Airshow Crashes (Again)


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.