Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Balancing Skill, Entertainment And Safety


When it comes to air show safety, the U.S. has it nailed


Furthermore, if the rules are too strict, it can compromise a pilot’s ability to entertain the fans. In today’s hi-def, computer-animated, sensory-overload world, it’s becoming more difficult to keep the air show fan’s attention. Having rules that unnecessarily compromise entertainment value would lead to the demise of the air show industry, which could adversely affect general aviation as a whole.

The rules we fly by in the U.S. are spot-on. There are two primary rules from which the rest are based. For one, there are minimum set-back distances from the crowd for aircraft, which are based on the aircraft’s cruising speed or weight. Generally, this means that propeller-driven aircraft can fly closer to the crowd than jet-powered aircraft. This is why when you go to a show, you’ll see Extras and Pitts flying much closer than an F-16 demo, for example. Unlike a car-racing event, where there can be a physical barrier between fans and race cars, these set-back distances are used as the only barrier that pilots have. How well does this system work? Well, we haven’t had a spectator fatality at an air show since 1952, and the same can’t be said for the rest of the world.

The second primary rule deals with energy directed toward the crowd. This is to say that if an aircraft were to have a catastrophic disassembly, the debris from the airplane wouldn’t continue into the crowd, because the maneuver that had been flown wouldn’t have been “directing energy toward the crowd.” This is especially important when there are several aircraft flying in formation, since one aircraft clipping another has caused many of the accidents in other parts of the world. It’s this rule that would have saved so many lives if it had been adopted by other countries.

What do these rules have to do with pilot safety? Absolutely nothing. Training, practice and a peer-group evaluation program implemented by the FAA and run by the International Council of Air Shows (ICAS) help to ensure that the pilots given a Statement of Acrobatic Competency are just that—competent. There’s a multiple-tier progression that requires a pilot to fly higher for their first several air shows, and then get evaluated before being allowed to go down to the next lower altitude. This process allows the pilot to get used to the pressures of flying in front of people. It also gives the opportunity to their peers to voice possible concerns to the pilot and evaluators before the pilot is allowed to fly at lower altitudes. This is very important, since a lower altitude will require a much greater level of discipline due to the reduced cushion. Once a pilot has achieved a ground-level waiver, the system has ensured that the pilot has passed several evaluations and has had quite a bit of “in front of a crowd” flying. Annual evaluations are then all that’s required. From this point on, the pilot has earned a lot of respect and takes on a lot of responsibility.

It’s a tremendous amount of responsibility to keep a crowd safe. Each air show pilot is allowed to determine the level of risk they’re willing to mitigate in order to entertain the fans. Making sure we fly on the safe side of the safety-versus-entertainment equation is up to us as professionals. As long as the defined set-backs aren’t broken and no energy is directed toward the crowd, you can do whatever you want. And let me tell you, that’s a feeling of freedom that’s hard to describe.

Skip Stewart has over 8,000 hours of flying experience, and is an ATP and a CFI. He has earned gold medals in regional aerobatic competitions, served as a chief pilot for a Fortune 100 company, and has spent more than 11 years entertaining air show fans around the world. Visit www.skipstewartairshows.com.




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