Air show disasters: an inevitable risk for entertainment?

On November 12, 2022, six people lost their lives after a mid-air collision during the Wings Over Dallas air show in the US. Subsequently, footage of the two antique aircraft, a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and a Bell P-63 Kingcobra fighter, colliding was widely shared on social media, joining an archive of other shocking videos from air shows around the globe. 

And much like the aftermath of other aviation disasters, questions were raised about whether additional safety measures should be enforced during these events. The way air shows and in-air displays are organized has changed throughout the years, in part due to the lessons learned from past incidents. One of the most significant events was the Ramstein air show disaster in 1988, when three Frecce Tricolori – the aerobatic team of the Italian Air Force – collided, resulting in the loss of 70 lives, including the three pilots who were onboard the Aermacchi MB-339A jets.   

Recommendations following air show disasters 

While some have long called for air show displays to be banned due to their inherent risk, these events have been a staple of aviation-focused events for decades. Still, following an inadvertent loss of life, changes were made to at least minimize the risks for everyone attending air shows. 

The same Ramstein air show disaster resulted in air shows being banned in Germany for a brief period, for example, as additional safety measures were being considered. 

″The events at Ramstein confirm in a really horrible way how dangerous such spectacles are even for civilian observers,” Walter Kolbow, a now-former member of the German Bundestag, was quoted as saying at the time by Associated Press. Germany was still reeling from two previous disasters during the 1980s. The first was when a Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter crashed during an air show in Mannheim, Germany, killing 46 people onboard. The second took place in 1983, when a Canadian Armed Forces CF-104 Starfighter plunged into a highway near the Rhein-Main Air Base. 

In addition to the air show ban in Germany, a report prepared by the Defence Committee of the Bundestag and released to the public on September 29, 1989, stated that flying over spectators would be forbidden and aerial demonstrations, which had been prohibited from such actions during events, including air shows, were now limited to aircraft showcasing their flying capabilities. “Difficult or dangerous flight displays are to be avoided, with no exceptions,” the report read. “There shall be no possibility to approve exceptions and exceptions are to be strictly banned when it comes to the performance,” it continued. 

Prosecutions following disasters 

Almost 14 years after the disaster at the Ramstein air show, an even deadlier accident occurred in Lviv, Ukraine. While celebrations were underway to monumentalize 60 years of operations of the Ukrainian Air Force’s 14th Air Corps, a Su-27 attempted a rolling maneuver at a dangerously low altitude, resulting in the aircraft flying into a crowd of spectators. 

While the two pilots ejected, 70 people lost their lives in the tragic incident, which took place in July 2002. Later, the pair were blamed for the crash, as they failed to “respect the flight plan and aerial maneuvers that were not on the program,” the BBC cited Yevhen Marchuk, the head of the inquiry into the accident, as saying. Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun added that “negligence” was the reason behind the largest single loss of life at an air show, as he believed that it was “already possible to say that this was military negligence, a special category of crime”. According to The New York Times, the two pilots who ejected from the out-of-control jet received eight and 14 years in prison in June 2005. 

In April 2018, another pilot, Andy Hill, who was at the helm of a Hawker Hunter T7, went to court for his role in the Shoreham Airshow crash. The accident happened on August 22, 2015, when the fighter jet hit a public road near the airport. The Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), which investigates civil aviation accidents and incidents within the United Kingdom (UK) and its territories, concluded that the crash, “the aircraft was carrying out a manoeuvre involving both a pitching and rolling component, which commenced from a height lower than the pilot’s authorised minimum for aerobatics, at an airspeed below his stated minimum, and proceeded with less than maximum thrust.” 

“This resulted in the aircraft achieving a height at the top of the manoeuvre less than the minimum required to complete it safely, at a speed that was slower than normal,” continued the report, adding that while it was still possible to abort the attempted loop, “it appeared the pilot did not recognise that the aircraft was too low to complete the downward half of the manoeuvre.” 

Hill was acquitted in March 2019.

“There is never anything that is more important than safety – in aviation generally but at an airshow especially and I want to extend my sympathies to all those who have been affected by this tragic event. The Shoreham crash was the first in the UK for over 60 years and was a real shock to the whole community,” a source, who worked closely to the Shoreham airshow crash, told AeroTime. “The relevant authorities and the aviation community, including airshow organizers and pilots, around the world have long sought to improve and enhance the safety at air shows wherever possible. The Shoreham incident only made everyone involved even more determined to make sure that safety remains the number one priority,” the source continued.

