Shoreham air display accident – interim report

According to the UK Air Accident Investigation Branch’s interim factual report on the Shoreham air show crash, nothing detectable was wrong with the Hawker Hunter at any point in the display.

It has been confirmed that the aircraft entered the fatal vertical manoeuvre at a height of 200ft when 500ft would have been the normal minimum – and certainly wiser – thus leaving very little room for misjudgement in a trajectory that is frighteningly easy to get wrong, even for a skillful and experienced pilot.

The intent in a normal vertical manoeuvre like this loop-with-roll would be to complete it at the entry height, but certainly not less when the aircraft began the manoeuvre close to the ground. In fact the aircraft began to pull up from 200ft above ground level and finished by impacting the surface.

There may yet be more to this story than the AAIB has just revealed, but there were cameras and a microphone in the cockpit which should confirm most of what it is possible to know.

Air displays contain risk, like Formula 1 and other sports do. If they didn’t, nobody would go to watch them. But they are not intended to extend the risk to non-participants. That is the part that needs examination.

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.