One year on from the tragic Shoreham Air Show tragedy when a vintage Hawker Hunter T7 jet crashed just outside the showground on the A27 in West Sussex killing eleven people, are we now in much better place in respect of air show safety?
The Shoreham air show tragedy is one that the families of those eleven people that died can never forget and even though the record of safety at air show events held in the UK is second to none it was right that the industry regulator should conduct a full review of public air displays.
For the air show organisers right across the nation and who always place safety as the number one priority what followed from Shoreham in the form of additional CAA recommendations would come at a cost. Even so, the CAA recommendations have and are being implemented across the air show industry and few argue now that this was not the right way to go.
So the answer to the question I pose above is to me that we are undoubtedly in a much better place than we had been, not just due to the 29 recommendations made by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in its final report, but primarily because of the never ceasing vigilance of air show organisers in respect of public safety. There is no complacency to be found in this industry.
Now in the second half of the air show season and with something like 30 more public events still scheduled to take place at various locations around the UK before the display season ends towards the end of October, public enthusiasm in relation to privately organised air show events remains undiminished. Here in the UK air displays are apparently the second-most popular outdoor event after football. I am not that surprised on learning this as evidence suggests that nearly one in ten of us will attend a private or public airshow event each year. Those figures go even higher I suspect when national icons such as the Royal Air Force Red Arrows Display Team or Royal Air Force Battle of Britain Memorial Flight are displaying, as they both have been at the Bournemouth Air Festival over the four days that this show has been on over the past weekend.
I am told that there are over 700 airshows held around the world each year and I venture to suggest, although I do not know this to be fact, that within the western world the UK probably comes close to being top of the number of air show events held annually. Whether the event is a smaller more local airshow or one that is very much larger, they are all extremely important public events and give pleasure to millions of visitors. Note that Bournemouth for example was in 2014 the ‘Tourism Event of the Year’ winner.
Not including large trade show events such as Farnborough International and which is of course open to the public as an airshow event on the last two days of the week-long event, suffice to say that the average private air show event is likely to attract public support that ranges from 10,000 visitors for the smaller shows to maybe somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 for some of the larger ones.
But I do have one concern as we look to the future. The CAA has completed its work of reviewing air show safety and other regulatory requirements of airshow organisers and to all intents and purposes it has done the job well. However, not only are their changed requirements of what aircraft are now allowed to do when displaying but also cost implication to take into consideration as well. All of a sudden it seems, the Shoreham tragedy has ramped up the cost of putting an airshow on. Insurance costs are a perfect example of this. So while we have moved on and the public has, as it must be, been reassured about safety of air show events, there will be a higher price for everyone involved to pay. For some shows the viability of continuing may be in serious doubt but for others the cost of delivering a brilliant airshow has just gone up.
As the UK’s specialist aviation regulator the CAA has responsibility to ensure all matters of civil aviation safety and ensure that the aviation industry meets the highest safety standards. The CAA has other responsibilities too such as ensuring that consumers have choice, that they have value for money, that they are protected and treated fairly when they fly and also for airline and airport environmental aspects and performance. Most importantly though, the CAA is there to ensure that the aviation industry manages all forms of security and safety risk effectively. This requires that the CAA is also the regulatory body for all air shows.
In the immediate aftermath of the Shoreham airshow tragedy the CAA was initially criticised by organisers of airshow events and other respected organisations, such as the Hon Company of Air Pilots and British Air Display Association, for ignoring the views of the airshow community during the process of conducting its review of air displays. They claimed that remarks alleged to have been made by CAA’s CEO, Andrew Haines that apparently included suggestions of there being resistance in the air display community to the changes being proposed was factually incorrect. The sudden increase in costs demanded by the CAA were also a cause for large scale concern. Thankfully today it can be generally said that all involved in the airshow industry, those charged with regulating and those charged with operating and managing airshow events, have moved on and are now again working in close harmony.
In addition to the increased regulatory requirement, the reality is that the entire airshow community has and remains focussed on drilling into core safety issues that stemmed from the Shoreham crash in order to properly assess and put into immediate effect what changes can sensibly be made to prevent a recurrence.
Clearly, public safety remains at the heart of all individual private airshow event organisers and there can be no doubting that they have not only embraced the recommendations put forward by the CAA is its final ‘Review of Public Air Display Arrangements in the UK’ but also that they have subsequently revisited all aspects of safety at airshow events to see if more needs to be done.
The final CAA report that was published in April this year made 29 separate recommendations in all amongst which were included strengthening post-display reporting requirements to reflect the importance of feedback and safety reporting from air displays, increasing the distance between the display line and crowd line for any situations where distances were previously less than those in place for military displays, increasing the minimum altitude at which ex-military jet aircraft can undertake aerobatic manoeuvres and strengthening the competency requirements for pilots performing aerobatic manoeuvres in civil registered, ex-military jet aircraft.
Recognising perhaps that given the very high level of public support for private and military airshow events and that these are hugely important not only in respect of the community in which they occur, charitable aspects and that they are supposed to make money for the organisers it is to me the ability that they often provide for interaction by young people with military and industry and to be so inspired by what they see that they consider a career in the world of commercial or military aerospace, what was needed was primarily reassurance and updating and strengthening existing regulation what the CAA delivered in its final reports has been generally well received.
I know all too well that most of us in the industry know it but it is worth reminding that Shoreham was the first airshow event in which lives have been lost since the Farnborough in 1952. That UK airshows have a fantastic record of safety is not to suggest that anyone can afford to be complacent and I consider what the CAA has done goes a long way to achieving what was required. Certainly, if it was needed, it has provided reassurance to the public that safety is the number one priority at airshows.
As implied above, airshows are a hugely important aspect of personal enjoyment for the public and as a means to inspire our young. Indeed, if I had been given £10 for every time that I have over the years heard a member of the Royal Air Force say to me that they first became inspired to look at a career in the Royal Air Force through visiting an airshow event somewhere or other, I could have been a very wealthy man.
Yes, we have come a long way forward since the Shoreham Air Show tragedy and more regulator controls have been put in place. Onerous some may appear but that is the way of things in the society that we live in. Clearly, because of crowded airspace and other factors, the new regulatory controls put in place by the CAA adversely impacted on Farnborough International in respect of certain displays. Other airshows such as Old Sarum and Throckmorton were cancelled, the latter because of insurance costs, new regulations and the costs associated with implementing them. Some, such as Shoreham itself and which did not take place this year out of respect for those that died will, subject to the much delayed report by the AAIB into what caused the Hawker Hunter T7 to crash is published, are not yet in a position to confirm whether they will return in 2017.
I sincerely hope that the Shoreham Air Show will retake its place on the list of important air show events in the UK very soon. The AAIB report is now due to be published in the autumn.
CHW (London – 22 August 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS