Airshow Crashes (Again)

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The weekend's tragic crash and dual fatality at the Dayton Airshow raises a perennial question. Two really: Should airshows continue to offer these kinds of acts and when there's a crash, should we, as a news organization, show the inevitable video that results?

I'll address the second question first, because we had a complaint about the video. When crash videos depicting fatalities are available, we don't feature them in the AVweb video player, but we sometimes link to them on other sites, labeled with a warning. Why? Because they're out there, they exist and they are part of the news story, like it or not. When airshow organizations, performers and pilots take on risky, low-level acts that then go wrong, there is no contract with the world that these won't be taped and published. If you're willing to risk traumatizing a crowd with a maneuver gone bad, you shouldn't expect some unwritten rule to kick in that no one beyond the airshow audience will see it. That's simply unrealistic. I'm sure that performers, airshow organizers and their relatives understand this. If they don't, they should.

Is there any value in a general audience seeing such coverage? Probably not a lot, although there is limited forensic value in AVweb's pilot audience seeing it. Here's why: As part of this industry, you have a stake in what goes on in it and you'd like to have an informed opinion, I'm sure. So would I. And after viewing that tape, my opinion is that the maneuver was performed, whether by intent or accident, at a lower altitude than I'd have found prudent as a watcher or someone green lighting the act for an airshow. I don't know if the airplane stalled or had some other anomaly.

Either way, the risk/reward ratio strikes me as being out of balance. What, after all, are we trying to accomplish here? Entertainment for an aviation-interested audience is one thing, promotion of aviation another. You may have an entirely different opinion and so be it. At least you can see the film and decide for yourself. Or decide not to watch it at all.

To the second question of whether airshows should have such edgy acts, I feel about it the way I did two years when this came up after another horrific airshow crash.

Airshow acts are meant to be edgy and somewhat risky; that's what grabs the public's attention. The thrill derives from watching a skilled pilot do what the watcher can't do or would never consider doing. The challenge for organizers and performers is to recognize when far enough becomes too far and then build in a little more margin. If they fail to do that and a crash results, then so do the consequences. I've never believed that people go to these events wishing to see people die. To me, that's irrational. I think they want to be entertained with a little adrenaline rush.

Whether crashes like this harm GA recruiting efforts is debatable, but I can't imagine that they do much good, either. We've been reporting on efforts to improve the GA accident rate because some people believe it harms the ability to attract new pilots. I have my doubts about that and I'm just as doubtful that the general public, upon seeing such a crash, understands that it has nothing to do with general aviation. It's just another crash. I think the real truth is that they happen, get some coverage and the world moves on little changed.

Having said as much, I wouldn't argue for eliminating such acts from airshows. The world is full of risk and this is just one. Just don't expect people going to airshows to understand such subtleties and understand that when spectacular crashes to happen, there will be consequences. One of them is news coverage some of us may not like. It's just another box in the risk matrix.

Comments (21)

My heart just sank when I saw it. My thoughts and prayers go out to the families.

Posted by: Phil Derosier | June 24, 2013 5:37 PM    Report this comment

This is a very tragic event and my prayers go out to evryone affected.

I was not there and I don't personally know anyone involved, so I deal with this tragedy, as with other tragedies or near-tragedies, by trying to understand and learn from them. And while this kind of aviation bears little resemblance to the kind that 99.9+ percent of pilots do, it does obey the same laws of physics. There is always something to be learned. One thing I have learned is that videos evoke emotions. Those emotions are valid as far as they go, but decisions based on emotion tend to be made quickly and with less-than-scientific perspective.

There are innumerable examples of people taking what some would consider extreme and unnecessary risks with their own lives and property. Some that come to mind might be, say, walking a tight rope across a canyon, NASCAR racing, downhill skiing, mountain climbing, rock climbing, shark diving, motocross, moto GP, air racing, America's Cup sailboat racing, hydroplane racing, MMA, drag boating, etc. etc. I've tuned into all of the above and more. Why?

Frankly, I believe we tune in precisely because we know that we are witnessing something extraordinary. We are amazed that others have the skill, athletic prowess and willingness to do something that seems so dangerous, difficult and often flat out scary.


Posted by: Brandon Nadrash | June 25, 2013 3:07 AM    Report this comment


I give people enough credit to believe that they know the difference between an aerobatic wing walking act and a person flying his family around in a humble Cessna 182. They manage to differentiate the risks of everyday highway driving from the risk associated with race car driving - or even something as common as drinking and driving. Every sentient animal learns to assess risk as long as they have enough experience to recognize it.

Where most of us draw a line is when one person's desire for thrills puts others in danger involuntarily. Airshows do a great job of making sure that the only lives at risk are those of people who have chosen to accept that risk.

The parallel for GA pilots comes when they carry passengers. Pilots should be more cautious and more risk averse when carrying passengers than they might be when solo. Yet I hear of pilots who show off and thrill their passengers by things simple to us but perhaps terrifying to a non-pilot passenger - such as doing stalls or steep turns or even 0g push-overs without prior explanation and consent. I can't believe people do this yet I've heard the anecdotes (mostly from some girl who used to date a dumb pilot!)

But if there is a serious danger to GA's reputation with the uninitiated public, it is not from airshow crashes but rather from the far more common GA crashes that must seem very similar to the kind of flying people see at their municipal airport.

Posted by: Brandon Nadrash | June 25, 2013 3:08 AM    Report this comment

I agree that some "flying" acts simply take things way too far, mostly for the sake of "gee look what I can do". Wing-walking in general is one of them, and certainly at such a low altitude and slow speed that any slight miscalculation or aerodynamic perturbation would result in disaster, which is exactly what happened here.

I'm still not sure what the purpose "wing-walking" has for promoting or otherwise demonstrating aviation prowess other than showing how far things can be pushed, and I'm not sure why the FAA continues to issue waivers to things that are so exceptionally risky that it's not a question of "if" but rather "when"...

Posted by: Avi Weiss | June 25, 2013 10:51 AM    Report this comment

Good article. Providing the link was reasonable. It's not pleasant but they didn't suffer. I watched it a few times and I think I learned something.

Posted by: John Hogan | June 25, 2013 11:15 AM    Report this comment

It takes a special person to say to others, I don't want to experience this particular thing or event, so it shouldn't be available to you either. Nonetheless, it is an unfortunate, escalating self-interest that covers videos, guns, tobacco, drugs, food and every inanimate object, detached condition or personal belief that can be imagined. Kudos to AVweb for the respect and freedom allowed for individual decision making concerning the video.

I look forward to the day when the two perennial questions asked in the blog are no longer necessary or relevant.

Posted by: David Miller | June 25, 2013 1:41 PM    Report this comment

I live in Dayton and saw the news coverage - several times - while local non-aviation 'reporters' tried to explain what happened.

Put simply, it happened and it is aviation related news so it should be reported. However, speculation or opinion on the cause or 'spin-off' discussions about whether airshows should offer these 'thrills' should be kept to a minimum.

Posted by: Richard Norris | June 26, 2013 6:43 AM    Report this comment

Paul, I agree with your comments fully. It's important to read accident reports and it helps to watch videos, even if the event was tragic, we as pilots need to "absorb" this material to help prevent accidents. I fly much more carefully now than I did 35 years ago when I began flying! I have much greater respect for what can go wrong. I appreciate AVWeb posting these videos for those of us who wish to watch them.

Posted by: John Barsness | June 26, 2013 9:42 AM    Report this comment

I have never appreciated any value in "wing walking." How much of a wing walker can an air show crowd see? The pilot must compensate for him/her, limiting the performance of the plane. Not to mention that when things do go wrong, options are limited for both pilot and walker.

Posted by: Phillip Potter | June 26, 2013 9:52 AM    Report this comment

You are spot on with both your observations. This comes from being in the airshow business as a pilot for over twenty years.

Posted by: John Rippinger | June 26, 2013 10:45 AM    Report this comment

While I agree with you Paul and the above comments, one aspect of such videos or visual scenarios for me is an attempt to figure out the cause. I have to think that most pilots apply their own analysis to such tragedies regardless of whether the tragedy is at an airshow, GA, or air carrier. For instance, did the lady's position on the wing factor in the wing stall? Obviously no recovery was possible and it truly is sad. That said, I believe such videos appeal to the voyeuristic side of the general public, but for pilots it's hopefully a learning tool.

Posted by: James Sanford | June 26, 2013 1:47 PM    Report this comment

I quit going to "civilian" airshows because I grew tired of watching people commit suicide. After witnessing the 3rd fatality in almost as many years it just wasn't fun anymore. Against the competition of formation afterburners and mach .98 flybys the only way the little guys have of getting the attention of the crowd is to flip around like crack addicted chipmunks 10 feet off the ground. Do it long enough and you will have a bad day. I think the most telling irrelevance of this type of flying is the video of this latest crash taken from further to the left of the flight line. The plane hits the ground, is consumed by the post impact fire and people are walking back and forth in the foreground completely oblivious. The old Daffy Duck cartoon comes to mind where he blows himself up to win a talent contest. Great act but he could only do it once!

