After yesterday’s tragic accident at the Shoreham Royal Air Force Association Airshow in Sussex, UK, with seven people known to have been killed, 14 injured, and the pilot in hospital in a critical condition, there has been a great deal of understandable shock and speculation.
Unfortunately much of the commentary and speculation has no context, and for that reason, here is a number of facts to provide some background to otherwise overlooked critical aspects of this disaster.
No one yet knows what caused the accident. What is known is the aircraft, a Hawker Hunter T7 (a trainer version of a 1950s British fighter design) hit the ground, broke up, and the fuel aboard exploded. Unfortunately the impact took place on the A27 road which had traffic on it at the time, and the casualties were people just travelling on this road. The pilot survived the accident, but is badly injured and in hospital at the time of writing.
At the risk of stating the obvious, no-one wants or is prepared to have airshow accidents: not as a by-product of display activities or any other reason. Like all sport, there are dangers, but there is a great deal done to minimise and mitigate those risks, as outlined below.
The deaths yesterday are the first fatalities to bystander members of the public at a British airshow since an accident 1952. That is 63 years ago. It is no coincidence, either as the reason for this remarkable achievement is measures put in place after the 1952 John Derry DH.110 accident.
(Car racing accidents involving deaths of members of the public at Le Mans in 1955 and during the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in 1961 resulted in safety measures that have effectively ensured almost no injuries to the public since. There have been more recent spectator deaths in rally driving, while participant injuries in air displays, horse riding, motorsport, skiing and other similar activities remain low, but apparently ever present, despite continual growth of safety measures – such as helmets in horse riding and skiing. Any assessment needs to look at global trends and events and the local nation by nation or code [such as international sport safety rules] to gather meaningful data. In the case of air displays, there are variations in approach and regulation nations, and accident history, so for this discussion I have focussed on UK rules and history alone.)
One of the main principles formulated after the 1952 airshow accident is to ensure that the display aircraft mostly do not overfly the crowd or direct the energy of the manoeuvring towards the crowd. There are some exceptions, but by having this as a standard basis, any accidents that may occur will not involve those watching the show from the official public enclosure. In the case of the Shoreham accident, one point generally not made is that the accident did avoid the crowd area (as is in the standard plan) though it tragically did involve a road with people on it. While each death is a tragedy, we are lucky that there were so few, which is the result of a mixture of luck (the area around airfields is a mixture of open land and occupied areas) and planning (as above).
What went wrong?
We do not know. However, we will know and I can state, categorically, that a) the accident’s causes will almost certainly be accurately identified, by professional accident investigators, and b) the report will be publicly published and available for free on the internet. Unfortunately, it will not be available in the current news-media cycle, as it will take a number of months to be processed and completed.
This is because Britain has the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB). The AAIB will painstakingly piece together the sequence of events, forensically examine the factors, aircraft, pilot, environment and so forth, and enumerate the data and conclusions in the report. If they cannot identify causes, they will say so, but despite the destructive nature of aviation accidents, they rarely have to leave any factors listed as ‘unknown’.
That is why the airshow organisers ask for any evidence to be handed in.
In about six months from now, the publication of the report will make a few hours news, but will be available on the AAIB website from then onwards, for anyone to read and learn from. Any lessons that might change current practice in flight and show safety will be explicitly stated, and the recommendations implemented where appropriate. Significant risks identified will be acted on.
The pilot of any UK air display aircraft have to work out a standard display routine, normally made up of a number of standard aerobatic manoeuvres linked together to form the presentation. This is overseen by a designated examiner and when he or she is satisfied that the display is viable, repeatable, and safe, the pilot is issued with a Display Authorisation, or ‘DA’. This means that every display act has a standard, repeated and much-practised routine that he (or she or the crew) go through.
