So the weekend turned out to be uniformly grim for aviation, first with the horrific crash in Reno and 24 hours later, an airshow crash in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Depending on what fills the news cycle for the next couple of days, the hand wringing over public safety and the need to reel in these airplane crazies will start in earnest. To be honest, some of this is not entirely misplaced, in my view. Whenever there are crashes like this that involve spectator fatalities, it's reasonable to pause a beat or two and examine the safety procedures in place and the judgments involved. To ignore that would be irresponsible.
All that will happen in due time. Meanwhile, in Reno, the overarching question is: Should the Reno races continue? Or have they evolved into an anachronism whose time has simply passed? It's too soon to decide that, but I know they're thinking about it in Reno. I found
this eloquently written editorial in the Reno Gazette Journal that sums it up nicely. The races bring a lot of money and tourists into town and are worth $80 million to the local economy. In hard timesin any timeswalking away from that financial impulse won't be easy. But regardless of how the rest of us feel about the continuation of the races, it's not up to us. It's up to Reno. Tragedies like this mark a community with a persistence that's hard to shake. That saps enthusiasm and may, in fact, depress future attendance at the event. Still, "Reno" like "Oshkosh," has a connotation all its own. And the people of Reno know that, I suspect.
If there's anything immediately useful to come from this trauma, it might be the framing of public assumption of risk at things like airshows, sporting events and even NASCAR races. The Charlotte Observer discovered that during a 12-year-period in the 1990s, 29 spectators were killed at autoracing events, despite more than reasonable precautions taken to protect spectators at tracks. By comparison and considering the inherent risks, U.S. airshows and air racing have had few incidents of spectator-involved deaths and injuries, suggesting a minimal accident rate. Elsewhere in the world, there have been gruesome exceptions: 70 dead at Ramstein in 1988 and 85 dead in the Ukraine in 2002.
If you're even remotely aware of the safety protocols in place for a show like AirVenture, you know the organizers and performers take crowd protection seriously because the stakes are so high, both for them and the industry. But reducing the risk is not the same as no risk. Anyone who attends an airshow or race is at risk, albeit a tiny one. Machines hurtling by at several hundred miles per hour can fail in ways that leave the pilots powerless to control them. And like it or not, pilots make mistakes.
So although as aviation enthusiasts we have no standing in the decision the community of Reno makes, the takeaway for us is to encourage our non-pilot friends and acquaintances to attend airshows. But we need to be honest with them when they ask for our informed expert opinion about risks for spectators. For most of us, it doesn't rise to the level of go/no-go because the risk is so vanishingly small. It's just not non-existent. And anyone who thinks that should probably stay home.