Shoreham and the future of air shows

No person or organisation associated with the 2015 Shoreham flying display accident escaped criticism – implied or actual – in the Air Accident Investigation Branch’s final report.

When the aircraft that later crashed, the Hawker Hunter T7, took off from its North Weald, Essex base heading for Shoreham to fly the display, it had several time-expired or unserviceable components in it. In retrospect the AAIB report says it was not in compliance with its permit to fly, yet none of these faulty components caused the accident.

The Flying Display Director hired to manage show safety was fully qualified in terms of knowledge, experience and expertise to oversee all aspects of the flying display, but the report implies there were some things – like the exact display routine the Hunter was to fly – he should have risk-assessed manoeuvre by manoeuvre. Yet even if he had, the crash might still have happened.

The Hunter’s pilot was fully qualified in terms of experience, training, flying recency and medical fitness to carry out the display he had planned, but on the day he got one of the aerobatic manoeuvres badly wrong, making mistakes that are difficult to understand in somebody so experienced.

The mistakes meant that he himself was seriously injured when thrown clear of the aircraft on impact with the A27 highway next to the airfield, but 11 people on the road were killed.

By flying a similar Hunter through the same manoeuvres, the AAIB has determined that the pilot could not have pulled the aircraft out of his “bent loop” without hitting the ground once he had passed the apex too low and failed, at that point, to carry out an “escape manoeuvre” by rolling the aircraft upright.

If he had used his ejection seat during the high speed descent from the loop it would not have saved him, and the pilotless aircraft would have continued to impact with the ground, possibly in much the same place. The only way the pilot could have prevented killing the people on the A27, says the report, was to crash the aircraft into nearby fields, but during the last second or so he probably still hoped he could avoid harm to road-users by pulling up in time.

Why was he too low at the loop’s apex?

He should have entered the loop from a 500ft base, but he started at about 185ft. The height of the top of a loop compared with the entry height is a product of speed and engine power at entry. The aircraft should have entered at a minimum 350kt with full power selected, but the Hunter entered at 310kt with less than full power until well into the pull-up. The pilot should have aimed for a 4,000ft apex with 150kt indicated airspeed over the top, but in fact it got to less than 3,000ft with 105kt.

Unless the pilot recognised the lack of energy at that point and carried out the rolling escape manoeuvre, he and the aircraft were doomed.

Why a pilot with so much experience of teaching, let alone flying, aerobatic manoeuvres failed to heed these indicators that the loop was going wrong may never be known, because trauma has obliterated the details of the fatal flight from the pilot’s memory, according to the report.

Air shows involve risk. A study by the AAIB has recently quantified that risk, and my blog a year ago describes the findings in detail.

The final Shoreham report confirms the impressions given by the earlier AAIB bulletins on the subject. Because no-one in an on-site air display audience in UK has been killed since the early 1950s, such success appears to have led to complacency.

Not rampant complacency, but a relaxed belief that all the people involved are experts who know what they are doing, so they don’t need to be given the third degree before a show.

The sign that not all was well was the number of serious air display accidents, mostly fatal, that occurred just outside the area controlled by the display organisers – just like the Shoreham Hunter crash.

The AAIB found that 65% of all air show accidents came into that category, but almost always the only person harmed was the pilot. So nobody, including the CAA, raised the alarm, until now.

Meanwhile aerodromes used for decades as air show venues have suffered encroachment at their boundaries by expanding residential and industrial development. This affects the profiles aircraft are allowed to fly during a display, and flight display directors are bound to take this into account.

No longer are display lines, and entry and exit profiles dependent purely on where the display audience “crowd line” is, they have to take into account what each aircraft would have to do in the event of a technical or operational mishap during the display to avoid crashing into a nearby populated zone.

These are considerations that will affect air shows in the future. If a flying display stops being exciting, it might as well give up. Or go somewhere else more rural.

Coastal air displays will survive, because the escape route for aircraft in trouble is obvious.

The best example of the conundrum air show organisers face is what has happened to the traditional Red Arrows display at the biennial Farnborough International Air Show. When the Reds reviewed their Farnborough routine in detail following the tightened guidelines published in the early Shoreham bulletins, they found they had to curtail their display considerably.

In a statement following the release of the Shoreham final report, the CAA says: “We are fully committed to ensuring that all air shows take place safely, for the six million people who attend them each year in the UK and for the communities in which they take place.”

Let’s hope the CAA means what it says.

Quite an audience for the Reds

During the 2015 display season an estimated 42 million people watched the RAF Red Arrows flying their routine.

On 17 December, having finished a day’s training, they took a break for Christmas. But not before the pilots – and the heads of the Reds’ engineering and administrative teams – made their traditional visit that evening to the City of London for the 39th  “Boycie’s Annual Reception”.

Courtesy of David Boyce, a City man and long time Red Arrows devotee, each year the Reds meet the heads of Britain’s trading and financial community at the ancient Charterhouse.

It’s a well-attended social gathering where wealth-creation meets the highest expression of the military expertise that ensures the City enjoys the peace and stability to trade; and maybe also the ground in which the seeds of corporate sponsorship are sewn, potentially boosting the Reds’ ability to market their shows.

According to tradition Red 1 – currently Sqn Ldr David Montenegro – addressed the gathering, summarising the season’s achievements and looking ahead to the next.

Increasingly, it seems, the UK is deploying the Reds as one of its most powerful international marketing weapons, furthering its push to curry favour with growing economic powers like India.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on his early November state visit to the UK, was being entertained at 10 Downing Street, Modi was honoured with a flypast, the Reds streaming the Indian colours instead of the UK’s red, white and blue.

The Indian air force happens to be putting in a new order for 20 more of the Hawk trainers that the Reds fly, except they’ll be the latest marque rather than the nearly 40y-old machines the team use.

Montenegro, in an intriguing aside, told us how hard the team’s engineers had to work to get the dark green and saffron smoke colours of India’s flag right, because on the first trial run they were embarrassingly off-colour.

Next year in early November the Reds are booked to display – for the first time – at Zhuhai for China’s biennial air show, so they have plenty of time to get the mixture right for the red and yellow smoke that will salute this globally prized trading partner.

To be ready for the 2016 display season, however, the Reds have to go through their winter work-up period, which began in October at their Scampton, Lincolnshire base when the 2015 season ended. This prepares the team as a whole – including three new pilots – for the exacting routines designed to dazzle the watching crowds.

After their Christmas and New Year holiday the Reds return to Scampton for more hard work until March, wearing their normal RAF dark green flying suits. Then in April – under normal circumstances – they move to the more reliable weather at RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus to complete the work-up.

This year, however, Akrotiri is so busy supporting live RAF operations over Syria and Iraq that the Reds are going to use the Hellenic air force base at Tanagra, southern Greece. Here they begin practising the full, nine-ship routines they have been working up to. Every session is filmed for debrief.

If they get it right, by May they will be judged ready, and allowed to don their red flying overalls for the first time in the year. They are ready for a season that will include 90 displays in the UK and all over the world.

Plus the transit flying from Scampton to each display site. When it’s China, that takes some time.