The AAIB provided the United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Association (CAA) with a total of 33 safety recommendations between 2015 and 2017, to ensure proper maintenance of fighter jets, safety at air shows, including a proper risk assessment, crowd and performance separation, and maneuver specifications, among other things to ensure safety at events going forward. The CAA, whose “purpose is to minimize the risks associated with aviation, and our primary concern is the safety of the public, whether in the air or on the ground,” introduced changes almost immediately, including a restriction on aerobatic performances.  

Changing air show landscapes 

Akin to the changes following the Ramstein air show, the CAA’s adjustments to the way these events are organized have influenced the air show landscape within the UK. 

Not long after the Shoreham disaster, the Royal Air Force (RAF)’s acrobatics team the Red Arrows canceled their aerobatic performance, opting only for a flypast during that year’s Dartmouth Royal Regatta, as the CAA was undertaking a “comprehensive review of civilian air displays in the UK”. 

“It has been assessed that the required changes to display heights and positioning would have reduced the visual quality of the display for the public to an unacceptable level and therefore, with regret, the Red Arrows’ will not be conducting a full display at Dartmouth this year,” a Red Arrows’ spokesperson was quoted as saying in August 2015 regarding the event, which was scheduled shortly after the accident at Shoreham. 

Notably, the Farnborough International Airshow in 2016 also had no aerobatic display from the Red Arrows, with the aerobatic team only performing a flypast in the following iterations of the event. 

Eventually, the organizers of the trade show announced that it would become a five-day event, with the ground only being open to the public for a single day. “We know that for many, a weekend spent at the Farnborough International Airshow was a highlight, but following the 2018 show it was clear this aspect of the show is not commercially viable in the long term,” stated Gareth Rogers, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Farnborough International in March 2019. 

Whether the recent Dallas mid-air collision will prompt any changes from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) remains to be seen. In a briefing with the media, The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Board member Michael Graham stated that while we must remember these were two aircraft manufactured in the 1940s and they are not required to have either a Flight Data Recorder (FDR) or Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR), “that is one of the things we will look at down the road,” as a possible recommendation.

The person, who worked closely with the response to the Shoreham Airshow disaster, also noted that the NTSB “will now undertake the painstaking task of piecing together what went wrong and there will no doubt be findings and further recommendations, but all of this work will continue to keep a resolute focus on putting safety at the heart of everything.”

Still, the FAA has collated a document detailing the provisions during an air show, including the requirements for pilots, their stunts, and even flybys. The governmental agency laid out the minimal credentials, as well as limitations for various stunts depending on the aircraft. Airports also have certain requirements, including ground operations plan guidelines that depict the aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARF) procedures, crowd areas, and other operations that ensure a safe environment for every attendant of the event. 

Psychological aspects of air shows 

When one dissects an air show, there are many aspects as to why people visit them. Whether it would be to take a closer look at the machinery that is present at an airfield, to be a part of a community, or to admire the skills of pilots performing aerobatic displays, all three are often present during an air show.  

According to a study called “An Exploratory Study of Extreme Sport Athletes’ Nature Interactions: From Well-Being to Pro-environmental Behavior” undertaken in [date]: “Extreme sports are considered not simply as outdoor leisure activities where the most likely outcome of mismanaged mistake is accident or death but the experience of approaching danger is integral to these sports.” 

Exploring the reasons why athletes partake in life-threatening activities – prepared by six researchers and professors and peer-reviewed by two professors of psychology – the study concluded that “extreme sport participation, while inherently risky has psychological benefits ranging from evoking positive emotions, developing resilience and life coping skills to cultivating strong affinity to and connection with nature and the natural environment.” 

However, extreme sports are not truly akin to the job of a pilot, whether they would be working at a commercial airline or flying at an air show. Safety is paramount, as it still entails a certain amount of risk. One study prepared by Sarah-Blythe Ballard from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Victor B. Osorio, who worked at the Naval Medical Research Unit 6, explored the public health data from air shows between 1993 and 2013, concluding that “air show crashes were marked by a high risk of fatal outcomes to pilots in aerobatic performances but rare mass casualties”. No time trend was observed throughout the data period, yet air show performers accounted for 59% of air show-related crashes during the studied period. 

Still, while a large number of lost lives was a rare occurrence, the Sknyliv and Ramstein “catastrophic incidents indicate that, while they pose a relatively rare threat to spectators, mass casualties are a potential outcome of air events that should be incorporated into risk management strategies,” the study noted.  

“Coordinating with the local health care system, conducting mass casualty drills, briefing air show participants, and providing emergency instructions to air show patrons could be effective methods of mitigating poor outcomes in the event of a mass casualty,” concluded the study. 

UPDATE November 21, 2022, 11:02 AM (UTC +3): The article was updated with a quote from a source who worked closely with the response to the Shoreham airshow disaster.

Related Posts


Stay updated on aviation and aerospace - subscribe to our newsletter!