesn't happen everyday. Commercial airliners with passengers don't perform like that.
It has only been a few days since the accident and I am still affected by the sight of it. It has changed my perspective on death, on accidents, and dealing with tragedy. I am realizing that military families and communities experience this more than I have, some on a daily basis, and yet they continue to serve. That takes strength and is admirable.
Before the crash, I had no interest in becoming a pilot and seeing this certainly doesn't make me want to sign up to learn. Would I go to an airshow again or take my children to one? I don't know. It's fun to see airplanes up close and watch them do maneuvers, but when an accident like that happens and a wide variety of people experience the horror of it, they're left on their own to deal with it. Some people can probably shrug it off, others are more deeply affected.
I'm thankful to have supportive family and friends at home, but I know not everyone does. I can appreciate pilots for their high level of skill which can't be easy to acquire. I can see how they must enjoy stunt flying, but now I wonder if the risks sometimes outweigh the benefits. It is obvious that risk is always involved, but I know few in that crowd were ready to be confronted with accepting such a tragedy witnessed firsthand.
I know I wasn't.