The risk to air shows

Following the 22 August Shoreham air show crash, in which at least 11 people on a public road have been killed by a display aircraft, the Civil Aviation Authority has promised a complete review of air display safety.

Since comprehensive rules and guidelines already exist and – until now – have protected the public (if not the display pilots) successfully for some sixty years, what can the CAA realistically do except ban air shows over land?

You can find a description of the existing discipline imposed on air display organisers on the Flightglobal website.

After the devastation and loss of life caused on the busy A27 dual carriageway road section next to Shoreham airfield when the Hawker Hunter crashed on it, the media has – understandably – been posing questions about the issue of public roads passing very close to airport runways.

In fact Shoreham aerodrome – the UK’s oldest airport, founded in 1910 – was not constructed next to the existing A27. The part of the A27 road that, today, skirts the airfield at its northern boundary was laid nearly half a century after the airfield was constructed, as part of a bypass for the south coast towns.

Further along the same trunk road to the west, the A27 becomes the M27 as it swings around the Portsmouth/Southampton conurbation. When the M27 was built, it was placed right slap bang at the end of Southampton airport’s runway. The airport had been there for 73 years when that section of the motorway was opened in 1983. When, in May 1993, a Cessna Citation 500 business jet overran the Southampton airport runway onto the M27 it hit two cars, but fortunately no-one was hurt.

Journalists reporting such events, however, quite reasonably ask why runways are built near roads. But their question needs reversing. Planners, in positioning roads close to runway ends, by implication do not consider landings and take-offs to be a risk worth worrying about.

Until something happens. Then all of a sudden, according to reporters who don’t know the history, the airport is the bad guy.

As an immediate measure following Shoreham, the CAA has grounded all Hawker Hunters, and required that vintage jets at displays will not conduct “high energy aerobatics”. That is a reasonable precaution until the investigations report into the recent display crashes of the Hunter and the Folland Gnat that came down killing its pilot about three weeks before.

But in considering further restrictions for the long term the CAA must consider how much pleasure public air displays provide, and that one of the functions they perform is to enthuse the country’s youth with the possibilities of high technology. Air displays are not only the biggest spectator sport in the country apart from football, they generate the future’s pilots, engineers, mechanics and aerodynamicists.

So rather than shutting down events like the Shoreham air show, or dumbing down its displays because of a proximate road, the CAA might consider other possibilities.

Like looking at the statistics that demonstrate what a one-off event this was, and not imposing further restrictions.

Or – if the CAA feels that such a tragic event must generate a visible reaction of some kind – like imposing road traffic diversions while the display is active, or putting traffic lights on the road to keep traffic clear of the perceived risk zone when a particular display is being performed.

The statistics prove that air displays may put pilots at risk, but the risk to the public is infinitesimally low. The CAA’s decisions, hopefully, will reflect that.






2 thoughts on “The risk to air shows

  1. I caught your oral analysis of that dreadful, stunning crash in Brussels on the BBC News on Aug 24 @19:11 CET and you are consulting well, as always. Using Flight Global’s clock to tell Flight International the time ?, nice work if you can get it. A warm sunny day that was on both sides of the Channel was Shoreham on a distant shore. I agree completely with your insightful analysis. And I did not know that Shoreham was the UK’s oldest-1910- airport, as always, everyday is a schoolday in general and a Learmount one, in particular.
    Your A27 comment reminds me of the probably factual comment of an American tourist arriving on Heathrow’s RWY 09R passing over Windsor Castle on the left. “Wow, that’s awesome !, but why did they build a castle, so near to the airport ?”…
    That’s the white humour, so to speak. The old black humour aviation joke is that, “if the pilot survives, you’ll never know what really happened”. Still, all jokes aside, I really, really, really hope that its pilot, Andy Hill, pulls through-from up- from his induced-coma condition tragedy. And what a terrible burden for him and his family to bear, where awesome and awful collided, for whatever the “HONEST” reason of a human catastrophe with parallel.
    I am personally acquainted with this brutal grief, but each is unique, beyond individual comprehension. That’s what makes us human and not drones. We care, we learn. To paraphrase Ernest K. Gann of 1961,” fate is the HUNTER (non T-7), but failure is the teacher”.
    On Aug 22 1985 @06:12BST British Airtours /KT28M rejected a takeoff from Manchester/EGCC’s RWY24. That was 30 years, 7 hours, 8 minutes before Shoreham’s Rwy 20 via A-27 disaster. And only one known photograph exists of that British Airtours/KT28M EGCC RWY24 RTO. Now EGCC’s runways are 23L &23R.Time flies, memory stands still, the past is another country and Magnetic Variation is eternal, QED. It, QED=QFE (Queens Field Elevation) via QNH (Queens Normal Height).
    My beloved father, Jerry, died in Cork on my 44th birthday on Oct 24 2010. Since then, I have become more obsessive about time’s historical links with the present. As a pilot, it is of course an occupational hazard. Andy Hill was 21 years old when 39 year old Peter Terrington initiated that KT28M RTO on EGCC’s RWY 24 and that fateful decision to exit right onto taxiway link Delta, fanning the flames via the prevailing wind. Thanks to Terrington honest and professional RTO, RTO’s have never been the same again.
    And there is only one static photo of that Terrington RTO, compared with the myriad multi-media present images of a long historic Hawker Hunter’s crash. Not only does memory stand still, but history is inverted by mass media. And as the great AAIB will demonstrate via Lockerbie and Kegworth, a mind is best used like a parachute. That is, when opened, QED-QFE-QNH!


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