In January 2016, ahead of the still awaited final report from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), I expressed a fear that whatever the AAIB report might eventually conclude would undoubtedly lead to an over-reaction by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). What I had not imagined was that the CAA would, apart from perfectly understandable temporary restrictions that it put in place for good reason, follow this up by attempting to kill-off future local airshow events before the AAIB published the final result of its enquiry into what caused the aircraft to crash. Sadly, that is how many are reading what the CAA is now attempting to do.
The background to this subject is the tragic accident in August last year when a Hawker Hunter T7 jet flying a display at the Shoreham airshow crashed killing twelve people who were outside of the airshow grounds. The AAIB published a preliminary report on the 4th September last year detailing the aircraft, pilot experience, conditions, flight display manoeuvres and how the crash occurred but has yet to conclude what caused the jet to crash.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is charged with being responsible for regulation of all UK commercial aviation related matters including aircraft and safety be this for commercial airlines, general and recreational flying including retired military aircraft that are privately owned and licenced to fly at air show displays and for licensing pilots to fly. For the most part the CAA does its job very well and it is highly respected internationally for the excellent work that it does. But in the actions that the CAA has taken subsequent to the placing of necessary temporary restrictions until the outcome of the accident investigation was formally made known, it seems that the CAA views that local airshow events are little more than a complete nuisance and that it has chosen to use the tragic Shoreham accident, the first airshow event that loss of life has occurred since an incident at the 1952 Farnborough airshow, as reason to do all that it could to put an end to local airshow events and potentially damage larger commercial airshow events as well.
Following the Shoreham accident everyone concerned in air shows has been absolutely focussed on reassessing all matters that relate to public safety and of what might be learned. Safety has always been the primary concern of airshow organisers and pilots flying in displays and it is true to say that the UK already not only has a very strong set of rules governing air show events but that these are some of the most stringent to be found anywhere in the world.
Back in my January ‘Shoreham’ commentary piece my fear was that ahead of the AAIB report whatever the CAA might attempt to implement in terms of imposing more restrictive rules would be based solely on ‘political’ reasoning. And that as far as I can see is exactly how the CAA is viewing the matter. In January the CAA published what it called a series of measures that it said were aimed at enhancing safety at civil air show events. Some of these were not only to be expected but sensible as well such as requirements for permissions to hold displays requiring earlier notification to the CAA, training and checks for those responsible for overseeing air displays, requirements relating to experience, skill and health of display pilots and the role of the display authorisation examiners (DAE’s) who oversee display pilots. Better risk assessment was the name of the game and the airshow industry was fully supportive. Immediately after the show the CAA had banned all loops and roles over show ground areas although this was thought to be only a temporary measure.
On February 1st the CAA then published details of a consultation paper which had a closing date of April 4th this year in regard of a number of additional regulatory requirements and procedures including proposed amendments to the CAA Schemes of Charging and that, sparing you the specific larger detail, recommended a doubling of charges for aircraft flying at airshow events and of the cost to airshow organisers, these to be effective from April 1st this year. Clearly not only did the CAA not take into consideration that imposing massive fee increases on a level proposed not only failed to take account of what show organisers had built into their own budgets but that doubling the price that airshow organisers would need to pay had no proper justification and was simply unacceptable.
So it is that the CAA has, without providing full details of the various regulatory changes or justifying the doubling of airshow charges, gone far beyond what I could possibly imagined it might do. It has done this in my view purely for selfish reasons because it would probably love to see there being no local or private airshows taking place in the UK. To the CAA these are an absolute nuisance and it would love to see the back of them. It has of course also done this for ‘political’ reasons and an attempt to cover its own back.
Neither, given some of its claims, is there any justification for the CAA mouthing off and severely criticising the air show community suggesting that they appear to think “that Shoreham is a one-off and therefore you can carry on as you are”. I for one am saddened that someone in the CAA, presumably authorised by the CEO, could make such an appalling statement. The CAA also said that the airshow community has declined to cooperate with proposed reforms such as the imposing of more rigorous checks and medicals on pilots, new training and so on. Again, this is absolutely untrue and having myself investigated these claims over the past 24 hours I am left in no doubt that the airshow community has been more than upfront in cooperating with the CAA on all matters that relate to improving safety wherever these have been recommended. It is after all in their interests to so do.
I am very surprised that the CAA should have chosen to go down a route of conflict with the airshow community as opposed to one that would attempt to take on board what has occurred, learn from it and do all that it could to satisfy the various parties concerned.
BADA and the Hon Company of Air Pilots have rightly called some of the remarks made by the CAA are a travesty. And as if to back this up, they have in their response letter reminded the CAA that in the attempt to ‘hollow out’ costs during last year that its “CEO [Andrew Haines] had been personally involved in trying to offload the responsibility for Airshow management, together with all the associated deregulation, to the British Air Display Association itself”. Wisely the BADA declined as they perceived [the idea] to be a retrograde step with regard to regulatory oversight and fundamental safety.
The joint Honourable Co of Air Pilots and British Air Display Association response to what the CAA has called a discussion document suggest that many remarks made by the CAA in respect of the airshow community are “totally inaccurate” and that what the CAA has said is “reprehensible”. Few would probably argue with that and as if to prove the point BADA suggests that on various other matters CAA behaviour appears to have been less than professional.
I am obliged to the Hon Company of Air Pilots, the British Air Display Association, the Royal Aeronautical Society, Duxford FCC and others for allowing me sight of the various responses that they have made to the disparaging remarks made by a CAA that gives all the appearance of wishing to wash its hands of air shows rather than accepting what these shows give to the public and importantly, to young people in terms of encouraging them to look at careers in the military and commercial aerospace industry and across wider aspects of aviation.
Having been given such a poisoned chalice by the CAA and what can in terms of the air display community only be regarded as a totally unsatisfactory period of time for consultation on proposed regulatory and cost amendments and that will if allowed to be fully implemented effectively double the cost for aircraft performing at shows and additionally, double air show organisers display costs I understand that the CAA has rubbed even more salt in the wounds by adding a new ‘post event’ cost which for many shows will have a much greater impact on display budgets. It seems to me that the CAA has chosen to completely ignore the value that air shows provide for tourism, education, training, skills, charities and a host of other good reasons why airshow events are held. They couldn’t care less of course and ‘money’ appears to be at the heart of all this. Indeed, sadly it seems to me that as far as they [CAA] are concerned raising more money and reducing costs and choosing to ignore any reasoning why airshow events are so important is of far greater importance than anything else. How sad, how wrong but in this day and age, how typical. I can only hope that not only that the airshow community fights hard to reverse the worst of the CAA’s proposals and tactics but that in the end common sense and a realisation of what airshows bring to local communities and young and old alike prevails.
CHW (London 8th March 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS