The deaths of eleven members of the public at the Shoreham Air Show has finally persuaded our Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) that it is probably not a good idea to have aeroplanes doing stunts over land areas where people might be. Accordingly acrobatics over land by vintage jet aircraft have now been banned in Britain, for the time being at least.
The PR department at the British Air Display Association (BADA), whose members make money from air shows, has been quick to attempt a positive spin on the tragedy, claiming inaccurately that the last time any members of the public were unlucky enough to be killed at a UK air show was nearly 63 years ago in 1952. This was the year that a de Havilland jet broke apart in the air at the Farnborough Air Show killing the pilot and observer on board, and the crashing parts, in particular one engine that broke in half, then killed 29 spectators on the ground. In fact six passengers and their pilot also died at the Biggin Hill Air Show in 1980, 35 years ago, when a Douglas Invader, attempting a rolling climb, crashed in a valley, very close to a housing estate. So much for PR.
Since the 1952 tragedy members of the British general public have been lucky enough to be somewhere else on the ground on the many times when planes from British air shows have dropped out of the skies and killed their pilots, including recent crashes at Shoreham in 2007, Bournemouth in 2011, Old Warden in 2012 and Old Buckenham and Oulton Park earlier this year. And in the fifty year period 1957-2007 there were more than twenty similar UK air show crashes that killed aircrew, including one in 1958 at RAF Syerston when all four aircrew died in their disintegrating Vulcan, with debris also killing two air traffic controllers and a fireman on the ground. In some of the crashes it is known that pilots deliberately steered away from areas where people might be gathered, though one in Duxford in 2003 came down very close to the busy M11, killing both aircrew but nobody else, luckily.
Britain hasn’t been the venue for the world’s worst crashes at air shows, in terms of number of fatalities. In 2002 a crashing Russian fighter killed 77, including 28 children, at Lviv in the Ukraine, after its pilots had safely ejected, to receive prison sentences for negligence. In 1988 in Ramstein, West Germany, 67 spectators and three pilots died after three aircraft from ten collided and crashed trying to execute a complex and dangerous manoeuvre to entertain the crowds. And in 1972 in Sacramento 22 people, including twelve children died when an aircraft crashed into an ice-cream parlour.
However it was in Britain that another air show crash persuaded our CAA to amend its rules on protecting members of the public, like the Shoreham tragedy has, and this was the one at Biggin Hill in 1980 as above. Following the deaths of the six non-aircrew on board the CAA barred the carrying of passengers on aircraft in air shows.
Wonderful thing, hindsight, but wouldn’t some foresight at the CAA save more lives?