One year ago today, wing walker Jane Wicker and pilot Charlie Schwenker died in a fiery biplane crash at show center in front of thousands of stunned spectators at the Vectren Dayton Air Show.
The National Transportation Safety Board has not yet released a final report on what caused the 1940s-era Stearman biplane to slam into the ground and burst into flames at Dayton International Airport.
But this year, changes will be made at the June 28 and 29 air show to better respond to an emergency, officials said.
Air show performers have asked for a response vehicle at shows across the country, said Terry Grevious, Dayton Air Show executive director.
In Dayton, a third fire truck, a “mini-pumper,” will be positioned at the middle of the flight line to ease performers’ concerns after a crash and fire this year at Travis Air Force Base killed a stunt pilot, said Bruce Bales, fire rescue chief at Dayton International Airport. The wait time for firefighters in California to get to the crash site spawned debate within the air show community about emergency response times.
“To put their minds at ease, we’re doing that,” Bales said.
Two smaller crash trucks armed with water and fire extinguishing foam have been traditionally stationed at the air show in Dayton and will be again, Bales said. The extra fire truck will mean up to six firefighters will be on site.
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base will send six firefighters to operate a fire truck, a crash rescue truck and will have a supervisor vehicle on site, said Marie Vanover, a base spokeswoman. Bales said Wright-Patterson sends fire fighting personnel and equipment any time a military jet performs at the air show, which this week will feature the Navy’s Blue Angels.
The airport has additional firefighters on stand-by at its fire station, he said.
A ‘safe environment’
A second fatal U.S. air show crash this year was recorded in Wisconsin, according to news accounts. A Dayton Daily News analysis of NTSB data found 109 air show crashes and 57 deaths since 2001 within the United States.
The Dayton Air Show had one prior crash before last year’s tragedy. 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 reported. The board also concluded “smoke oil” in the air where the performers flew was a factor in the crash.
John A. Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows in Leesburg, Va., disputed the NTSB data figures as too high and questioned what general aviation accidents and deaths were included in the data.
Since 2001, air show trade association’s data has recorded 33 deaths at North American air shows. The organization does not track non-fatal accidents.
Air show performer deaths declined 75 percent in 20 years and no spectator has been killed in more than six decades. “The perception of frequency (in crashes) is much greater than it is in fact and our statistics back that,” he said.
A 2011 crash at the Reno Air Race killed a pilot and 10 spectators, but the air show industry distinguishes between air shows and air races, which have different rules.
At least once a year, ICAS reviewers evaluate an air show pilot’s ability to perform acrobatics, Cudahy said. The FAA has designated ICAS in that role, he said.
Despite the crashes, Grevious said air shows are “a very, very safe environment. Accidents are extremely rare.”
“I don’t think there’s any concern on behalf on spectators,” he said. “We follow very strict guidelines which are developed, of course, by the FAA.”
Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory said there are no changes to the agency’s regulation of this year’s air show. However, authorities have made a “minor” change to improve an egress route for emergency vehicles to get out “in a hurry,” she said in emails to the Dayton Daily News.
FAA safety inspectors “are on the ground for several days before the show, and during the event, doing inspections on site,” she added. “Pilots have to follow all regulations, which includes training and regular inspection of aircraft, and they must prove compliance.”
On June 22, 2013, Wicker was sitting on the left wing as the biplane flew upside down with Schwenker at the controls. The left wing suddenly dropped and struck the ground, killing the Virginia-based team of Wicker, 44, and Schwenker, 64, a crash captured on video and broadcast around the world. The plane crashed just within a 500-foot safety barrier away from the crowd, Dayton Daily News photos showed.
An Ohio State Highway Patrol report based on witness statements, videos and measurements of the site concluded initial evidence showed pilot error was the cause of the crash. The report did not look at a possible mechanical cause, leaving that determination to the NTSB. The federal agency expected to review autopsy and toxicology reports, the condition of the air frame, weather conditions, the flying environment at the air show and the pilot’s flying history.
Jason Aguilera, a NTSB air safety investigator in Denver, Colo., investigating the crash said on Thursday the decades-old biplane did not have a data recorder.
“The smaller general aviation airplanes aren’t necessarily required to have those recorders in them,” he said. “For general aviation, we would always like to see anything that aids safety and aids safety investigations.”
He said NTSB lab technicians continue to analyze videos and photos of the crash in an attempt to reach conclusions on the cause, among a number of criteria investigators have reviewed. The NTSB asked the public to submit photos and videos of the crash soon after it happened.
‘Pilots accept risk’
Michael L. Barr, a University of Southern California aviation safety expert who has acted as a safety officer at air shows, said people trek to air shows to see the daring of pilots and experience up close the noise and thrill of planes and performers.
Air shows aren’t like NASCAR or Indy car races where the audience hopes to see a crash, but he added: “You go to an air show to get that wow effect of aircraft coming by fast and low,” Barr said.
Performers accept the risk of what they do in the air, said Barr, a former Air Force fighter pilot who flew combat missions over Vietnam.
“It’s the nature of the air show and pilots accept the risk,” he said. “What we have to do is make sure the visitors, the spectators, they don’t accept the risk.”
FAA rules prevent flying over, toward or too close to spectators, he said.
“There’s been a lot of thought and hopefully a lot of changes but you can never make it 100 percent” risk free, he said.
Michael Danko, a Redwood, City, Calif., attorney and a pilot, contended “very little” had changed in the air show industry since the Dayton crash and air shows across the country aren’t worth staging because of the risk.
“The time has come and gone for air shows, in my view,” said Danko, who is a pilot. “There’s no reason for them anymore. … The risks are too high for the benefit. I’m a member of a growing minority of pilots who no longer go to air shows.
“It’s strictly watching someone risk their lives for your entertainment,” he said.
Danko said many planes at air demonstrations are old and may have been “highly modified” as reportedly happened with a P-51 Mustang World War II warplane that crashed at the Reno Air Races in 2011, killing the 74-year-old pilot, 10 spectators and injuring 70 people.
The NTSB determined the failure of a tail structure was the probable cause of the crash, the Associated Press reported. The NTSB found the pilot failed to fully document and test the extensive modifications before the crash.
“Basically, what you’re left with is a mongrel aircraft with 50-year-old parts with some more modern parts thrown in for good measure and the aircraft then being asked to do things that the original designers never dreamed of,” Danko said.
A pilot’s psychology
Research shows certain traits differentiate pilots from the rest of the population
In the case of military aviators, Air Force research shows they have an IQ of 120 compared to an average of about 100 for the average person, according to Wayne Chappelle, chief of aerospace psychology at the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Military pilots tend to rank in the 90th to 95th percentile for intelligence.
In general, pilots possess a high tolerance for stress, can “compartmentalize emotions” in challenging situations and can think clearly and effectively under intense, even life-threatening situations, Chappelle said.
They’re conscientious, and extremely detail-oriented and deliberate in planning, he said.
“The actual flying time is just a fraction of how much planning and prioritizing goes into preparing to fly,” Chappelle said.
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