March 12, 2011 was a Saturday, and it was a spectacular day in Southern California. It was warm, but not oppressive, the sky was clear, and there was a very light breeze. I stood on the ramp at Naval Air Facility El Centro, chatting with members of the Viper West Demonstration Team during the base’s air show. It was a great afternoon with some impressive flying; the first air show weekend of the season, and all of us had a sense of excited anticipation of what the year would bring.
Toward the end of the afternoon, several of us in the group received text messages at about the same time, from the same people, and the news wasn’t good: Kyle and Amanda Franklin, the renowned husband-and-wife air show team, had crashed their Waco Mystery Ship at an air show in Brownsville, Texas.
The incident occurred after the Mystery Ship’s engine failed at low altitude and Kyle was forced to put the airplane down hard. Both were alive and stable, but Amanda was severely burned in the moments that followed the crash.
My heart sank. Amanda and I were friends; we first met at an air show when we were both kids and I’d had a conversation with her just a few days prior. Seventy-six days later, my friend lost her fight to survive. The burns, skin grafts, and resultant infections were too much for Amanda’s body to take and she slipped away, her husband, brother, mother, and mother-in-law at her bedside.
I was traveling on an assignment at the time of her passing and the news hit me really hard. I’ve been involved in coordinating flyovers and static displays at a few different shows for six seasons, and I’m consistently reminded how small the air show community really is; if you don’t know someone’s name, you certainly know them on sight. The Franklins were adored and well-respected wherever they went, and we all poured out hours of prayer, shed our own tears, and donated money to help pay for their medical expenses.
While Amanda did not survive, and the reality of never seeing my friend again crushed me, I knew that Kyle would be back in the saddle, carrying on his family’s air show performer lineage with the same love and passion that he always had. There was peace to be found in that.
I have been attending air shows with family and friends since I was three years old, and I still remember my first one vividly—the smell of the hot asphalt, jet fuel, smoke oil, and what seemed to be an ocean of people as far as the eye could see. In the sky at McChord Air Force Base that day were the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and their red, white, and blue jets, and I recall being completely enthralled at the way the pilots—particularly the solos—deftly maneuvered their craft through the air. It was loud, it was exciting, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
In the sky that afternoon was born my love of aviation, and it is ultimately the reason that I became a pilot. In speaking with the majority of the performers on the circuit today, and even a large percentage of the military pilots that I come across, we all have that one thing in common as the catalyst for us pursuing careers in aviation.
According to John Cudahy, President of the International Council of Air Shows, there are over three hundred of these exhibitions across North America each year, thrilling and inspiring between ten and twelve million spectators during the course of the season. Two hundred seventy-eight aerobatic-certified air show pilots fly over ten thousand individual performances per year. That’s a massive amount of people watching a relatively small number doing a staggering amount of flying. What is most impressive is that not a single air show spectator has been killed in an incident involving a performer since September 15, 1951.
Over sixty years.
No small feat when you consider that since then, over twenty thousand air shows have been flown in North America in front of more than half a billion—yes, billion with a B—attendees.
So you might be asking yourself, “What about Reno?”
The crash of the highly-modified P-51 Mustang “Galloping Ghost” at Reno-Stead Airport in September of 2011 is something that all of us in aviation will remember—many were affected directly because they were present themselves, or had family and close friends on hand when it happened. Eleven people died in that incident, including pilot Jimmy Leeward, and more than seventy-five were injured when the aircraft suffered a catastrophic structural failure and plummeted into the grandstand. It was a horrific accident with a tragic outcome.
Even so, the fact is that the incident at Reno did not occur at an air show; it was an air race, a different animal altogether, and it’s important to understand the differences between the National Championship Air Races and air shows.
If one were to break it down, about the only parallels you can rightfully draw between the two are that both take place in the sky. All similarity pretty much stops there. It would be much like comparing speed skating to figure skating: what those two sports have in common is simply the ice and the participant’s ability to skate. The skates themselves are vastly dissimilar. The athletes are different in their build, their training methodology, and even the uniforms they wear. The venue is significantly different from one discipline to the other, as are the regulations governing the two sports. The overall objective of one is speed and time, and for the other it is all about artistry, precision, and entertainment.
Air races and air shows. Apples and oranges.
In order to better understand how the airshow industry has achieved such an impeccable safety record, it is vital to look at the mechanisms running behind the scenes. The planning and coordination are absolutely massive in their requirements, even for a smaller show. These spectacles are driven by a proverbial army of passionate and highly-motivated volunteers, and the scope of each is very dependent upon the host facility and the ability of its infrastructure to support such an undertaking. Spectators can number from the hundreds at small, rural airports to hundreds of thousands at military bases or along waterfronts and beaches.
The thing that these venues, no matter how large or small, have in common is the determination to create the most enjoyable, inspiring experience possible while ensuring that all safety protocols and contingencies are met—or even exceeded-in the level of preparedness and training. Safety, from start to finish, is the watchword, and the burden lies with both the organizing body of the airshow, as well as the performers themselves.
“The Rocky Mountain Airshow places the safety of its performers, volunteers, patrons and staff above all else,” says Scott McMillan, Airshow Director for the Rocky Mountain Airshow, an event held in Broomfield, Colorado. “Safety is a team effort. With the leadership of our senior staff and the cooperation of the many agencies and volunteers we work with, our show continues to be recognized as one of the safest in the country.”
The job of the airshow organizers is to make sure that the performers, vendors, and exhibitors conform to a standard of safety that is both reasonable and attainable. Operations managers and project officers spend months preparing for the big weekend; planning meetings, operational meetings, security meetings, and safety reviews are conducted at regular intervals to ensure continuity of standards, procedures, and directives.
