A Sad Year For Airshows

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As I've stated before, airshow flying is risky. So is practicing to fly in an airshow. Thankfully, not all years include the death of a civilian or military pilot practicing for or flying in a show. But sadly, 2018 was not a good year at all, resulting in the deaths of civilian and military performers, and one who flew in the Reno Air Races for more than 40 years.

The six performer/pilots who passed away during 2018 weren't rookies. Their aviation credentials and experience were unquestionable. Those in the airshow world gather for an annual meeting, at which they mourn the loss of those gone west. And they declare that next year, everyone will make every effort to fly safer, or slower, or higher—or whatever. What else can they say?

The six pilots mentioned below will be deeply missed by their families, friends and peers, and the hardcore airshow fans who all hope, but don't necessarily believe, that next year will be a safe one. These reports were collected during 2018, and are based on research by Jim Froneberger, the editor of World Airshow News magazine.

Stephen Del Bagno

Major Stephen “Cajun” Del Bagno, the #4/Slot Pilot for the USAF Thunderbirds, died on April 4 in a training accident at Creech Air Force Base, located about 50 miles northwest of Nellis AFB near Las Vegas. It was the first fatal crash for the team since the stunning “diamond crash” in January 1982 that claimed the lives of all four pilots who were flying a diamond formation. That accident also happened at Creech.

Before joining the Air Force, Stephen was a civilian flight instructor, corporate pilot, skywriter and banner tow pilot. After joining the U.S. Air Force, he  served as an F-35A Evaluator Pilot and Chief of Standardization and Evaluation, 58th Fighter Squadron, Eglin AFB, Florida. He logged more than 3500 flight hours in over 30 different aircraft, including 1400 hours as an Air Force pilot. Del Bagno was in his first season with the Thunderbirds.

Elgin Wells

Aerobatic pilot and talented musician Elgin Wells died on April 25 when his Starjammer aerobatic aircraft crashed during a practice flight prior to the Zhengzhou Air Show in Zhengzhou, China. He was 68.

Elgin built his monoplane, Starjammer, which included a custom onboard sound system and over 200 LED lights, for his night show performances. A computer system he designed coordinated the lights with the music broadcast from the onboard sound system and airshow PA system.


Legendary Reno Air Race pilot John Parker was killed on May 1 when his aircraft overturned at Reno-Stead Airport. He was 80 years old. Parker competed in the Reno Air Races for more than 40 years, and was a four-time class champion: three in Formula One and one in the Sport Class. In recent years he flew his Thunder Mustang, Blue Thunder, in Reno’s Sport Class.

Dan Buchanan

Airshow performer Dan Buchanan died on June 2 after a hang gliding accident during an airshow at the Gunfighter Skies Air & Space Celebration at Mountain Home AFB in Idaho.

In 1981, while landing a hang glider in bad weather, Dan suffered a spinal injury that left him paralyzed from the waist down.  He resumed flying hang gliders less than six months after his accident and flew his first airshow in 1989. His credentials included being a licensed commercial sailplane pilot with more than 3000 hours of flight time in both hang gliders and sailplanes. His airshow acts included a daytime hang glider demonstration, and a nighttime powered hang glider performance with pyrotechnics.

Ken Johansen

Pilot Ken Johansen of the GEICO Skytypers was killed on May 30 when his SNJ crashed on Long Island after departing Republic Airport in Farmingdale, New York, for an airshow in Maryland. There were no injuries on the ground.

Johansen, 52, had flown with the Royal Netherlands Navy and the U.S. Navy before becoming a commercial pilot, first  with TWA, and then with United Airlines. More recently he flew out of  Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, as a Navy Reserve instructor pilot, flying DC-9s.

Jon Thocker

On Oct. 12, Jon Thocker, 60, of Redline Airshows, was killed during a night performance at the Culpeper Air Fest in Culpeper, Virginia. At the time of his crash, he was performing with flight leader Ken Rieder, who landed safely after Thocker’s accident.

Thocker had a 25-year career as an airline captain flying heavy jets in worldwide cargo operations. He retired in order to become an airshow performer, flying his homebuilt Van’s RV-8 alongside teammate Rieder. They flew a two-ship formation for both daytime and night airshows.

