Shoreham air crash: Is display flying just for rich show-offs?

Instagram user @sousanka was at the Shoreham Airshow, UK when a jet crashed, killing up to 20 people Saturday. She shared this photo of smoke rising from the scene.

Story highlights

  • After Shoreham air crash, some might argue displaying vintage aircraft should be banned altogether
  • But, argues Tim Robinson, such air shows are not just for rich egotists -- strict rules are followed
  • Robinson: Visceral experience of aerial displays can inspire younger people into aviation careers

Tim Robinson is the Editor of AEROSPACE, the flagship magazine of the Royal Aeronautical Society in London. For over ten years he has covered civil aerospace, military aviation, space and other sectors for the magazine. He also blogs at the RAeS Insight blog at aerosociety.com and tweets as @RAeSTimR.

(CNN)In 1952 an incident occurred in the UK which changed air display flying forever.

A DH110 jet crashed into the crowd at the SBAC show at Farnborough killing the pilot John Derry, his flight test observer, 29 spectators and injuring another 60.
    It seems unthinkable today, but the show carried on despite this tragedy -- perhaps not really that surprising since it was this same grit and stoicism that had carried the nation through the dark days of WWII a decade earlier.
    With Farnborough being a major trade show for the then large and diverse British aerospace industry, there were, too, hard-nosed business reasons to carry on showing off the latest British aircraft for export.
    Yet the 1952 Farnborough crash ushered in new rules for air display safety in the UK that, for 63 years -- until last weekend -- have successfully protected spectators and bystanders from injury and death at air shows in Britain.
    Some might argue, following the horrific events at Shoreham at the weekend, which saw at least 11 people lose their lives (and may yet see the number reach almost 20), that displaying vintage aircraft should be banned altogether.
    This latest accident comes on the heels of the loss of a privately flown Gnat jet trainer on 1 August at another airshow.
    Critics argue that aerobatics with ex-military jet training aircraft or vintage warbirds is pure entertainment -- rather than providing vital training to military aircrew. But it is worth drawing a distinction between air displays at the big trade exhibitions at Farnborough, Paris and others, where aircraft are marketed to potential buyers and smaller public airshows such as Shoreham.
    It is far too soon to speculate on the causes of the crash, however, those that do display vintage aircraft at airshows, at least in the UK, do not do so lightly or with any cavalier attitude.
    It is highly regulated and safety is paramount with the old axiom being to: "thrill the ignorant, impress the knowledgeable but frighten no one" and to "display the aircraft, not yourself." Egotistic show-offs need not apply.
    The fact that this accident resulted in the loss of life of bystanders not even at the airshow, will weigh extremely heavily in the hearts of the small, close-knit pilot community who regard flying at a public air show as a unique privilege to display a historic aircraft in its natural element.
    Age of the aircraft itself is something of a red herring. The aircraft have to be well maintained and the pilots themselves -- the majority with thousands of hours of flying time -- have to pass medical checks and a strict flying display authorization. The vintage aircraft too, are treated carefully and are purposely not flown to their very limits or the edge of the envelope -- to preserve the life of the airframe and engine.
    While these regulations have stood the test of time until now, the UK CAA has already moved to tighten up display flying by vintage jet aircraft at civil airshows by banning 'high-energy aerobatics' and limiting future displays to 'flypasts' only -- as well as conducting additional safety reviews.
    But the question has to be asked -- with the loss of so many lives in Shoreham, are air displays worth this terrible cost?
    Some would argue not. However, in one very important respect, these aerial displays DO play a vital role in that they help inspire younger generations to consider STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects, aerospace or aviation as a career.
    These remaining air displays, ironically, are more important today as the RAF and armed services are much reduced in scale and size -- with just a handful of bases.
    In the 1980s, for instance, every RAF station had its own Battle of Britain Day airshow -- giving young people the chance to see, hear, smell and even touch aircraft up close. Today the number of airshows featuring RAF fast jets is much diminished -- and there are reduced opportunities to see aerobatic displays.
    It is therefore unknown how many aviation, aerospace and space careers, whether they led to pilots, aircrew, engineers, technicians, ATC controllers, aviation lawyers or satellite designers, were sparked by the sound and sight of aircraft performing displays.
    With an aviation industry that is still second (or third) in the world, the UK owes its continued economic success to being able to inspire the engineering and creative talent in young people who, perhaps seeing an aircraft rocket skywards at an air display, are filled with wonder and ask "how does it do that?"
    Certainly these days there are YouTube videos, drones and flight simulators that attempt to substitute the thrill and excitement of seeing the real thing in action -- but, arguably, nothing catches the imagination like seeing the glint of a jet at the top of a loop on a sunny day and feeling -- rather than hearing -- the visceral power that keeps it aloft.
    So while air displays featuring vintage aircraft certainly can be nostalgic for enthusiasts, provide living history in keeping iconic types airworthy, it is important to remember that perhaps their biggest benefit is in sparking the imaginations of the young.
    With the UK (and other western nations) facing a critical engineering skills and STEM shortfall in the future, it would be a sad day indeed if this freak accident, only the second in 63 years, were to close off yet another way of inspiring future generations to reach for the sky.