A 54-year-old stunt pilot was killed when his aircraft crashed during an air show in West Virginia last month in the US. John Mangan died during the September 17 incident at a regional West Virginia airport during an acrobatic display involving a restored post-World War 2 aircraft. 

The manoeuvre which the aircraft was performing at the time of the crash was known as an ‘opposing pass’. This involved two opposing planes travelling at around 450km/h, laterally passing one another and pulling up in front of the crowd. Dave Heatwole, a spectator at the event gave the following account:

"The two planes formed an 'X' and appeared to be very close to each other, which startled me. And then the plane flying to the right crashed. I heard the boom, and looked over to see an exploding fireball. The plane was blown into many small pieces.”

In the aftermath of the incident, event organisers made counselling services available to spectators and promptly cancelled all other air activities organised for the weekend.

Similar Incident Just One Day Prior

Shockingly, just a day prior to the West Virginia incident, a fighter plane also crashed near stands during an air race in Nevada also in the US. In this incident the pilot and 10 spectators were killed, and dozens more spectators were injured.

These tragic fatalities have again raised concerns about safety of air shows and air races.

Is the Risk Worth it?

Following the West Virginia crash, spectator Dave Heatwole was quoted saying: "I wonder if the risk is really worth it. I'd just seen someone get killed, all for the sake of entertainment, and no other good reason."

While airshows often provide an opportunity for manufacturers to showcase new aircraft, they are most commonly used to attract attention to a cause or for profit; with entertainment value underpinning the public’s experience at the event.  For many patrons, the closer to the action they are, the better.

Approval Requirements and Compliance

Reno air race organiser Mark Houghton explained that, while planes had crashed in previous races, this was the first time spectators were hurt. As part of approval requirements for the event, pilots are briefed on emergency manoeuvres to be used to avoid contact with spectators and pilots.

In addition, aircrafts are thoroughly checked for compliance with agreed safety standards. While this event had obtained approvals from relevant authorities to go ahead, concerns for spectator safety caused the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to deny approval of a similar race which was to be held in Camarillo, California in August this year.

The Red Bull Air Race is another example of a high risk, high entertainment event, in which the event is held around the world in locations that provide excellent viewing for spectators, such as the Swan River in Perth.  It is, however, noted that the organisers have cancelled the event for 2011 worldwide to restructure the format and improve safety. The current public messaging from Red Bull does not indicate whether the race will return next year.

The Factor of Safety

Given the limited margin for error in air shows and races, it is arguable that a high factor of safety is required in the design of these events. This means that in order to ensure pilot and spectator safety, greater distances between the flight paths of aircraft and spectator seating should be maintained, flight speeds modified and precarious manoeuvres limited.

Much of the appeal of these spectacles, however, is in the perception of danger created by risk-taking itself. Whether the spectacle is worth the risk is a question which event organisers need to seriously consider on a case-by-case basis.