It’s an effort involving emergency services, the Federal Aviation Administration, the local air traffic control centers, and a myriad of other supporting bodies. It requires thousands of man-hours, thousands of dollars, and more than a few buckets of sweat and trees worth of paper; but in the end, when done correctly, an airshow provides a spectacle guaranteed to inspire the dreamer in anyone who dares turn their eyes skyward.
For the performers themselves, the largest percentage of them are current and former commercial or military pilots with thousands of hours of total flying time in their logbooks. They are disciplined and highly-skilled aviators, making a commitment to master their craft as much as possible, regardless of their background, so as to push their airplanes to the edge of their performance capabilities without getting too carried away.
“If you’re going to kill someone, it needs to be yourself and no one else,” says Kirby Chambliss, a veteran airshow performer with over 24,000 hours total time as a pilot.
Chambliss flies a spectacular, jaw-dropping airshow routine in the Zivko Edge 540, performing loops, rolls, and gyroscopic maneuvers that seem to defy the laws of physics. He began flying aerobatics in 1985, winning his very first contest and working his way up to the “unlimited” level, and became captain of the U.S. Aerobatic Team in 1997. Since then, he has won four U.S. national championships and a number of medals in world championship competition—including holding the title of Men’s Freestyle World Champion in 2000.
“This is extremely dynamic, demanding work—on both man and machine, and it’s definitely a lot of fun to watch and perform; but, at the end of the day, the only real concern that we have is putting on a show that is safe—for everyone.”
In order to fine-tune his routine and physical conditioning, Chambliss flies three times a day, and four days a week in the off-season. The training regimen is brutal, but aerobatic performers have a keen understanding that their precision, timing, and ability to be clear-headed and execute under high-G, low-altitude conditions is what separates them from a round of applause and a short-lived fireball and shallow crater.
The International Council of Air Shows, or ICAS, is the non-profit trade organization that overseas all airshow activity in North America, providing the focal point of the industry and its standards for nearly fifty years. ICAS was established for the specific purpose of promoting airshow safety. There are over eight hundred and fifty member organizations that contribute their time and resources to ICAS, and the preponderance of which are dedicated to safety.
The organization has also developed, implemented, and maintained the Aerobatic Competency Evaluation program for the past twenty years. In a nutshell, ACE offers a mechanism for peer review, where each airshow performer is reviewed annually by an evaluator who is also an airshow pilot, in addition to being enlisted by ICAS for the specific purposes of ACE. These experienced airshow pilots help to determine good from bad, safe from dangerous, and entertaining from terrifying. In the first year that ICAS ran the program, the number of airshow accidents involving performers was reduced by half, with numbers of accidents continuing to drop dramatically in each year thereafter.
The FAA is the primary governing body that determines what is or isn’t acceptable practice at airshows as far as the law and actual aviation standards are concerned. Each venue that has an actual flying performance has at least one FAA inspector present. They are a visible, reliable, and very knowledgeable presence, helping both airshow organizers and promoters conduct their events within the established guidelines. Most importantly, the FAA helps administer the ACE in partnership with ICAS.
The magic formula for a safe show begins with separation distances between the performers and the crowd, as well as the presence of a sterile aerobatic “box” where only the performing aircraft are allowed during their allotted time. The ACE program is another pillar of the established safety protocols, and most importantly, airshow performers are not allowed to direct the energy of aerobatic flight directly at the crowd, at any time, under any circumstances.
The minimum distance that performing aircraft may be from the crowd at any one time during aerobatic maneuvers is five hundred feet, and the space between the crowd and the five-hundred-foot-line is a completely sterile environment, devoid of spectators and all but the most essential personnel. Beyond the five hundred foot line, the next delineation is one thousand feet, which encompasses aerobatic maneuvers at airspeeds between 156 knots and 245 knots and all helicopters. The next increment beyond that is 1,500 feet, which is where all maneuvers in excess of 245 knots are conducted. The altitude of the box is determined by the performance characteristics of the aircraft, but can be as high as 18,000 feet MSL for specific performances by military jet demonstration teams and single-ship “tactical” performances.
Should the unthinkable occur, the strict management of the airspace, combined with the skill and competency of the pilots, are critical to managing any crisis to occur.
Erik Singletary, Director of Exercises and Inspections at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, was responsible for all of the emergency preparedness and contingency operations prior to the 2012 Shaw AFB Air Expo. He conducted briefings, attended meetings, and facilitated several “talk-through” and table-top exercises with all of the local agencies that would be on-hand to assist in the event of an incident.
“We work closely with the local emergency management agencies throughout the year and don’t get together just for the Air Shows. I am sure you noticed that I knew most of our local folks by first name. That comes from continuous communications and a working environment conducive to good teamwork.”
During the final table-top disaster drill, all responding agencies were represented, and Singletary’s job was simply to dial a disaster and ask questions about the specific type of emergency, as well as throwing a variety of what-ifs and unexpected scenarios their way to see how they would respond. Once he was satisfied that there were open lines of communication and that everyone involved had a clear understanding of their roles did the exercise conclude.
“It’s all about ensuring that each department head or outside agency understood their roles if a bad event took place. People need to understand that major events are extremely rare, but small scale things would inevitably happen with a crowd of the size we expected.”
At the end of the day, an airshow is about fun. It’s about inspiring both current and future generations of pilots. It’s about honoring the past, paying respects to those who have determined history by their actions and innovations. It’s about respect for those that have lost their lives, and understanding that those of us that still fly have a responsibility to carry forward the hopes and dreams of those that came before us.
So if there’s an airshow near you, attend. Dare to dream. Dare to be inspired. You never know to what heights the experience may take you.