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Are We Done With Air Shows Yet?Tim King Salem-News.com
Flashback to a year ago when a tragic crash claimed spectators in Reno. Organizer tells NPR new safety implemented will "make the news media happy".
(SALEM, Ore.) - Could the fatal crash of veteran pilot Jimmy Leeward in a fiery Reno, Nevada air show race accident that claimed nine lives and injured 60 be a turning point?
It seems possible that the clock may now be ticking on this military-oriented rich man's sport; one that combines big crowd thrills with even bigger crowd danger and risk, generally with a military twist.
It's not just a gut feeling. A brief scan of the history of documented air show crashes on Wikipedia, which admittedly is an incomplete list, shows a staggering leap in recent years in air show-related crashes and fatalities and injuries on both a world scale and nationally.
I expand on this greatly later in the article and the statistics are alarming, very alarming, as they demonstrate an escalation of air show fatalities on a level consistent with U.S. and western-fueled war efforts overseas.
It was only weeks ago, on 22 August 2011, that ABC's Barbara Pinto filed a report about how in one weekend, there were three fatal air show tragedies; one in England and two in the U.S. One of the deaths was a 'Wing Walker'. (see: Wing Walker's Fall From Plane Caught on Tape; Three Separate Air Show - ABC News).
The history is great, the stories that these planes generated in past wars is fascinating, but maybe we should concentrate how very obvious the real cost is, in many regards.
It might be time to read the writing on the wall. I don't mean a ban on air shows, nothing crazy, but sense and responsibility should tell organizers that the risk may be far more than necessary in some cases.
In this kind of show, a front row seat may be the last thing you want, however air show planes sometimes go into neighborhoods too, no matter how much pilots of out-of-control aircraft would like to pull a Great Santini, they sometimes fall right on top of homes, even here in Oregon as we learned in recent years.
Logic vs. Cost
In the 1920's the demand for early air show 'thrills' drove pilots to actually fly their planes into barns. That was the culmination of the excitement of 'Barnstormer' period and their sometimes fatalistic, sometimes fatal flights.
I believe there is an analogy to the Vietnam War helicopter pilots of today. The First World War generated a lot of aviators and many tried to carry on their dangerous lifestyles with paid careers as exhibition pilots. Vietnam era pilots often ended up flying medical helicopters in the U.S. and they are always known for their skill, as the early pilots would have also been.
I want to stress that I like airplanes as much as the next guy, more I imagine than most. But these airshows see aircraft that are close to 70-years old, that were not necessarily safe to fly when they were brand new, blasting past large crowds of people at intense speeds for the 'ooh' and 'ah' and at some point, this point, it seems like too much. As we learned this weekend in Reno, sometimes they literally just break up in flight.
The air show attendees became like those gathered around the edges of the worst turns in a European road race - sometimes they pay the ultimate price for their enthusiasm too.
There are so many horrific air show crashes now (most featured on YouTube) that I can just walk through them visually. Let's go a step farther though and examine some of the well known and maybe not so well-known.
2006 Hillsboro Air Show Crash in Oregon
In July 2006, Salem-News.com carried a story about a fatal air show crash in nearby Hillsboro, Oregon, at their annual air show.
A 1959 British Hawker Hunter participating in the 2006 Oregon International Air Show crashed into a residential neighborhood near the Hillsboro Airport, setting at least two homes on fire just after 4:30 p.m. Sunday.
The pilot, Robert E. Guilford, was a lifetime aviation enthusiast who enjoyed flying vintage fighter jets at air shows, was a lawyer from California. In the crash, three different homes were hit, one even took a direct hit in the middle. The air show was immediately canceled and the streets in that section of Hillsboro were in gridlock.
A witness, Josh Boer, told a Portland television station that a house "literally exploded" when the plane hit and sent out a fire bomb that lit two other homes on fire. The plane crashed near NE 60th Ave and Harvest Street.
One witness, a pilot said it appeared to him that it was a stall and spin accident. Witnesses also said it appeared that the pilot was trying desperately to crash land the plane in nearby fields
Fairchild B-52 Crash
The terrible Air Force bomber crash that happened in 1994 involving the massive Boeing B-52 Stratofortress is one ingrained in the collective American imagination. When that plane crashed people gasped, if you don't know, this plane makes a B-17 four engine bomber from WWII look small.
The B-52's, however trivialized by the 80's new wave band that adopted the name, were the terror of the skies over Vietnam for years, dropping thousands of tons of deadly bombs on the Vietnamese countryside, villages, cities, towns and military installations. Immense just starts to describe this military airplane.
In that event the pilot, "Bud" Holland, who was accompanied by three crew members, flew the aircraft beyond its operational limits and lost control, stalling the plane, at which point it simply fell to the ground sideways, on its wing, and exploded in a fiery, deadly explosion.
An investigation of the crash laid heavy blame on the pilot, concluding according to Wikipedia, that "...the chain of events leading to the crash was primarily attributable to three factors: Holland's personality and behavior, USAF leaders' delayed reactions to earlier incidents involving Holland, and the sequence of events during the aircraft's final flight."
