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Pilot error causes most air show fatalities

The combination of pilot error and flying at low altitudes is, by far, the biggest cause of crashes at air shows and races.

Pilot error was cited by the National Transportation Safety Board in about two-thirds of fully investigated crashes since 2001. It also was cited in almost four of five deaths that occurred at air shows and air races nationwide, a Dayton Daily News analysis has found.

In all, pilot error was cited as the cause for 63 of the 96 accidents that had been fully investigated in the past 12 years, and 31 of the 40 deaths. The next highest cause was mechanical failure, which caused 22 accidents and four deaths.

Flying at low altitude was cited as a contributing factor in about 20 percent of accidents. That was three times more than the next contributing factor, which was winds or turbulence.

The NTSB data, which covers air shows and races, showed 104 accidents, 56 deaths and 122 injuries since 2001.

The data include the deadly crash at the Vectren Dayton Air Show at the Dayton International Airport that killed two performers last weekend.

“The biggest cause, really, is the increased risk that the pilots are taking when they do the air shows,” said Michael L. Barr, an air crash investigator and a senior instructor and former director of aviation safety programs at the University of Southern California. “They are flying very low, which is unforgiving if you make the slightest mistake.”

A week ago, a Stearman biplane crash killed wingwalker Jane Wicker, 44, and pilot Charlie Schwenker, 64, when the World War II-era plane struck the ground and exploded in flames in front of thousands of spectators at the Dayton Air Show. No one in the crowd was injured.

As of Friday, the NTSB had not released a preliminary report on the crash.

Mike Danko, a Redwood City, Calif., attorney who has handled air show crash lawsuits, said air shows are “unsafe.”

“I really have to question whether we should continue with air shows,” he said. “Certainly, every summer there are performers, or participants, who are killed or injured at air shows.

“The lower they fly and the more dangerous the stunt, the more the crowd likes it,” he said. “I think it’s time as a society we put a stop to it.”

More pilot oversight

John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows, disputed the NTSB numbers on fatal accidents as too high. ICAS does not track non-fatal accidents. He also said the air show industry has not had a spectator death at a U.S. air show in more than 60 years.

According to the air show trade association’s data, air shows in North America have recorded 31 deaths since 2001.

Industry officials do make a distinction between air shows and air races, which have different flying rules.

In 2011, at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nev., 10 spectators and a pilot were killed and more than 70 people injured when a World War II-era modified P-51 Mustang crashed. The NTSB determined that failure of a tail structure was the probable cause of the crash, the Associated Press reported. The NTSB also found the 74-year-old pilot failed to fully document and test the extensive modifications before the crash.

Since ICAS took over the responsibility in the mid-1990s to evaluate an air show pilot’s ability to perform acrobatics, the number of deaths has declined, Cudahy said.

“I think the evaluation process is already quite good, but I think that increased training and mentoring of the pilots as they prepare to be evaluated is a useful arena to pursue,” he said.

Air show industry pilots cooperate with the Federal Aviation Administration closely in both training and at air show sites, officials said.

Air show performer Sean D. Tucker, who flies an average of three times a day, said since ICAS took over training of pilots, incidents have declined at air shows.

In the Dayton Air Show accident, the biplane crashed just within a 500-foot safety zone set up to protect the crowd, Dayton Daily News photos show. Tucker, who witnessed the crash, said he saw the plane crash slightly within margin of the safety zone.

Aviation experts said the crowd wasn’t in serious danger because the aircraft was flying parallel to the show line after a loop, as FAA rules require, directing energy away from the audience when the crash happened.

“There’s generally enough safety factor built in there if the maneuver were to go bad … that the aircraft and the debris from the accident would not impact the crowd line itself,” said J.F. Joseph, a former Blue Angels C-130 demonstration pilot and an air crash investigator.

But like attendance at an auto race, absolute safety can’t be guaranteed, said Joseph, a retired airline pilot and deputy director of the Texas Department of Transportation.

The air show has a 1,000-foot setback from the crowd line for heavier aircraft flying faster, and a 1,500-foot setback for jet aircraft, Tucker said.

“Through my experience as a performer for the last 22 years full-time, I absolutely feel that the spectators are safe or I wouldn’t perform,” Tucker said. “My goal as a performer is to learn from the tragedy everything I can from it and help communicate to my industry and also to the crowds that … we’ll do everything we can to never repeat this again.”

Dayton Air Show General Manager Brenda Kerfoot said the air show standards were “very safe” and followed all FAA rules. “But it is a business that has inherent risks and all performers know that,” she said.

Wicker was sitting upright on the highest wing of the plane as it flew upside down when the wing suddenly tilted and struck the ground. The rest of the plane then hit the ground and broke apart in flames.

The Ohio State Highway Patrol, one of the investigators at the site, documented the final spot of the aircraft, but Lt. Mark Nichols said Friday he could not comment on the accident location until he reviewed a department report.

FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isthma Cory said in an email that the FAA sets altitudes for aircraft performance within an aerobatic box and setback distances from the crowd. An FAA inspector participates in air show planning, and is at air shows “to fulfill oversight responsibilities” that include briefs to performers before take-off.

The FAA also reviews pilot records and qualifications, aircraft logs and airworthiness conditions, among other steps.

“I think the parameters (within the United States) are safe enough and sufficient at this point,” Joseph said.

Second air show crash

The air show crash June 22 at Dayton International Airport was the second in the show’s 39-year history.

In 2007, show pilot Jim Leroy, 46, of Lake City, Fla., died after failing to maintain clearance from the ground during an acrobatic routine in a 400-horsepower Bulldog Pitts, the NTSB found. The board also found that “smoke oil” in the air where the performers were flying was a factor in the crash.

Joseph said it’s a misperception air show performers perform stunts.

“They are really skilled people and very practiced in the art,” who put safety paramount and mishaps are infrequent, he said.

“I think as far as the crowd is concerned, there’s just a minimal risk to it,” Barr said. “Pilots themselves accept that risk when they get in an airplane and fly at an air show or an air race or a demonstration.”

The derring-do of performers and the up-close view of aviation demonstrations are what draw crowds to air shows, observers said.

“The reason that everybody is out there to watch these airshows is they want a ringside seat to some fairly dynamic flight operations,” Joseph said. “Somewhat of the thrill of people going to air shows are the smoke and noise and the proximity to high-performance aircraft. That’s what people come to see.”

But the shows aren’t worth putting lives at risk, Danko said.

“It’s thrilling because it’s dangerous, so why do we have that today in society?” he asked.

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