Posted by: Scott McGowin | June 26, 2013 1:54 PM    Report this comment

Oh, Scott ... quit it, will ya? with your progressive "only-the-'gubment-can-do anything-right" screed ...

Posted by: Phil Derosier | June 26, 2013 6:36 PM    Report this comment

Really. The government can't do anything as well as private industry, or individuals. The notion that some sort of further gov't regulation could "help" us is sickening. If we hold the slightest notion that we are a "free" people, that we have liberty to pursue those endevors we wish, there is no need for any further "investigations" or gov't interventions into events like this. It's life. It happens. It's tragic. No matter the venue, no matter the circumstance, people die. No one gets out of here alive. I'm sure these people did not wish to die that day or in that manner. But one thing was always certain, at some point in time they were most assuredly going to die. I fly, I do aerobatics. I also race motorcycles. 200 MPH dragbikes. I don't have a death wish, I simply enjoy it. I hope to die in bed next to my wife many years from now. But I accept the idea that what I participate in is inherently dangerous. So do the folks that do these airshows, air races, and automobile and motorcycle races as well. But the % of people killed in those activities is dwarfed by the fatalities of folks just geting on with life. This is a non issue.

Posted by: Gary Smrtic | June 27, 2013 7:22 AM    Report this comment

Wing-walking is featured because it is a nostalgia piece, dating back to the barnstorming years. It isn't particularly dangerous as currently done, although I think airspeed margins are shaved a bit in deference to the wing-walker. This may be the case in this incident.

I note in the AV Web survey related to this accident the "wowser" (good Aussie word) contingent is being grossly overwhelmed by the let-people-be-free majority. Of which I am a member.

Posted by: John Wilson | June 27, 2013 9:29 AM    Report this comment

I also play some dangerous games. I realize that when I do I put myself at risk. Sh*t happens. You just have to expect it.

If we allow the government to get involved here how long will it be before "they " tell you what machines you can't ride, what books you can't read....what thoughts you aren't allowed to have...etc..

Posted by: STAN TEW | June 27, 2013 11:06 AM    Report this comment

Funny Phil, I had never thought of the Blues or Thunder chickens as "the Government". Frak! Now I have to stop going to those shows also! :-)

Posted by: Scott McGowin | June 27, 2013 1:47 PM    Report this comment

Most of the performers at airshows if not all have more developed skills than me. It is alwasy a good reminder that regardless of your skill level bad things can happen. Watching the video I find myself going through all the possible reasons for the accident and what I might have done differently. Always a good idea.

Posted by: Steve Cox | June 27, 2013 3:24 PM    Report this comment

There's probably enough news value to justify posting the video as a report of this crash. But the bigger value to AvWeb readership comes if you ignore the wing walker and the fact that the pilot happened to be upside down. At its core, this video illustrates the results of an unexpected stall during low-altitude maneuvering flight. (Due regard should be given to the fact that the cause is far from determined, but it's still a valuable illustration.) That's a scenario that kills far too many every year, despite the best efforts of the FAA, primary flight instructors, and aviation writers. Seeing it for real can only help to hammer home the point. It's very rare that these accidents are caught on tape, so when one is -- even upside down -- it deserves to be published to this community.

Posted by: Les Niles | June 27, 2013 3:31 PM    Report this comment

Personally, I think air displays can still be awe inspiring without pilots operating right at the edge of the envelope (theirs or the aircraft's) near to the ground. That doesn't mean there shouldn't be low level manoeuvres, just that they should either be comfortably within the envelope and/or with an energy vector that takes the aircraft away from the ground. At least that way, the pilot has a fighting chance of sorting things out if things don't go according to plan.

Posted by: Ian Walton | June 27, 2013 4:30 PM    Report this comment

An old aviator mate of mine told me about 30 years ago, never, never, ever, hop in an aircraft at an airshow. Very good advice. At air shows, pilots get airshowitis. They are unaware that the general public cannot tell the difference between 100' and 300' (agl), nor between 100kts and 150kts. They believe that they have to put on the greatest and most daring airshow and most times, it unfortunately ends in tragedy. What a waste!

Posted by: Rod Lovell | June 28, 2013 12:56 AM    Report this comment

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