The 1994 Fairchild Air Force Base B-52 crash occurred at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington, United States on 24 June 24 1994.
El Toro FA-18 Crash
Another extremely memorable crash happened 24 April 1988 at a base where I was personally assigned for the better part of three years; Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in California. The air show crash happened when an F/A-18 Hornet pilot was seemingly pressured by the air show staff to move quickly, and he executed a complicated move without enough altitude.
Marine Corps Colonel Jerry Cadick was performing a maneuver called a 'Cuban 8' and entered the move without sufficient altitude to complete the last part of the figure.
This happened in front of 300,000 spectators. Wikipedia explains that the aircraft was in a nose-high attitude, but still carrying too much energy toward the ground when it impacted at more than 300 mph.
"Col. Cadick was subjected to extremely high G forces that resulted in his face making contact with the control stick and sustaining serious injury. He broke his arm, elbow and ribs, exploded a vertebra and collapsed a lung. Col. Cadick survived and retired from the Marine Corps. The F/A-18 remained largely intact but was beyond repair."
The plane quite amazingly, needed just a couple of feet more than it had, and the jet discharges touched the ground and the slammed down violently and began skidding along the ground at an extremely high rate of speed.
MiG-29 Collision at Fairford International Air Tattoo
A famous MiG-29 air show mid-air collision that stands as a testimony to ejection seats, happened during a 1993 RIAT Airshow, when two Russian MIG-29 fighters collided. Incredibly, both pilots walked away. It happened 24 July 1993 when the pair of aircraft took off in close formation to commence their flight display at the RAF Fairford International Air Tattoo.
The display was going smoothly until the final maneuver consisting of simultaneous loops. The flight leader, pulling up first, initiated a normal loop. The second pilot executed a tighter loop after the first pilot began his maneuver, and somehow the two pilots lost visual contact with each other after the second pilot entered the clouds.
According to the description on the YouTube video posted by YouTube user Tsobanian, shortly after commencing his break, the left wing of the Leader impacted the fuselage of Number 2. Both aircraft became uncontrollable.
One aircraft impacted to the North-East of the airfield, 700m (2,300ft) away from the crowd line, while the other one crashed on the perimeter fence. Remarkably, only one person on the ground received minor injuries. A Belgian C-130, an Italian G-222 and a French Alpha Jet were slightly damaged. The two Mig-29 pilots, Sergey Tresvyatskiy and Alexander Beschastnov, ejected successfully and landed uninjured.
Worst Crashes Ever - Thunderbirds Training at Indian Springs
The Diamond Crash, on 17 January 1982, was the worst operational accident in the history of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Team involving show aircraft. The crash claimed the lives of four pilots flying Northrop T-38 Talon jets who crashed during operational training, at Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field, Nevada, which is now Creech Air Force Base.
They were training for an upcoming air show at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona. The four T-38As comprising the basic diamond formation, hit the desert floor almost simultaneously, as the pilots practiced a four-plane line abreast loop, climbing in side-by-side formation several thousand feet, pulling over in a slow, backward loop, and descending at more than 400 mph. The planes were meant to level off at about 100 feet; Instead, the formation struck the ground at high speed.
The four pilots died instantly: Major Norm Lowry, III of Radford, Virginia; Captain Willie Mays of Ripley, Tennessee; Captain Joseph "Pete" Peterson of Tuskegee, Alabama; and Captain Mark E. Melancon of Dallas, Texas.
The public affairs office at nearby Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, said at the time that contrary to speculation that the flight leader might have misjudged his altitude or speed, the other three pilots repeating the error, it was concluded by the Air Force that the crash was due to a jammed stabilizer on the lead jet.
Either way, the other pilots, in accordance with their training, did not break formation and essentially followed their leader into the ground, the wreckage spread across a 1-square-mile area of the desert 60 miles north of Las Vegas on Range 65, which is now referred to as "The Gathering of Eagles Range".
Reno - a Tipping Point?
September 16 - 2011 Reno Air Races crash - Pilot Jimmy Leeward lost control of his plane and crashed into spectators at the National Championship Air Races and Air Show, killing at least nine people, including the pilot. More than 60 people were injured, at least 15 of them critically.
MSNBC described the crash that took place during an air race involving other vintage World War II P-51 Mustangs by noting that: "several spectators were killed on impact as the 1940s-model plane appeared to lose a piece of its tail before slamming like a missile into a crowded tarmac."
The photos of the plane in its final moments show that a piece of the left rear elevator seems to be missing from the plane. If that is the case, it would have greatly reduced the moving surface the plane used to climb or dive.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) says their investigation is focusing on the tail section of the P-51 Mustang flown by Mr. Leeward, because of the photos and videos showed the possibility that part of the tail surface became detached before it crashed.
The NTSB says the crater at the crash site is 3 feet deep and 6 to 8 feet wide. Debris is reportedly scattered over more than an acre.
Police say 69 people were treated at hospitals and 31 of them were admitted.
