Death in the afternoon

May 1, 2005

AOPA ASF Executive Director Bruce Landsberg generally has had happy landings.

Ernest Hemingway's 1932 novel about bullfighting was controversial in its time as readers and reviewers differed on the meaning and on Hemingway's regard for the sport — or the organized destruction of animals, if you prefer. In aviation, we also occasionally have "death in the afternoon" on an organized basis. It occurs at airshows — rarely — but it's one of the country's largest spectator sports.

A quick search of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation safety database revealed 34 "scheduled aerobatics" accidents from 1984 through 2003. Nearly 70 percent were fatal. This is not an exhaustive list, and there are likely other mishaps that fit the category. Numerically it works out to about 1.7 accidents per year, which isn't many. That's a tribute to the performers, the organizers, and the regulators. But when you figure it out on a per-flight basis, the risk compared to routine flying is high. So we shouldn't be surprised that something occasionally goes wrong when aircraft and pilot go to the edge of the performance envelope.

A friend called the day after having a front-row seat at airshow center (a reference line that airshow pilots use for keeping their performance symmetrical to the crowd) to one of these mishaps. It got me to thinking about how we, as a society in general and in aviation specifically, look at expected tragedy as a spectator sport. It may have started in Rome with the gladiators in the Coliseum but the contests probably predate that. Bullfights are usually tough on the bull but occasionally the matador is on the receiving end.

In modern times, early aviation promoted itself with barnstorming and today's airshow is an evolution of that. Create a thrill and people will watch. The barnstormers are in the very fabric of aviation history. Itinerant fliers went from town to town, giving rides, conducting wing walks, and performing interaircraft leaps, with low passes through and sometimes into buildings. They also introduced us to many of the aerobatics we see at today's events.

But the quest for performance and risk is not unique to aviation. Motor sports of all kinds attract huge crowds with at least the hint, if not the promise, of danger. Whether it's the Indy 500 or the high banks at Daytona, where superstar driver Dale Earnhardt lost his life, you'd be hard-pressed to find a weekend when some life-threatening activity isn't being performed for the masses. It's about excitement, entertainment, business, and for some of us, self-actualization. Drag racing, motocross, hydrofoil, and air races all fit the mold. Expand it further to surfing the giant waves on Hawaii's North Shore where the multi-ton sea monsters will sometimes swallow a surfer. Skydiving is generally safe but probably won't be categorized in the top-10 safe things to do on a weekend. Even cliff diving has its occasional broken neck. A Web search turned up quite a number of radical sports including one called "extreme ironing" that touted itself as "the latest danger sport that combines the thrills of an extreme outdoor activity with the satisfaction of a well-pressed shirt." (One intrepid German airman pressed his clothes while flying a Luftfahrzeug microlight aircraft.)

This is not to make light of anyone's passion. Whatever floats your boat. Nor do I denigrate the skill of the professional airshow performers who risk their lives to bring us spectacular entertainment. There's something intrinsic to the human spirit that compels a few of us to put it out on the very edge. People like that are not happy unless they push themselves, regularly. They are the spice in the bowl of human oatmeal. As a pilot, you understand.

Nancy Lynn, airshow performer, aerobatic instructor, motivational speaker, personal friend, and single mom, had some thoughts about this business of risk. "Danger and risk have to be taken in the context of life. Take a risk if it enhances your life, but have an exit strategy." In discussing airshow performances Lynn noted, "It is inherently dangerous and the ground is the final authority."

Lynn is no stranger to death or near death by aircraft. Her husband, Scott, who lost a battle with cancer, survived an aerobatic-practice-session crash with severe injuries. Her partner in an Extra 300 died when he lost control of the aircraft, also while practicing aerobatics. Lynn did considerable soul searching and discussed these tragedies with her 16-year-old son, Pete. Together they came up with "Pete's rules," which prohibit, among other things, any outrageous maneuvers on takeoff or below their agreed-upon hard deck. Lynn also trains constantly. It's a risk-management strategy but both of them know there are no guarantees.

Budd Davisson, writing in Flight Journal, interviewed Montaine Mallet of the French Connection aerobatic team. "We just love it, you know? We'll be sitting in the planes getting ready to take off, and we'll look over at each other and grin like little children. We are so lucky!" Mallet had been flying with her husband, Daniel Heligoin, for more than 25 years when, in a routine practice session, the twin Avions Cap Mudry aircraft collided. They entered a hammerhead stall in two-abreast formation, a maneuver they had performed hundreds, if not thousands, of times. A videotape documented the collision and the NTSB concluded, "A factor in the accident was the faulty design of the belly-to-belly maneuver that required the wingman to discontinue continuous observation of the lead aircraft." One aircraft slipped into the other's airspace. It's impossible to know their thoughts but I'm sure they often contemplated the risk of making a fatal mistake and did everything to avoid it. They lived with their passion and understood the costs.

That clinical observation doesn't satisfy our need for understanding when lives are lost. Mistakes are made by the best and it's not just civilians who play in this arena. In September 2003, a U.S. Air Force F-16 Thunderbird pilot miscalculated the altitude required to complete a split-S maneuver. Using the wrong airport elevation, he climbed to only 1,670 feet agl instead of the required 2,500 feet agl before initiating the maneuver. Realizing that something was wrong, the pilot pulled max Gs and rolled slightly to ensure the aircraft would not hit the crowd should he have to eject. One hundred and 40 feet above ground — 0.8 seconds prior to impact — he decided things weren't working out and successfully ejected.

Sometimes, even with the best Houdini seats in the business and an aircraft that can accelerate while climbing vertically, gravity wins. In 1982, the Thunderbirds practicing a diamond formation maneuver slammed into the Nevada desert near Nellis Air Force Base at the bottom of a loop. The lead T-38's malfunctioning control stick was sufficient distraction that the formation followed the leader into oblivion 18 inches apart. That's a commitment to trust and discipline that exceeds my ability to describe.

From that one accident, though, one begins to understand the spirit of aerobatic performers. The International Council of Air Shows Hall of Fame Web site pays tribute to many of them. "Ships are safe in harbor, but that is not what ships are built for," wrote John Shedd. Exploration of self, the environment, the aircraft, and sometimes a misstep will end it all. In nonaerobatic general aviation flight, the previous sentence still applies. Be sure the risk is worth the reward.

The nice part about GA is that you can control risk to whatever suits your tolerance and experience. It does take training and understanding of where the danger resides and that's why a good pilot never feels like he's seen it all. Airshow aerobatics have the same relation to routine flight that the Indy 500 has to normal driving. I understand the airshow pilot's motivation but it has no bearing on the risk of my next cross-country trip. Like moths to a flame, we are drawn to risk in varying degrees. It makes the beer taste better in the evening.

Links to aerobatic-accident narratives in the ASF accident database can be found online.