EDIT - Correction by Barry Tempest, formerly of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in this field: "After an evaluation by a highly experienced Display Authorisation Evaluator (DAE) appointed by the CAA
they are free to design and perform any display sequence within the
limitations imposed in their authorisation along with those of the
aircraft they are flying. They are not restricted to the sequence flown
in front of their evaluator. All such pilots are mentored by their
peers as they gain experience and all major displays have a Flying
Control Committee who monitor standards of safety. The FCC can
terminate any display if the rules are infringed and the Display
Authorisation can be suspended or revoked by the CAA."
No one ‘brings an aircraft and goes for a fly’ at a UK airshow. This, obviously, doesn’t prevent all accidents, but it does minimise the risks and removes multiple causal problems.
Display pilots are a remarkably varied group of people, however (in the UK) they are all in possession of the appropriate licences (like a car driver’s licence) and endorsements (like a heavy goods vehicle licence, or forklift licence) for any extras or differences from the standard aircraft that they expect to fly. For this, they have to be fit and healthy (as far as annual medicals can ensure) and fully experienced in flying the aircraft they are displaying. In many cases the pilots have thousands of hours flying experience, and have to have significant experience practising (and in due course performing) their display routine. (Note: the above is specific to civil pilots. Military pilots work on a different, but similarly regimented safety system.)
The Hawker Hunter is a 1950s design. The crashed aircraft was built some time later, but in that era. However, any vintage air display aircraft has to be kept in excellent condition, not just in looks but in mechanical reliability. In the case of a 1950s era jet fighter-trainer, the structure, engine, systems (like a car’s brakes and electrics) are all well known, inspected and tested in depth on a regular cycle (usually annually, and sections more frequently) and also tested as part of the pre-flight checks before every flight. Any parts that don’t work are replaced or, within a very stringent set of criteria, repaired. Most vintage display aircraft are in better condition mechanically than your five-year-old car, and are certainly inspected and tested to a far higher standard.
There is a balance between the pros and cons of still using older technology. On the negative side, older systems and aircraft are not as refined for use as more modern types. This is mitigated by the fact that, specifically in the case of 1950s military jets, they are not being used at the speeds, heights or performance that they were originally designed to be. Again, they are high performance technology, but being used in a very restricted format, rather like showing a race car, on a private course, at suburban speed limits. On the positive side of the use of old technology, the strengths and weaknesses of the design and components are well known. Any ‘product recall’ issues with the type are known (from decades earlier) documented and have the solutions in place. If they have not been solved, the aircraft does not fly.
Another point rarely noted about yesterday’s accident is that the airshow team had a co-ordinated disaster management plan in place, working with the involvement of the airshow team and emergency services. In this case it clearly worked (though not all details are in) and they all deserve credit for a plan that was fully worked out and able to be implemented when it had to be.
Obviously if there are no airshows, there can be no airshow accidents. There have been national bans in other countries. However, despite the evidence of yesterday’s tragedy, overall airshows are safe entertainment and provide significant tourism revenue, education and employment. Despite some reports, it is not common for operators of ex-military jet aircraft to cover their costs from appearance fees, though there is, of course, enormous variation in the costs of operation and the income possible. (The Shoreham airshow is a charity fundraiser for the Royal Air Force Association.) In the UK, and most other countries they are tightly regulated, carefully managed and safe. Everyone works towards a ‘safety is no accident’ objective.
Statistics vary, but airshows routinely gather huge audiences on site – far greater in numbers than many live sports, and are sometimes cited as the second most popular spectator sport in the UK. The infrastructure of vintage aviation, airshow activities, right down to the vital toilets, rubbish management and coffee carts, involves a huge number of people and generates remarkable amounts of tourism-type revenue. Additionally, they are more appreciated than ever as a cornerstone of the current ‘living history’ approach to history and heritage entertainment and education.
These are some of the background measures that were in place, and I hope you find the information useful.
James Kightly, www.VintageAeroWriter.com
James is a professional writer and reporter on global vintage aviation, and has been writing for over a quarter-century.
Shared under the Creative Commons Media Licence. Please attribute any quotation. References, corrections and additions will be incorporated as appropriate, and noted as changes in the text.
Edit1 - minor typos corrected.
Edit2 - clarification of display authorisation process from Barry Tempest.