The Mustang may be the best remembered plane of WWII, it is certainly among them. The aircraft was perfected by the British after they were provided by the U.S. government, and after changing the engine, the P-51 became one of the war's ultimate hot rods with excellent maneuverability, performance, top speed and range.
T-28 Air Show Crash Also This Week
What happened in Reno is a severe tragedy, but it was not the only fatal military plane crash at an air show in the US this week. The pilot of an airplane was killed in a fiery crash Saturday afternoon in West Virgina, while performing for a crowd of several thousand, in the Thunder Over the Blue Ridge airshow at the Eastern Regional Airport.
Investigators from the NTSB are expected to arrive in Martinsburg Sunday to begin probing the cause of the crash which happened Saturday afternoon at approximately 2:30 p.m. during the air show at the base of the West Virginia Air Guard’s 167th Airlift Wing.
West Virginia Adjutant General James Hoyer talked to reporters at a press conference Saturday. He said, "The aircraft was piloted by a single civilian pilot who died in the crash". He added that, "No one on the ground was injured and no other aircraft were involved."
The plane's tail number indicates that its registered owner is Jack Mangan of Cornelius, N.C. Mr. Mangan is also listed on the Trojan Horsemen's Website as a member of the T-28 Warbird Aerobatic Formation Demo Team, though there are no clear indications at this point that he was piloting the airplane.
Hoyer said, "We were fortunate that the safety measures put in place by the Federal Aviation Administration ensured the safety of those on the ground." It is unfortunate that similar rules did not prevent injuries to the air show spectators in Reno. An eyewitness stated that he watched the plane wobble after completing a maneuver and fly straight into the ground.
There are only a small number of entertainment-based events that are extremely dangerous for attending crowds. On rare occasions a race car has left the track and injured fans in the U.S. but the dynamics are at least designed to prevent it. When a plane has a problem the results are potentially devastating, if a crash occurs anywhere near human beings.
It is undeniable that the aviation tricks performed at air shows are hard on planes, particularly aircraft that are old and vulnerable to unpredictable weaknesses. There is nothing a pilot can do when his airplane simply falls apart in flight, and that is what appears to have happened in Reno on 16 September 2011.
When planes aren't falling apart or malfunctioning to dramatic ends like the Thunderbirds crash, another terrible scenario comes into play. When pilots perform at air shows, they are there to impress - and 'death-defying feats' have always been the center of air shows, and everyone should admit that.
While I make reference to barnstormers of the 1920's in this article, it is clear that none of those planes that were lost are included on the Wikipedia list. Also, I use the term 'crashes' loosely as many of these events are not so quickly explained, I include a link to the Wikipedia list where the incidents are explained in more detail.
However, the pattern based on their statistics goes something like this:
I'm not a statistician or mathematician, but I think the numbers speak for themselves. The efforts to keep people excited about military aviation have escalated greatly during the current, grueling wars of the Middle east that only seem to grow in number like the number of airshow crashes and fatalities.
I'm sure many will not agree, but in a nation with a dwindling economy and wars overseas blowing human beings to pieces, it seems a little obscene to celebrate the military airplane these days to the extent that they are crashing into crowds of people.
Most people aren't happy to simply watch an airplane fly by, they want to see them spinning maneuvers, loops, flying upside down... whatever. Pilots push the limits because of the crowd, and for the personal recognition, and to give people their money's worth, but perhaps the bar is too high.
Airplane museums are tremendously popular attractions, they earn money and keep planes in one piece (for the most part) and allow the aircraft a chance to be of far more educational value in terms of communicating aviation history, that they are flying by at hundreds of miles per hour.
Break out a video camera around a bunch of skateboarders at a ramp or pool and watch their level of daring and sometimes foolishness, surge beyond reason. This is the same thing that happens at air shows. Bravado gets to be an expensive commodity and we are writing checks that this nation can't cash.
Sources and References:
Tim King is a former U.S. Marine with twenty years of experience on the west coast as a television news producer, photojournalist, reporter and assignment editor. In addition to his role as a war correspondent, this Los Angeles native serves as Salem-News.com's Executive News Editor. Tim spent the winter of 2006/07 covering the war in Afghanistan, and he was in Iraq over the summer of 2008, reporting from the war while embedded with both the U.S. Army and the Marines.
Tim holds awards for reporting, photography, writing and editing, including the Silver Spoke Award by the National Coalition of Motorcyclists (2011), Excellence in Journalism Award by the Oregon Confederation of Motorcycle Clubs (2010), Oregon AP Award for Spot News Photographer of the Year (2004), First-place Electronic Media Award in Spot News, Las Vegas, (1998), Oregon AP Cooperation Award (1991); and several others including the 2005 Red Cross Good Neighborhood Award for reporting. Tim has several years of experience in network affiliate news TV stations, having worked as a reporter and photographer at NBC, ABC and FOX stations in Arizona, Nevada and Oregon. Tim was a member of the National Press Photographer's Association for several years and is a current member of the Orange County Press Club.
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