* * *

I mentioned that each year, those in the industry mourn the loss of their cohorts. This occurs during a convention that is currently held in Las Vegas. It's nothing like the Consumer Electronics show, which sees 180,000 attendees these days. The airshow convention draws approximately 1500 people.

I first attended the convention in 2004. The opening session included a video honoring those who, in one way or another, lost their lives during the year. There were those who died of natural causes, or motor vehicle accidents, or something directly related to airshow activities. Initially, it was weird to witness 1500 people being stone silent as the video was presented.

A few years later, I was at the opening session, and it was suddenly "that time" for the video salute to those who were no longer with us. I left the room. One of the persons who would have soon been on the screen was a friend of mine. I haven't watched the salute since.

Comments (4)

There are about 100 active air show pilots. On average 5 die in aircraft accidents every year.......

Posted by: DAVID GAGLIARDI | February 3, 2019 2:40 PM    Report this comment

Low altitude aerobatics is dangerous enough; but then look at the ages (60, 68, 80) or look at the airplanes (experimental, restricted). I would say that airshows are not risky at all; they are intentionally ignoring risk factors.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | February 4, 2019 7:19 AM    Report this comment

As an active RC model aircraft pilot and an owner/pilot of a vintage Bonanza, I have seen the full size airshow routines attempt to evolve into full-size recreations of RC 3D style flying.

RC Pattern contest maneuvers are fast, smooth, and well defined flown within an aerobatic box. There is an entry and exit of that box at the start and completion of each prescribed maneuver.

3D maneuvers are tumbling, gyroscopic, violent, rather indescribable. The airplanes posses a higher thrust to weight ratio allowing for hover and then straight up acceleration from hover or high alpha flight.

With the advent of lightweight, low power LED lighting, night 3D flying became viable. But seeing blinking lights at night is pretty tame. So, let's add pyrotechnics and music.

For the average person, watching a daytime Pattern contest is boring. Most are entertained, for a relatively short time, by what appears to be 3D in-flight mayhem. But with out smoke, with out pyro, without noise...one can only watch a few tumbling maneuvers before that is pretty lame too.

With carbon fiber 1000lb air-frames engineered to take +-20 G's powered by 400+HP piston engines , the airshow spectator is being treated to what is in reality, a piloted RC 3D airplane. So, today's routines are high alpha, slow speed passes, 400 per second roll rates, gyroscopic, tumbling acts, trying to hover, and accelerate vertically...all driven by some sort of heavy metal music...with a an announcer screaming at a fever pitch the maneuvers are unique to that performer.

But that is getting pretty predictable to the airshow spectator requiring this aerial mayhem to be done at night for even more sensory titillation. However, pyro, LED blinking/blazing night routines are getting pretty predictable too.

Now adding jet engines to bi-planes, mating two aerobatic airplanes into one with multiple landing gear and tail-wheels to get to that model airplane's incredible thrust to weight ratio combined with a visual that certainly is different...at least for this season is the new normal. I am sure a real hybrid aerial Transformer of electric, hydrogen, piston, diesel, jet, and rocket powered combination of two Long EZ's flown by a Ninja Turtle will be at an airshow near you soon.

Posted by: Jim Holdeman | February 4, 2019 10:16 AM    Report this comment

Skip Stewart, Sean D. Tucker, Jeff Boorbeom, Kyle Franklin, Rob Holland, etc...are beyond fantastic in their flying skills. But in their effort to "please" the crowd, you can only do this so long before something fails, the wind shifts, or the smallest miscalculations of the best intention-ed, best disciplined, best trained aviator comes to a grisly end.

The last 10 years of airshow deaths is a grim testimony for the saying "Dare to be Different". It remains to be seen what will entertain people with the continuation of this bizarre attempt to circumvent the physics of flight by sheer power to weight ratios and human endurance...or the amazing, graceful routines of Bob Hoover, Delmar Benjamin, Matt Younkin, Jim Pietch, etc...who demonstrate the physics of flight.

I am more fearful now than ever of attending an airshow, or watching a training routine, being a first hand witness to a catastrophic loss of life because of this quest to be the ultimate aerial entertainer.

Graceful or violent, airshow flying is dangerous. training is dangerous. Very few performers die of "natural causes".

Posted by: Jim Holdeman | February 4, 2019 10:17 AM    Report this comment

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