Whilst I am hardly surprised that the organisers of the annual Shoreham Airshow have taken the decision to cancel the 2016 show and I readily admit that a part of me is hugely disappointed. I respect their reasons of course but while they have also said that the 2017 show might still take place I fear that cancellation of the 2016 show is the thin end of the wedge.
Clearly Shoreham was a dreadful tragedy that led to the lives of eleven people, most of whom were completely unconnected with the show at all, being killed. My fear though is that, no matter what is eventually deemed to have been the cause of the Hawker Hunter crashing in flames onto the A27 trunk road adjacent to the air show event at the end of August last year and always assuming that an official reason other than that already connected to what the AAIB has released to the public, is found that, rightly or wrongly, this will lead to a permanent change in what certain ‘historic’ privately owned aircraft are allowed to do at internal air-show events. Indeed, the eventual CAA regulatory response may well attempt to change the whole basis of whether ‘historic’ privately owned former military aircraft are allowed to fly in displays or not. If so we must ready ourselves put up a very good case to argue why they must be allowed to continue performing at air show events.
So, my worry here is that whatever the AAIB report will say when it finally appears will lead to an over-reaction by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) who are of course responsible for regulation of all UK aviation related matters. Of course we need to ensure public safety but we do not need to go over the top.
The UK already has a very strong set of rules governing air show events and my fear is bound to be that whether or not it was pilot or aircraft that was found to be the cause of the Shoreham disaster at some point this year we will see implementation by the CAA of a new set of permanent and likely even more restrictive rules being be put in place some of which it may be argued perhaps might well be based on ‘political’ reasons.
For my part it is not so much why the Shoreham accident happened as it did but where it happened that matters far more. In particular I believe that we need to know why the aircraft was seemingly conducting a dangerous manoeuvre right over the A27 trunk road. We also need to know why the pilot did the manoeuvre that he did when he did. Much as I would like to however, I am not going to speculate or conjecture here and I have absolute faith that the AAIB will, as it has almost always done in the past, find out most of not all the reasons why this tragedy occurred in the way it did.
Undoubtedly the Shoreham accident demanded a very strong and immediate message from the CAA ahead of the final AAIB report. As I say, I will keep my own counsel on what I believe occurred and why but I can hardly be forgiven for reminding and remembering that mistakes do not have to be big to have VERY big effects.
While the final Air Accidents Investigation Board (AAIB) report is still awaited we have had various official ‘preliminaries’ from them including comments that suggested the plane had expired ejector seat parts meaning that the then still live explosive cartridges fitted to the seat were a significant hazard to rescue teams before these were made safe and that technical manuals were out of date. This is worrying although given the age of the Hawker Hunter plane why am I not surprised? Even so and having looked at the facts the AAIB has now made several recommendations in regard to the safety of ejection seats and maintenance of former military aircraft. In the light of what was found these have to be right. The AAIB has also recommended that the CAA reviews procedures over issuing of permission to fly permits for aircraft that do not qualify for a standard certificate of airworthiness – these being generally former military aircraft or amateur built planes.
We know also from the AAIB that rather than the minimum allowable CAA recommended height of 500 feet that the Hunter aircraft commenced a descending left turn to 200 feet above mean sea level approaching the display line at an angle of 45 degrees. To put it simply the pilot, Andy Hill who although very badly injured has survived the accident and has I am told now been interviewed by the AAIB, ran out of room.
Now, it is a very long time since I had and subsequently only a few years later gave up my PPL but the above clearly indicates a major error of judgement on his part.
Back to the real issue though and this is what I said immediately following the accident:
Clearly the crash of this sixty-year old Hawker Hunter (WV372) is almost bound to have some permanent ramifications for future air displays of vintage and maybe other aircraft too over land. But in accepting such a premise we must take great care to ensure that whatever permanent additional safety precautions emerge as a result of this tragic incident over Shoreham do not prevent the public from seeing and enjoying displays by vintage and other aircraft.
Safety lies at the very heart of all flying whether for military, commercial, business or even if airplane flights are done purely for fun. Thankfully, serious accidents involving members of the public are extremely rare but on this day and age this can no longer be an excuse to prevent additional actions being taken by regulators and that ensures both public safety and confidence. But in doing the hope is that some kind of correct balance can be struck and that ensures regulation does not go over the top.
Responsibility for UK air safety regulation lies in the hands of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for commercial and privately owned aircraft together with helicopter operation and with the Military Aviation Authority (MAA) for all current military aircraft operation. I commend the speed with which preliminary action has been taken by the CAA and take no issue with the decision to ban aerobatic displays over land by vintage fast jets ahead of completion of the Farnborough based AAIB investigation into what caused the privately owned Hawker Hunter WV372 aircraft to crash and then explode aside the A27 trunk road, I am bound to be concerned that the knee jerk CAA response may be predisposed to bowing to political need to be seen to do something as opposed to a response to improve Air Safety.
I and others are left to hope that what will eventually emerge in the form of permanent restrictions may be somewhat less onerous and that at some point, we will be able to once again see a level of aerobatic performance from privately preserved fast jet aircraft that is befitting with requirements to ensure adequate public safety and with the advanced age of the aircraft.
Clearly there is an element of risk is virtually everything that we do in life and in addressing what permanent action needs to be taken to ensure public safety we must be mindful not to damage the huge value that air shows provide to enthusiasts and those that love to watch aircraft displays. The CAA and the MAA have a very important job to do to ensure safety of all those involved or engaged in flying just as they also have for those watching. Accident prevention is always foremost in the mind of airshow organisers and of all those that fly the aircraft or work hard to keep them airworthy. It is right that the air safety authorities should take necessary action wherever and whenever they see fit and particularly where they sense that there might be danger to the public.
Following this particular commentary I went on to receive one of the highest ever levels of responses received in all the years that I have been writing commentary. Partly, because aerospace and defence commentaries are also usually sent to members and Fellows of the Royal Aeronautical Society this was not really surprising. Almost all were highly supportive and many attempted to provide interesting technical facts.
One in particular that struck me was one that came from a great friend of mine in Germany and who in a single short sentence confirmed all that I feared when he told me that “after the Ramstein air show disaster [this was when in August 1988 two aircraft belonging to Italy’s Frecce Tricolori stunt flight team collided in a complex manoeuvre over the US Air Base leading to the deaths of 70 people and injuries to 346 others] Germany went way over the top [in respect of new regulations imposed].
There have been other accidents in the past at airshows in Britain and following spate of accident in the 1980’s stricter safety rules governing airshows were imposed. In 1993 two MIG-29 aircraft flown by pilots belonging to the Russian Flight Institute crashed at the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford. Both pilots ejected safety and there were no other injuries. The aircraft were performing absolutely within well laid down rules at the time meaning that the flight manoeuvre took place as they were flying away from the crowds.
There are other emails that I would love to share with you particularly in respect of the CAA’s initial response use of the term ’high energy’ aerobatics and what they actually meant by this when referring to an incident that was in all other respects, whether the result of mechanical failure or pilot error, caused by the airplane having insufficient energy available to complete the planned manoeuvre.
I will leave you with that thought!
CHW – London – 21st January 2016
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Tel: 07710 779785